Henry Kissinger, the 98-year-old, Nobel-Peace-Prize-winning, Monty Python-inspiring, former U.S. Secretary of State, believes that, perhaps more than any time since the Age of Enlightenment, the world is entering a period of disruption that needs thoughtful leaders. They are not being produced by the internet.
This is his latest (and 19th!) book. Leadership, Kissinger—widely admired and reviled for his management of world affairs under President Richard Nixon—uses a historian’s approach to examine six consequential world leaders who inherited difficult geopolitical situations, and in his view, overcame and improved them. He looks at the work of Konrad Adenauer, who helped Germans take stock of their actions after WWII, Charles de Gaulle, who restored confidence to France during the same period, Richard Nixon, who, in Kissinger’s telling, understood how to balance the delicate scales of world order, Anwar Sadat, the Egyptian leader who signed the first regional peace treaty with Israel, Lee Kuan Yew, who brought national cohesion to Singapore and Margaret Thatcher, who navigated the U.K. out of its economic doldrums of the 80s.
Kissinger, whose last book—a mere eight months ago—was co-authored with Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google, and computer scientist Daniel Huttenlocher, says that because the internet provides such ready answers to so many questions, and can provoke so overwhelming and speedy a response among wide swaths of people, it discourages long term thinking and problem-solving, or what he calls “deep literacy.”
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This makes it harder to lead. “It is not that changes in communications technology have made inspired leadership and deep thinking about world order impossible,” he writes, “but that in an age dominated by television and the internet, thoughtful leaders must struggle against the tide.”
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This interview has been reduced in size and clarified.
Are you a leader?
But more so in the conceptual and intellectual field than in the political leadership area. Although I attempted to influence the political thought, it was not through active participation in politics.
Many people won’t like the inclusion of Richard Nixon in any book about inspiring leaders. This is because they don’t understand why Nixon left office. Is it your attempt to reverse the course of history?
Because I felt he was a good choice for the foreign policy field, which is where I know him the best. His policies regarding the Middle East (and China) set an example that would last for more than a generation. He had an impact that was transformative in this sense. He is the American president I’ve known who most accurately understood how societies affected over a long period of time through foreign policy.
Would you name the runner-up?
George Bush, The Elder.
Which do you think Vlodomyr Zelensky will be judged by history?
Zelensky does a tremendous and remarkable job of leading Ukraine, which normally wouldn’t elect someone from his background to be its leader. His efforts have made Ukraine an example of moral leadership during a difficult time. He is yet to institutionalize the work he started, or if that’s just the result of an exceptional personality dealing with a highly dramatic environment. He is not able to express his views on the world after war with the same certainty and conviction that he led its pursuit. However, I think he is an outstanding figure.
You suggested at Davos that Ukraine may consider ceding land to achieve peace. This suggestion was heavily criticized.
You can read my actual words and you will see that I did not say this. The best line of demarcation for a ceasefire, according to me, is the status quo anteThis means that one shouldn’t pursue war in territories which were Ukrainian at the time of the conflict, or territories that have been accepted by Russia. Also, I cautioned against making the war for Ukraine’s freedom into a conflict about Russia’s future. This is something you need to consider carefully. Russia currently occupies 15% pre-war Ukrainian territory. This territory must be returned Ukraine to a peaceful ceasefire. It is located in a small corner of Donbas (about 4.5%) and Crimea. Russia is particularly concerned about Crimea because of its significance beyond the conflict in the present crisis. I’m very worried that this war might spread into something that will become very unmanageable. It was not my intention to say territory shouldn’t be surrendered. It should be given a distinct status during negotiations. Its significant role in Europe is something that I would support without reservation.
You mention that there are two kinds of leaders in the book: prophets and statesmen. Could you elaborate on the difference?
Leaders of statesmen analyze and evaluate the current situation in order to make the best possible decisions. They balance vision and risk while keeping in mind the fact that the past is more important than the passions of the present. As I perceive them, prophets do not believe in this distinction. Their values should be applied as soon as possible. The quality of these values will determine the importance of their political roles. Although the prophetic view may be the most elevated and passionate, it is not able to achieve historic changes. It does not account for human suffering or the ability of any generation to adjust to fundamental change.
You also write that “Forgetfulness is sometimes the glue for societies that would not otherwise cohere.” I wondered if that has any relevance to an America that right now feels quite unglued?
America is now more aware of its divisions and less conscious of its coherence. [That coherence]It is still present in large parts of the country. However, at the level political debate it has declined. In terms of Vietnam-related public disagreements, it was a difficult time when I was in the government. Retrospectively, it was actually a dispute about how best to accomplish the mutually agreed-upon goals. These conflicts have different goals today. There was an established number of senators that you could speak to and tell them, “The national interest demands a particular action.” They didn’t always agree. But they didn’t Priori disagree. The issue was considered valid by them. The definitions of national value and national interest are still in dispute today.
One of the ways in which that’s playing out at the moment is in the Jan. 6 hearings. They are you thinking they’re good for America in geopolitical terms?
It has happened before that election results were disputed by the loser. But the issue then is to what extent that disagreement should be pushed and whether one should not keep in mind the need of the country’s ultimate unity. Whatever the debate about Richard Nixon after his defeat by Kennedy—there were plausible arguments that maybe the election in some states had not followed agreed procedures— he refused to make that case and conceded the election, because he rightly knew that such a debate would split the country in a way that would make the conflict unbridgeable. And in all the disputes that I’ve read about of that kind, the system itself did not come under assault. That’s the special aspect of the January 6 situation. It is irrelevant whether transgressions were committed, but rather whether or not the Constitution system should prevail over any internal disagreements, once a legal decision has been made.
Do you think that it’s a useful exercise to conduct hearings on the way the President behaved?
It’s not an abstract historical inquiry about whether they were violations to begin with, and whether the president should intervene and to what extent. Its purpose is partly to impact Trump’s chances of becoming a president.
If America had to pick just one leader, what would it be? A leader with the strength of Konrad Adenauer and the visionary force of de Gaulle. One who has the imagination of Lee Kuan Yew. Or one that is peaceful in the heart of Anwar Sadat.
(Long pause.) I think it needs somebody like de Gaulle, who recalls it to its essence, even if the definition of that essence is somewhat romanticized, as de Gaulle’s was. That was his essential contribution—he took a country that had lost faith in itself and declared as his objective not ultimate victory but a kind of regeneration of a lost faith in itself.
You write that the task of the leader is to ‘transcend circumstance by vision and dedication.’ Could you find no leader who leaned left who did this?
No, of course, there were leaders—the left-right division is relatively recent. However, several of the leaders of British Labour Party were close friends. President Mitterrand in France was an example of a leftist leader. It’s probably true that I personally lean more towards center but I don’t consider the division between left and right the key division.
How important do you see the top division?
Recognizing the significance of history. People who believe history should be completely changed are more likely to cause suffering.
That foreign policy is written by you U.S. right now needs a “Nixonian flexibility.” What might that look like, say, in the U.S.’s dealings with China?
China-USA encounter has a special element in it because both countries consider themselves to be unique and, therefore, entitled to win. However, the United States views the coherence in the world as natural. Therefore the problem is a collection of practical issues that need to be resolved on an ad-hoc basis. China views history as an endless process in which solving one problem opens up to solve another. Where America prevails—in its image—by its case to case performance, China’s view of itself is that it prevails through the majesty of its conduct and the scale of its performance, which results, in my interpretation of the Chinese view, not in conquest but in respect. Their daily goals are different.
They have a problem. In the sense that technology is part of society’s evolution, it is a player in an unprecedented way. The human-created object can also develop consciousness. This means that computers can make articles, weapons, and even create their own threats.
The consequences of war between these nations would be catastrophic, something that was not possible even thirty years ago. In the end, the United States and China both have special responsibilities. One, they must keep in contact to identify the threat for one another and, second, this should be the basis of their foreign policies, even if there are differences on many other issues. This challenge has never been faced by any two nations. It is a challenge that faces all countries. It is this that makes history look so much different than it did 25 years ago.
More business leaders will be open to discussing this issue with their employees. Geopolitical engagement, as we’ve seen in the voluntary sanctions against Russia they undertook. How do business leaders view the future role?
When business leaders believe they can combine the demands of business success with the needs of politics, they could be in danger. While business involves achieving a profit goal, the history of the process is much more. Our period also includes the change in the perception that business leaders hold about themselves. At one point, they believed they were making a contribution by doing something else. And now they’re in some cases trying to use that separate field to become an integral part of the political world. This is dangerous if you don’t know about historical processes.
You’re quite gloomy on the effect of the internet on leadership. This is why?
Internet is now a permanent reality. This allows self-education to a level that was unimaginable just a few short years ago. However, manipulating the internet takes special skills that can provoke so many reactions. Leaders can now be more concerned with the immediate effects of stories and events than they are about the future. Technology is having an impact, but not only on the internet. A computer assistant can be built quickly and provides fast answers to your questions. It is great in a single case, but it can lead to inability or even death over time. Many of the best ideas, whether in philosophy or history, were born out of struggle to understand. A helpful assistant could have provided a quick solution.
Do you feel optimistic about the future at 98?
These problems are not what I would have thought of when they were my concerns. [younger]Because the world has changed so drastically. You don’t have to be a type of refugee in order to enter a country and become the Secretary-of-State. I’ve had the opportunity through the radical nature of history, as it engulfed us, to participate in many things that, from where I sat, were attempts to improve the world to some extent. This is a greater possibility. It is positive. But I’m also concerned that if my children’s generation doesn’t make progress in understanding what I’ve tried to describe—things that I have never dealt with—that this could become a world of great violence and division. There is both a risk and an opportunity, which makes them very unique. Whether we are preparing ourselves adequately for this kind of world, that’s the challenge. In this book, I attempted to illustrate how different people have done it. It’s not a cookbook; it’s supposed to inspire some reflection.
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