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In his latest book, Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy, Henry Kissinger has written a study of six national leaders: Konrad Adenauer (FRG), Charles de Gaulle (France), Richard Nixon (US), Anwar Sadat (Egypt), Lee Kuan Yew (Singapore) and Margaret Thatcher (UK). As the subtitle suggests, these are six studies of global strategy.
All of them Kissinger either met or had dealings with, certainly especially Richard Nixon, with whom he served as national security adviser and secretary of state. At the core of his political perspective is the notion of strategy, and this in turn is informed by a concept of national interest and power relations that has not changed much since the mid-17th century and the Westphalian settlement. Of course, how strategies actually play out in the real world, and to what extent the best laid plans are postponed, is a matter for creative interpretation or historical revision. Each leader represents a "strategy" based on the leader's track record.
Adenauer's strategy, Kissinger says, was 'humility'. Adenauer advocated that Germany should move cautiously towards the restoration of its sovereignty and reunification after the Second World War by actively helping to develop and participate in European institutions. Such a strategy is set against other impulsive and populist options. But Adenauer can hardly be seen as 'humble' in what he sought, as he wanted a return to respectability and responsibility for Germany and its interests. As Kissinger illustrates, Adenauer was a proud, calculating, principled and courageous person, who used humility to achieve what he wanted, in a cunning way.
Kissinger, from a privileged position (and therefore both presumably accurate and self-serving certainty), portrays Nixon as someone for whom strategic manoeuvring usually takes precedence over moral considerations. Nixon represents the strategy of "equilibrium". Kissinger attributes to Nixon the quest for a "multipolar" world in which great powers achieve peace through balance rather than superiority, in a development of realism in international relations and an adaptability to circumstances. Kissinger does not, however, adequately convey the damage inflicted by Nixon on his own initiatives and reputation. He treats Watergate as a "tragedy". Nixon succeeded in opening relations with China, as well as some notable arms control agreements. But several of his initiatives failed: Vietnam was a costly mistake, despite some temporary successes in negotiations; the administration miscalculated Sadat's needs in 1973 and went to war; Nixon's efforts to secure "autonomy" for Bangladesh were rejected by India's prime minister, Indira Gandhi; and Nixon's arms control agreements were undermined by the effect of Watergate. Moreover, the "One China" policy and the emphasis on shows of force were Eisenhower policies, with the difference between Nixon and Eisenhower noted in history: Eisenhower got the US out of Korea on a favourable and lasting deal. Of course, he, Kissinger, was there. On the question of Chile and the US position, for example, in that Latin American country in 1973, we'd better not talk about it... and this is what Kissinger thinks: he'd better not talk about it.
Kissinger says that Sadat represents the strategy of 'transcendence', in the sense that he transcended the pattern of Arab nationalist ideology and other factors by reaching a peace agreement with Israel. Kissinger details Sadat's rise to power from his humble beginnings, his nationalist ideology, his steely will and his bold initiatives. He explains Sadat's careful planning and implementation of a diplomatic and military agenda that led to Israel's withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula, a valuable alliance between Egypt and the United States, and a new reality in the Middle East through the Camp David Accords, which broke with Soviet management of Egypt in its strategies, and was a key piece in establishing new doctrines for the region by the United States.
Kissinger asserts that Sadat, when he launched the 1973 attack on Israel prior to the peace initiative, intended to "transform the situation psychologically to achieve a sustainable peace". That may have been one of Sadat's anticipated outcomes, but the evidence lends little support to the idea that Sadat did not intend to win militarily in 1973.
For Kissinger, Lee Kuan Yew, who served as Singapore's prime minister from 1959 to 1990, represents the strategy of 'excellence'. Lee relied on the 'best' solution to every problem, transforming Singapore from a small, ethnically segregated, corrupt and inconsequential port into an integrated, orderly, wealthy and important nation.
Lee announced that the city-state represented the best in the services it sought to provide, insisting that its ethnically diverse citizens work together for the common good. He provided his people with a high level of social support and dealt with the threats posed by Malaya and Indonesia. He cleverly avoided conflict over which of the four languages in use would be the "national" language by designating all four, allowing English to emerge as the dominant language of choice. Kissinger recounts how Lee continued to demonstrate leadership after resigning as prime minister. He wrote and spoke publicly about his approach to government and international affairs, especially the importance of the US-China relationship. He predicted the tension that followed China's rise.
Kissinger when he speaks of Thatcher wants to emphasise "conviction", and refers to her as a dear friend; yet he ignores the social tensions that are her legacy, and he should not because they are central to her assault on power. The kind of free market policies she introduced heralded an asocial individualism that remains a contradiction to old-style conservatives, which in many ways she was. However, she chose to focus on the Falklands/Malvinas, on her approach to the second part of the Cold War which she managed from the UK (and earning her "Iron Lady" nickname from the Warsaw Pact bloc and COMECON), as well as her management of the IRA. She supported George HW Bush's decision to oust Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. And he led the fight against terrorism. Her determination served her well until her resistance to Britain's European involvement led her to lose support within her own party.
The portrait he focuses on, because it interests him, and he is really anticipating it for the future, of the six analysed, is that of de Gaulle. It shows a clear vital element of leadership, which is self-confidence, no matter what the circumstances, even if they are the least favourable. When de Gaulle appointed himself leader of Free France, he had had only a fortnight's political experience as Deputy Defence Minister, and was hardly known in London beyond those who read of the contributions de Gaulle had made to transforming France into a subject capable of asserting itself in the coming confrontation, with the corresponding transformations that the French establishment did not want to apply (because it did not suit them, while the Reich did. ... and it worked, leaving the Maginot line a monumental absurdity; walls contain those who are inside them for the benefit of those who have them built, in the same way that seeing a wall in the sea does not conform to reality: they are roads to be assaulted, just like walls... or you will be assaulted by those on the other side of the wall). Anyway, de Gaulle went to London to set up a government in exile, which was, to all intents and purposes, him.
He angered all the allies he met, first and foremost Franklin Roosevelt as well as Winston Churchill, and yet, by sheer determination and refusal to accept the weakness of his position, he became the figurehead of French liberation precisely because of this.
After the D-Day landings he made a speech in the main square of Bayeux addressing the crowd as if they were all members of the French resistance (and he knew perfectly well that they were not, but it was about building his assault on power definitively by extending a conditional hand to those who ignored him, supported Nazi-fascism and could now rely on this man who pointed out their shortcomings and thus their interests). De Gaulle had no compunction in celebrating the French war effort and without even mentioning the British and American troops who had suffered terrible casualties fighting to get to precisely that place, and in so doing he was really sending the message of support for his interests in the struggle for hegemony that was being unleashed to get him to power... but what brought France down was not really touched, and it was swept away by the United States, although France still does not want to know, because it does not suit it.
De Gaulle created a political reality, Kissinger writes, "by sheer force of will". Kissinger admires de Gaulle's chutzpah, and his statesmanship, the latter of which he most respects: "On every major strategic issue that confronted France and Europe for no less than three decades, and against overwhelming consensus, de Gaulle judged correctly". And with that Kissinger is leaving his strategic testament for anyone who wants to see it, but on a global scale. De Gaulle illustrates the value of the "will". And it is the real centrepiece of his book, where the real "foreign body" is Nixon, and it shows.
So Kissinger emphasises will, conviction, excellence, transcendence, equilibrium and humility.
He argues that his subjects exemplify the shift from the 'aristocratic' leadership of the 18th and 19th centuries - the cosmopolitan Castlereaghs and Metternichs - to the 'meritocratic' type of the 20th century. All Kissinger's leaders were not born into international nobility, but into modest and nationally rooted circumstances, and rose on their own merits through institutions such as universities and military academies that made such trajectories possible. Consequently, all were marked, he argues, by proudly middle-class values such as discipline, self-improvement, charity, patriotism, self-belief and (with the exception of Lee) religious devotion, which enabled them to rise to the difficult circumstances they inherited when they came to power.
Another very interesting aspect of Kissinger's book is that he points to the common traits embedded in the trajectories of the six individuals under study: sincerity and candour about hard truths, boldness and a willingness to be divisive ("they did not strive for, nor expect, consensus"). All of them, he argues, synthesised the two fundamental modes of leadership: the "statesman" (pragmatic and directive) and the "prophet" (visionary and transformative). For Kissinger, good leaders have a deep appreciation of the past and the ability to imagine possible futures. Some leaders are prophets who, according to Kissinger, see the present 'less from the perspective of the possible than from a vision of the imperative'. The other type, statesmen, manage change but are conservatives in the older sense of preserving what is core to their society. Given that Kissinger places Robespierre and Lenin in the first camp and Metternich and Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the second.
It ends on a pessimistic note. It is not clear where good and effective leadership is going to come from. Democratic elites seem disengaged from their own societies and unwilling to take responsibility for the world's problems. The world order, he warns, is being shaken by the "crumbling of entire regions" and "the increasingly intense antagonism of great powers with competing claims to legitimacy".
Kissinger understands Machiavelli's The Prince
Although Machiavelli can be taken for a realist, the truth is that he is a realist in his own way, and he is notable for yearning for the resurrection of the Roman republic, in his own way in the Discourses from Titus Livy, or reflects in the Art of War where the fortress would be and how it could be recovered in military terms with the mirror held up to Rome. Indeed, a realist learns much more from Guicciardini than from Machiavelli, including The Prince, one of the most misunderstood texts in general terms, although here Kissinger does read it, and does so correctly, only he does not tell us. Maurizio Viroli sums it up perfectly in "Redeeming The Prince: The Meaning of Machiavelli's Masterpiece", when he says:
"Machiavelli wrote The Prince to design and invoke a redeemer of Italy capable of creating, with God's help, a new and good political order, thus achieving perennial glory. The theory, and the myth, of the redeemer is, in my opinion, the enduring value of Machiavelli's little book."
The book begins with a very dry statement and closes with a very rhetorical last chapter that ends with a quotation from a patriotic poem in Italian. In this work, Machiavelli is as much a researcher or teacher as he is an advisor, if not a preacher. The Prince is a book with a traditional surface with a revolutionary centre in the precise sense of a man who breaks the law, the laws as a whole, to replace it with a new law that he believes is better than the old one.
So we are dealing with an "Exhortation", which is a piece of political rhetoric that culminates a prayer in a religious and long-standing sense whose purpose is to spur action. As such, it is perfect: it lacks nothing. To motivate a new prince to be a redeemer, Machiavelli must describe the whole enterprise as not only possible but also easy and must promise the greatest possible rewards. Machiavelli needed a political myth, but myths, in order to work, cannot be presented in the form of detailed prescriptions for political action.
It is a mistake to isolate the central part of The Prince, with those general teachings that Machiavelli offers, however novel and unpleasant, may seem redeemed if they lead to such respectable, honourable and praiseworthy particular advice as that of liberating Italy from the new barbarians, the Western and world-turned "superstates" beyond the Mediterranean, most prominently Spain and France, which really means a complete revolution. It requires first and foremost a revolution in thinking about right and wrong. The Italians must learn that the patriotic end sanctifies all means, however much they may be condemned by the most exalted philosophical and religious traditions. In the final part of The Prince Machiavelli mentions God there as often as in all the other chapters of The Prince put together. He calls the liberator of Italy a "spirit" or a sort of Italian genius; he describes the liberation of Italy as a divine redemption and suggests its resemblance to the resurrection of the dead described by Ezekiel; he even alludes to the miracles performed by God in Italy: Rome and Christ together with a new providential man at the head.
Machiavelli contributed to revolutionary theory precisely with his ideas on the role of religion in the foundation of new political orders. The birth of a new political order, in fact, requires, alongside violence, religion, in whatever form it takes, and a form of Christianity is fundamental in several respects; alongside power, authority: the force of arms and the force of words. Machiavelli, who presents himself as a staunch enemy of religious considerations in political affairs, was driven to ask for divine help and even inspiration in legislators, as were the 18th century enlighteners, John Adams and Robespierre, for example. Indeed, the founding fathers of the American Revolution made wise use of Machiavelli's ideas about the renewal and rebirth of political bodies, moral ideas based on a form of Christianity and the figure of a "providential man" in a context of "primus inter pares", Washington, who happens to be limited in his powers: he is Gaius Julius Caesar, but subject to the Republic, a permanent idea of Machiavelli in The Prince... and the founding fathers made sure that the presidency would not be a monarchy. In the "Exhortation", Machiavelli asserts that a new prince committed to the task of emancipating Italy from foreign domination would surely encourage widespread devotion and love among the people, and a strong will to serve and fight in the new army created and commanded by the prince himself... placed at the service of a greater cause, just as the ideals of the American Revolution embody and cement the figure of, for example, Franklin D. Roosevelt.
This puts at the centre the question of federalism as the main engine of construction, something that I discussed at the time in this article, which I recommend reviewing, and which points to the "Roman" tradition received by the United States in the republican sphere and in its very formation and projection.
Compare this section with the previous one where I talk about Kissinger's book and you will see what he is asking for, he anticipates the fruit of Kissinger's circumstances, even though the context is not exactly the best, but precisely because of this, as Machiavelli points out, or as Washington, for example, was, in Machiavellian terms, we are faced with the need for a "redeemer".
I am currently and will be talking about all of this in more detail in this Instituto Symposium initiative, which you can read about by clicking below:
Now there remains the call to action in this world, following Kissinger... and Machiavelli.