Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy by Henry Kissinger

Summary and takeaways from the book.

Henry Kissinger meets Chairman Mao in 1975. In the middle is US President Ford.

Kissinger's meeting with Chairman Mao served to normalize ties between USA and China, and laid the groundwork for globalization and technology revolution we see today.

The author Henry Kissinger in the book profiles 6 leaders, talks of leadership traits, nature of leadership decisions, and the current of evolution of leadership today.

ISBN: 9780593489444
Published: July 2022
Pages: 307
Available on: amazon

The author Henry Kissinger in the book profiles 6 leaders, talks of leadership traits, nature of leadership decisions, and the current of evolution of leadership today.

This book is essential reading because "Lacking a moral and strategic vision, the present age is unmoored. The vastness of our future as yet defies comprehension. "

"leadership is needed to help people reach from where they are to where they have never been and, sometimes, can scarcely imagine going."

"Without leadership, institutions drift, and nations court growing irrelevance and, ultimately, disaster."

The author also reminds us of the consequences of failed Leadership: "The February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, in flagrant violation of international law, is thus largely an outgrowth of a failed strategic dialogue or else of an inadequately undertaken one".

Wars are not free. The public pays for it via higher taxes and inflation. We are living with real world consequences of failed diplomacy and leadership everyday.

The intention here of this book review is to learn about leadership. It is not intended to be analysis of Kissinger's leadership skills or his actions as US secretary of state and national security advisor. The intention is not to analyze the actions of the 6 leaders profiled here either. The intention here is to learn leadership traits, nature of leadership decisions, and the current of evolution of leadership today.

Who is a Leader?

Leaders are people with "capacity for analysis, strategy, courage and character", values, intuition, risk management, intentions, read and learn, advocacy, team building and hard work.

Analysis is required for deep, hard-nosed understanding of circumstances, history and people. This is the first step.

Strategy "describes the conclusion a leader reaches". It is based on deep and hard-nosed analysis, as well as a Stateman's foresight of the future. "It is not necessary for the leaders of the contemporary great powers to develop a detailed vision of how to resolve the dilemmas described here immediately. They must, however, be clear on what has to be avoided and cannot be tolerated".

Courage is required to communicate new ideas and vision to people. New ideas polarize people, upset the status quo, wake people from slumber, and threaten creative destruction. Leadership decisions are divisive, and leaders are assassinated because of them.

Courage is also required to make decisions with limited information. "Winston Churchill understood it well when he wrote in The Gathering Storm (1948): ‘Statesmen are not called upon only to settle easy questions... It is where the balance quivers, and the proportions are veiled in mist, that the opportunity for world-saving decisions presents itself."

Only when leaders have courage can they be bold and audacious. "Lee’s dream was breathtaking in its audacity: he envisioned a state that would not simply survive but flourish through an insistence on excellence."

At a time when post-colonial Asian and African countries had the 'victim with begging-bowl' approach to survival, Lee Kuan Yew had a bold plan. "To the astonished Harvard faculty, Lee articulated a worldview free of anti-American animus and post-imperial resentment. He neither blamed the United States for Singapore’s challenges nor expected it to solve them. Rather, he sought American goodwill so that Singapore, lacking oil and other natural riches, could grow through the cultivation of what he said was its principal resource: the quality of its people... Richard Nixon said he showed the ‘ability to rise above the resentments of the moment and of the past and think about the nature of the new world to come’."

Character is what helps sustain over a long difficult period and keeps us true to the mission.

Values guides us in turbulent times and at crossroads in history.

Intuition is what leaders use to make decisions when there is not sufficient data or anecdotes. "events often move too quickly to allow for precise calculation; leaders have to make judgments based on intuitions and hypotheses that cannot be proven at the time of decision".

Risk management is for planning for things going wrong as they always will. Having plan B and C is a part of it.

Intentions are required to be intentional and proactive so we can preempt things before they happen. A bad leader is reactive, or assumes good things will happen or rely on goodwill of others or just fails to anticipate. "Wise leaders must preempt their challenges before they manifest themselves as crises"

Reading and learning: "most importantly for leadership, reading creates a ‘skein of intergenerational conversation’, encouraging learning with a sense of perspective. Finally, reading is a source of inspiration. Books record the deeds of leaders who once dared greatly, as well as those who dared too much, as a warning".

Lee Kuan Yew went on a month-long 'sabbatical' to Harvard University when he was the Prime Minister of Singapore. "Lee told the Harvard Crimson – the student newspaper – that his aims were ‘to get fresh ideas, to meet stimulating minds, to go back enriched with a fresh burst of enthusiasm for what I do’, adding, in a touch of self-effacement, ‘I intend to study all the things I’ve been doing ad hoc without the proper tutoring the past 10 years".

Advocacy and educating others for communicating objectives, assuaging doubts and rallying support. Leaders profiled in the book "spoke with exceptional clarity and vividness".

Team building is required because nothing is accomplished alone. Even for state leaders with the state machinery behind them, "reliance on coercion is a symptom of inadequate leadership; good leaders elicit in their people a wish to walk alongside them". "a dynamic surrounding team is the visible complement of the leader’s inner vitality". Leaders are known by the company they keep, and judged by the quality of people who walk with them.

Hard work for which there is rarely a substitute: "intellect compounded by effort".

The author Henry Kissinger in the book profiles 6 leaders:
"Adenauer for his integrity and persistence, de Gaulle for his determination and historical vision, Nixon for his comprehension of the interlocking international situation and his strength in decision, Sadat for the spiritual elevation with which he forged peace, Lee for his imagination in the founding of a new multi-ethnic society, Thatcher for her principled leadership and tenacity."
"No single person could ever possess all these virtues at any one time; the six leaders combined them in different proportions".

This is important. We should not look for the perfect man as leader. He just has to have some of these virtues.

Faults are found in best of Leaders as they make decisions with limited information.
"Mediocre leaders are unable to distinguish the significant from the ordinary; they tend to be overwhelmed by the inexorable aspect of history... Ordinary leaders seek to manage the immediate." They become reactive. They don't educate and advocate their decisions. They ultimately resort to violence.

Leaders are polarizing and divisive

"striking commonality among the six leaders – and a paradox – was their divisiveness"

"a leader does not undertake fundamental economic reforms... without offending entrenched interests and alienating important constituencies. "

French President "De Gaulle survived – and provoked – countless confrontations"

Egyptian President "Sadat was martyred not only for bringing peace between his people and Israel’s but, above all, because of his justifying it by principles some considered heretical."

Leaders "faced resistance – often carried out for honorable motives and sometimes by distinguished opposing figures. Such is the price of making history."

Leaders are polarizing and divisive, but the polarized factions can be patient if the leader communicates well; gives the public time and choice; does it slowly; and the people trust the leader based on his track record. Eventually the polarized groups come together when they see the results.

"Lee’s most innovative initiative was his language policy."

"If I had tried to foist the English language on the people of Singapore I would have faced rebellion all around... But I offered every parent a choice of English and their mother tongue, in whatever order they chose. By their free choice, plus the rewards of the marketplace over a period of 30 years, we have ended up with English first and the mother tongue second".

"Had this change been forced in five or ten years instead of being done over 30 years – and by free choice – it would have been a disaster."

Changing people's first language in a multi-ethnic 1960's Singapore, where there had been riots, can be considered polarizing and divisive. People go on the defensive and withdraw into their own groups. Yet, Lee did it, and Singaporeans benefited.

Advanced technology not a substitute for Leadership

"Political leaders too often lack an adequate grasp of the strategic and philosophical implications of the machines and algorithms at their disposal." Current political figures see brute force and advanced weapons as a panacea.

Nuclear, Cyber, AI Weapons are necessary but nations that possess them have to constrain themselves because of Mutually Assured Destruction(MAD), political suicide, and international isolation.

"no country has persuaded itself actually to use them – even in conflict with non-nuclear countries. As previously described, both the Soviet Union and the United States accepted defeat at the hands of non-nuclear countries without resorting to their own deadliest weapons. "

"impact of revolutionary technology makes the full application of these weapons cataclysmic while rendering their limited use difficult to the point of unmanageability... No diplomacy has yet been invented for threatening their use explicitly without the risk of preemption in reply."

Technology, cloud computing, BigData, Decision Support Systems, and AI are not a substitute either. "The last great comparable transformation, the Enlightenment, replaced the age of faith with repeatable experiments and logical deductions. It is now being supplanted by reliance on algorithms, which work in the opposite direction, offering outcomes in search of an explanation."

Dr. MLK also said "We have guided missiles and misguided men".

Leadership and Statesmanship on the other hand is probably a more potent 'weapon' that can be deployed at will.

Why we don't have great leaders today?

"The two questions Konrad Adenauer put to me during our final meeting in 1967, three months before his death, have gained new relevance: Are any leaders still able to conduct a genuine long-range policy? Is true leadership still possible today?"

"Are leaders coming forth with the character, intellect and hardiness required to meet the challenges facing world order?" No.

It is because of:

Lack of deep literacy: "defined by the essayist Adam Garfinkle as ‘[engaging with] an extended piece of writing in such a way as to anticipate an author’s direction and meaning". Most people have lost the ability to deeply engage. They only understand memes. That is the limit of their attention span.

Addiction to TV and social media has led to inability to deeply comprehend spoken or written words. Personality and presentation rule.

Great Leaders today struggle to get their point across to the masses because of inability of masses to engage.

Free of cost Media that people consume as white noise without paying attention.

"As the ‘cost’ of accessing information becomes negligible, as with the Internet, the incentives to remember it seem to weaken. While forgetting any one fact may not matter, the systematic failure to internalize information brings about a change in perception and a weakening of analytical ability."

Rise of media personality. Controversy, sensationalism, and presentation led 'public figures' with superficial knowledge are promoted by media to get attention.

"All this engenders a more populist politics that celebrates utterances perceived to be authentic".

"in an age dominated by television and the Internet, thoughtful leaders must struggle against the tide".

"Satellite television has allowed me to follow the American presidential campaign. I am amazed at the way media professionals can give a candidate a new image and transform him, at least superficially, into a different personality. Winning an election becomes in large measure, a contest in packaging and advertising." - Lee Kuan Yew

Kissinger acknowledges TV and visual media has value. "injustice visualized is more visceral than injustice described; television played a crucial role in the American civil rights movement. Yet the costs of television are substantial, privileging emotional display over self-command, changing the kinds of people and arguments that are taken seriously in public life."

"images ‘speak’ at a more emotional register of intensity than do words. Television and social media rely on images that inflame the passions, threatening to overwhelm leadership with a combination of personal and mass emotion."

Changing education system that creates technocrats and business leaders rather than people seeped in classics and humanities.

Diplomacy becoming irrelevant: False belief in advanced technology like AI, sanctions, economic violence, and state sanctioned violence and war as a panacea.

Lassitude: (a state of physical or mental weariness; lack of energy). People are comatose from poor health and over-whelmed by stuffing their day full of trivia; and their standards lacking.

"Machiavelli, in his Discourses on Livy, ascribes the slackening of leadership to social lassitude induced by long periods of tranquility. When societies are blessed with peaceful times and indulge the slow corruption of standards, the people may follow".

Perhaps it is Magical Thinking. We expect great leaders to drop from the sky without us as a community having invested in their decades long education, without the leadership structure they need, and without us ourselves having the standards to follow them.

Role of relevant formal education

"both education and character are essential."

"leaders with world-historical impact have benefited from a rigorous and humanistic education"

"education begins in a formal setting and continues for a lifetime through reading and discussion with others. That initial step is rarely taken today – few universities offer an education in statecraft either explicitly or implicitly – and the lifelong effort is made more difficult as changes in technology erode deep literacy"

"humanistic education would need to regain its significance, embracing such subjects as philosophy, politics, human geography, modern languages, history, economic thought, literature and even, perhaps, classical antiquity, the study of which was long the nursery of statesmen."

Adverse times create great Leaders

People are too comfortable and their standards lacking. It is lassitude(a state of physical or mental weariness; lack of energy).

Our fake leader today is "either a man who is judged to be good by common self-deception or someone put forward by men who are more likely to desire special favors than the common good".

In other words, our minds are so warped and standards so low, we self-deceive ourselves into choosing toxic leaders.

Or the Deep State manufactures, promotes, and thrusts leaders upon us for their benefit.

Fake leaders get acceptance by misleading the public with entertainment and free stuff.

This is what we see all over the world - leaders that we regret electing, and leaders that are 'establishment candidates' that serve the Deep State instead of the public.
"The price of apathy towards public affairs is to be ruled by evil men".

- Plato
"The grave conditions described here must, in the end, provide the impetus for societies to insist on meaningful leadership."

"under the impact of ‘adverse times’ – ever the teacher of realities – ‘this deception is revealed, and out of necessity the people turn to those who in tranquil times were almost forgotten’"

Henry Kissinger ends the book with the hope that people realize it is not circumstances or vast impersonal forces that create history. It is "Human beings".

"greatness in history resides in the refusal to abdicate to vast impersonal forces; its defining elements are – and must continue to be – created by human beings."

"leaders who, in the unending contest between the willed and the inevitable, understood that what seems inevitable becomes so by human agency. "

Prof. Peter Turchin also talked along these lines in his book "End Times: Elites, Counter-Elites, and the Path of Political Disintegration". He talks of Counter-Elites/elite aspirants who could become the leaders in these adverse times of "popular immiseration".

Peter Turchin also says: "Social Action Needs Organization".

Leaders of tomorrow will not just drop from the sky due to our Magical Thinking. Nor will 'Deep State' assign us benevolent leaders.

Leaders and Statesmen need Organizations, Institutions, pool of willing co-leaders(elite aspirants), and mass support to be effective.

Are Leaders and Statemen born or made? Both. They are born, and then our institutions and community makes them.

* * *

Henry Kissinger passed away on Nov 29, 2023.

"He helped develop a system of policies that saw business develop undeterred, held down the global masses in their struggle against Euro-Atlantic dominion, and fought against competing ideologies to capitalism."

"When one is in the spotlight so much, finding themselves at so many historical junctures, it is almost impossible to not be a polarizing figure... Despite this, one positive thing that we may see about him, compared to today’s politicians and diplomats, is that he was a far more intelligent and remarkable man than today’s ilk and it’s not even close. Love him or hate him, Henry Kissinger was a profound intellect and a brilliant strategist."

Russian President Putin said "Kissinger played a major role in shaping a “pragmatic foreign policy line that... helped to diffuse international tensions [and] arrive at key Soviet-American agreements, which were conducive to strengthening global security.”"

"Putin wrote that an “outstanding diplomat, a wise and far-sighted statesman has passed away.” He added that the former US secretary of state, who served from 1973 to 1977 under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, was considered an authority on international relations the world over."

"In a post on Telegram, senior Russian lawmaker Leonid Slutsky hailed the late US diplomat’s ability to “negotiate and even be friends with opponents.” Kissinger was a master of diplomacy in the “true sense of the word,” he wrote, adding that the former secretary of state did not resort to blackmail, sanctions, and threats, but was “convincing, constructive, and efficient.”"

These are perhaps the traits of a world leader and statesman: pragmatic, far-sighted, authority, international relations, diffuse international tensions, strengthening global security, negotiate and even be friends with opponents, did not resort to blackmail, sanctions, and threats, but was “convincing, constructive, and efficient.”

"We need to separate what Kissinger contributed to modern diplomacy from his policies and politics,” Bruen said. “You can admire the ways in which he created concepts like shuttle diplomacy, and how he worked to overcome enormous divides with Beijing, while at the same time detesting some of the things that he did with those diplomatic tactics."

"Aaron David Miller, a former senior diplomat under a series of administrations, argued that it was Kissinger’s agility as a statesman, and his ability to get things done in government that was the real secret to an appeal that transcended political differences. Other diplomats simply admired his power".

"“What is the world’s most compelling ideology?” Miller asked. “It’s not nationalism, it’s not communism, it’s not even capitalism. It’s success.”"

Alternative views here and here.

Related articles

End Times: Elites, Counter-Elites, and the Path of Political Disintegration: Peter Turchin
From Third World to First: The Singapore Story: 1965-2000 by Lee Kuan Yew

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