Henry Kissinger’s recently published Six Studies in World Strategy deals with six leaders who understood that what seems inevitable becomes so by human agency. They transcended the circumstances they inherited, writes Kissinger, and thereby carried their societies to the frontiers of the possible. The leaders are Konrad Adenauer of Germany, Charles de Gaulle of France, Richard Nixon of the United States, Anwar Sadat of Egypt, Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, and Margaret Thatcher of Britain. Kissinger, who turned 100 in May, encountered all six at the height of their influence.
Adenauer probably had the hardest job of the six. His country had been defeated in war, was occupied by its enemies, and was broken morally. Twice in recent decades it had sought to dominate Europe. Adenauer, writes Kissinger, pursued a strategy of humility: integration into Europe, although a suitable Europe was yet to be created. Undeterred, Adenauer radiated self-confidence. He believed that the unity of Europe rested on its Christian values, and on these, with others, he built the Christian Democratic Party, which stood for democracy, social conservatism and European integration.
This review appeared in Juy’s Quadrant.
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The Korean War helped. The British and Americans realised they needed a re-armed Germany. By 1964, the Bundeswehr reached an overall strength of 415,000. A resurgent Germany made reparations to Israel—ships, machine tools, trains, medical technology and reparations to individuals.
Kissinger writes that, in interviews with Adenauer, one was in a world guided by principles and immune to slogans and pressure. In 1955, Adenauer’s first great task, ensuring the peaceful, swift and amicable end of the occupation, was accomplished. The Occupation Commission went home.
Charles de Gaulle came to power in a nation humiliated by war. Its defeat by the Nazis in 1940 meant that it ceased to be a world power. To his chagrin, de Gaulle spent the war on the sidelines watching Britain, the US and Russia directing strategy. He knew that to restore France’s self-respect, let alone greatness, would take a heroic effort. He concentrated on developing self-mastery, a stoic ideal. Like the stoics of the past, he interpreted that as a strong will, and like his stoical forebears, he did not inspire affection, though he became surrounded by something of a mystique.
After the war, he came to head the French Fourth Republic, which put the president’s position at the mercy of the elected representatives, as our prime minister’s is. De Gaulle did not believe that the arrangement would work, and he resigned, expecting it to collapse, after which he would be called back to form a new government. He had to wait twelve years for that to happen. What brought about the collapse was France’s entanglement in Algeria.
Back in office, he set up the Fifth Republic, which made the president immune to the vote of elected members, as the American president is, and gave him control of defence and external affairs. Domestic affairs were put under the control of a prime minister. The president had the job for seven years (it has since been reduced to five). The system worked.
While president, de Gaulle fostered the relationship with Germany. Adenauer was the only leader de Gaulle invited to his spartan residence at Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises. As befits a stoic, it had no heating. After ten years in office, de Gaulle resigned. He had solved France’s external problems and made France a stable pillar of the new Europe.
Kissinger was national security adviser and later secretary of state for President Nixon and President Ford. Kissinger never experienced the expletive-rich Nixon of the White House tapes. He was not invited to meetings about domestic affairs.
Nixon had a surprising view about international relations. Although he believed in a world in which the US was powerful, he was not of the opinion that US supremacy was desirable. It would be a safer and better world, he thought, if there were a strong and healthy US, Europe, Russia, China and Japan balancing each other and not playing one against each other. Ideally, the US would be the principal shaper of a fluid system of shifting balances.
To that end, he drew China into the international community. His courting of China seemed to induce a readiness to negotiate in Russia, which with the US signed the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty and the Anti Ballistic Missile Treaty. Nixon regarded arms control as an essential component of international order.
The Vietnam War made it a difficult time to be president. An emerging national elite had convinced itself that defeat in war was at once strategically inevitable and ethically desirable. America was too corrupted to serve as a moral compass overseas. Members of this faction working in government had no hesitation in leaking confidential information to the press. Despite his difficulties, Nixon brought the troops home from Vietnam. Kissinger gives a fair assessment of his work.
Anwar Sadat, President of Egypt from 1970 to 1981, was not an easy man to sum up in an assembly of politicians, but Kissinger comes close:
He was never a natural politician. He spent more time in reflection, and in a way, at prayer, than at the podium. His tendency towards solitude endowed him with insight and independent thought but also marked him as a loner.
He was brought up a Sunni Muslim, but a crucial effect on his outlook came when he was a prisoner of the British in Egypt from 1942 to 1944 and again from 1946 to 1948. He read some works of the mystics and he himself had the experience they wrote about. In his own words, he became aware of the “Lord of all Being”. A soldier, he resolved to fight only in a just cause, and he began to question the conventional wisdom in politics.
After a career in politics in which he was undistinguished but indispensable, Sadat became President of Egypt on the death of Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1970. He showed he was his own man when he expelled 20,000 Soviet advisers without warning Moscow or anyone else. They were there because Egypt had acquired much Soviet military equipment, and Sadat had been to Moscow where he found that Egypt was held in contempt, so he felt that redress was needed.
Egypt had become locked in a “no peace, no war” situation with Israel, a kind of intermediate state between war and peace, which Sadat felt was suffocating Egypt. He launched a surprise attack on Israel in 1973, in which Israel initially suffered heavy losses but came back victorious. With American help, in which Kissinger played a prominent role, a ceasefire was arranged, and protracted peace negotiations began. Four years later, in order to break the deadlock, Sadat flew to Israel to address the Knesset. This event electrified the Arab world, whose leaders widely held that Israel had no right to exist. Kissinger comments that the visit was “a rare occasion in which the mere fact of an event constitutes an interruption of history and thereby transforms the range of the possible”.
It took a good deal of negotiation before a peace treaty arrived at the American presidential retreat of Camp David. Sadat recognised a kindred spirit in President Jimmy Carter, a man “impelled by the power of religious faith and lofty values”, as he wrote in his autobiography. For the Camp David Accords, Sadat and Prime Minister Begin of Israel were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1978. Finally in March 1979, after approval by the Knesset and the Egyptian People’s Assembly, the peace treaty was signed on the White House lawn. Egypt dropped out of the firing line against Israel and was rewarded with the Sinai and a vision of universal peace.
Unlike the other five leaders in the book, Lee Kuan Yew had no religious influences in his youth. His achievement is scarcely credible. In a single generation he transformed a malarial island off the southernmost tip of the Malay Peninsula into Asia’s wealthiest country on a per capita basis.
A sense of shared success, in Lee’s view, could help to knit his society together, despite the lack of a universally shared religion, ethnicity or culture. Lee was practical and down to earth. The only criterion of a good theory was that it worked. Kissinger writes that Lee’s government consisted of a pragmatic unit of close associates untethered by ideology, prizing technical and administrative competence.
Like the rest of the leaders in this book, Lee valued the American alliance. He openly admired America’s unusual generosity and openness of spirit. Despite being a tough-minded realist, he realised that something more is required: “If you are just realistic, you become pedestrian, plebeian, you will fail. Therefore, you must be able to soar above the reality and say ‘This is also possible’.”
Another stern realist was Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister of the UK in the high tide of privatisation. She envisaged Britain as a democracy founded on individual self-sufficiency. A great defender of national sovereignty, she therefore took defence seriously—it should be based on an independent nuclear deterrent and allied cohesion. There would be no diminution of sovereignty by transferring functions like controlling the budget to the EU. Kissinger writes that part of her genius as leader inhered in her ability to adapt to the dictates of reality without relinquishing the larger vision.
An interesting conflict came up with President Reagan, with whom she had good relations. Reagan abhorred nuclear weapons. He was inclined to accept Soviet leader Gorbachev’s offer to ban all of them. Alarmed, she hastened to Washington to see Reagan. Nuclear weapons, she argued, had kept the peace for thirty years. She won that one, although Reagan and Gorbachev later made significant reductions in their nuclear arsenals.
Thatcher illustrates the change in international relations which Kissinger claims had been aristocratic but were now meritocratic. Thatcher was a grocer’s daughter. Identifying common themes among the leaders, Kissinger remarks that none were citizens of the world; they were all staunch nationalists. Sadat did have universalist leanings, but Egyptian independence came a close second.
Kissinger has a word of caution for today’s leaders: societies become great not by factional triumphs or the destruction of domestic adversaries, but by common purpose and reconciliation. He concludes that the criterion by which to judge the leader in history remains unchanged: to transcend circumstance by vision and dedication.
Kissinger brings out the best in the leaders. This is a great book, enthralling to read.
Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy
by Henry Kissinger
Allen Lane, 2022, 336 pages, $55
Reg Naulty was formerly senior lecturer in philosophy and religion at Charles Sturt University, Riverina.