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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. And the internet is not helping to produce them.
In his new (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.”
It also makes leading harder. “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.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Do you consider yourself a leader?
Yes, but more in the intellectual and conceptual field that in the actual political leadership field. I tried to have some influence on the political thinking also, but not by being actively involved in politics.
You include Richard Nixon in a book of inspired leaders, and a lot of people will balk at this because of the way he left office. Are you trying to re-tilt history in his favor?
I included him because I believe in the field of foreign policy, in which I knew him best, he took over in a very difficult and declining situation and tried to show a way out of it, and some of his policies in the Middle East and on China, for example, set a pattern that lasted for over a generation. In that sense, I think he had a transformative impact. He was the American president, of those that I have known, who best understood the impact of societies over a period of time in the foreign policy field.
Who would you say was the runner up?
George Bush, the elder.
How do you think history will judge the leadership of Vlodomyr Zelensky?
Zelensky is doing a heroic and extraordinary job in leading a country that normally would not elect somebody of his background as leader. He has made Ukraine a moral cause in a period of great transition. It remains to be seen whether he can institutionalize what he has started or whether that is the impact of an extraordinary personality on a very dramatic situation. He has not expressed himself about what the world will look like after the war with the same clarity and conviction with which he has led the pursuit of the war. But I consider him a great figure.
At Davos, you suggested that Ukraine might think about ceding some land in order to find peace and this suggestion was highly criticized.
If you read what I actually said, I never said that. What I said is that the best dividing line for a ceasefire is the status quo ante, that is, one should not pursue the war from the territories that were Ukrainian when the war started into territories that had been tolerated or accepted as part of Russia at that time. And I warned against turning the war for the freedom of Ukraine into a war about the future of Russia. One has to think about this very carefully. Right now, Russia still occupies 15% of pre-war Ukrainian territory. It must be restored to Ukraine before a meaningful ceasefire can be established. The disputed territory is a slight corner of Donbas, about 4.5%, and Crimea. Crimea, especially, has a significance to Russia beyond the dispute of the current crisis. I’m very worried that this war might spread into something that will become very unmanageable. I did not say that territory should be given up. I just implied that it should have a separate status in any negotiations. I am unreservedly for the freedom of Ukraine, and its significant role in Europe.
In the book, you say there are two types of leaders: statesmen and prophets. Could you explain the difference?
Statesmen leaders analyze the realities of the existing situation and want to achieve the maximum possible within them, balancing vision against risk and keeping in mind that history lasts longer than the passion of the moment. Prophets, as I conceive them, do not accept this distinction. They believe that their values must be implemented as quickly as is possible, and that the quality of the values determines the significance of their political role. The prophetic view is often the more elevated view and certainly the more passionate view and it may achieve great historic transformations, but it does not make allowances for the scale of human suffering and for the capability of any one generation to adapt 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 now is much more conscious of its divisions than of its coherence. [That coherence] still exists in major parts of the country, but at the level of political debate, it has become much weaker. When I was in government, I thought we were having a bad time in terms of public disputes about Vietnam. But in retrospect, the Vietnam issue was a debate about the best way to achieve basically agreed-upon objectives. Today, the conflicts are about different objectives. At that time, there was a fixed number of senators to whom you could go and say, the national interest requires a certain action. They didn’t always agree. But they didn’t a priori disagree. They considered it a valid issue. Today the definitions of the national interest and of the national values are in intense dispute.
One of the ways in which that’s playing out at the moment is in the Jan. 6 hearings. Do you think they are good for America geopolitically?
Election outcomes that are disputed by the loser have happened before. 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. The real issue is not whether there were some transgressions but whether the constitutional system at the end, should override the disagreements within it, when a legal judgment had been reached.
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. Part of its purpose is to affect the prospects of Trump as a presidential candidate.
If you just had to pick one, which leader do you think America needs now? One with the integrity of Konrad Adenauer, the forceful vision of de Gaulle, the tenacity of Thatcher, the imagination of Lee Kuan Yew or the peaceful 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. But several leaders of the British Labour Party were personal friends of mine, and for example in France President Mitterrand, who was explicitly left, I rate just behind de Gaulle as a leader with vision. 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.
What do you consider the key division?
A willingness to recognize the importance of history. Leaders who think that history must be totally changed usually bring more suffering.
You write that foreign policy in the U.S. right now needs a “Nixonian flexibility.” What might that look like, say, in the U.S.’s dealings with China?
The encounter between China and the United States has its special ingredient in the fact that both societies consider themselves exceptional and therefore unique and therefore entitled to prevail. The difference is that the United States thinks that the coherence of the world is natural and therefore the challenge is a series of practical problems that have to be solved on an ad hoc basis. But China thinks of history as an evolution without end in which the solution of one problem is an entrance ticket to another set of problems. 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. So, they are aiming for different things on a day-to-day basis.
But they have one problem that has never existed before. Technology has become a participant in the sense that its evolution is rapid in a way that is unheard of. More than that, the human-created objects can develop something close to consciousness, so that one can have computers that can write articles and make weapons that can define their own danger or their own objectives.
A war between these countries would therefore have implications of catastrophe that were not imaginable even 30 years ago. So I always wind up saying, as I wind up in the book, that the United States and China have a special responsibility, one, to be in contact with each other to define that danger for each other, and secondly, to make this the basic principle of their foreign policy, even while they disagree on a wide range of other things. No two countries have ever had that challenge. And I would say the world, of course, has exactly the same challenge. This is what makes thinking about history so different from even 25 years ago.
Business leaders are becoming more willing to become geopolitically engaged, as we’ve seen in the voluntary sanctions against Russia they undertook. What do you think is the role of business leaders going forward?
Business leaders are on dangerous territory when they think they can apply the requirements of success in business to the requirements of political change. Because business is about the implementation of a vision for profit of some form or another, but the historical process covers a broader range. One aspect of our period is the transformation of the image that business leaders have of themselves, because at one time they thought they were contributing by what they were doing in a separate field. And now they’re in some cases trying to use that separate field to become an integral part of the political world. If you are not informed about the historic processes, that is a potentially dangerous course.
You’re quite gloomy on the effect of the internet on leadership. Why is that?
The internet is an overriding reality of the period, and one should not discuss it as if it could be done away with. It permits a degree of self-education that was inconceivable relatively few years ago. But the manipulation of the internet requires such special skills and can evoke such broad reactions, that the ability to affect the immediate impact of stories or events can become the preoccupation of leaders, rather than a view of a more distant future. And the impact is not just of the internet but of technology. It is now relatively easy to construct a computer assistant to yourself that produces rapid answers to issues that you are addressing. In any one case that is a wonderful help, but over a lifetime and over the educational cycles it may produce an inability to ask the deeper questions. Some of the greatest ideas of history, of philosophy, or literature, came out of the anguish of struggling for understanding, and might never have been reached if there was a helpful assistant who gave an immediately relevant solution.
At 98, do you feel hopeful about the world or not?
The problems that occupy me now could not possibly have preoccupied me when I was [younger] because the world has changed so much. When you enter a country as a kind of refugee, the ambition that you might become the Secretary of State of that country is not one that forces itself on your imagination in any immediate way. 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. And this possibility now exists in an even wider sense. That is a positive aspect. 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. So there is an opportunity and also a danger, and both are relatively unique. Whether we are preparing ourselves adequately for this kind of world, that’s the challenge. What I tried to do in this book is to show how it was done by some people in different times. It’s not a cookbook; it’s supposed to inspire some reflection.