This review appears in the Spring 2023 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe to the journal, click here.


Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy
By Henry Kissinger
(Penguin, 2022)

In response to calls for an autobiography, the twentieth-century management guru (and promoter of management as a liberal art) Peter Drucker wrote Adventures of a Bystander. It was less the story of Drucker’s life than it was a series of interesting accounts of people he knew. One of the chapters was titled “The Man Who Invented Kissinger.” It was about Fritz Kraemer, a professor of international law who had influenced the future secretary of state. 

Henry Kissinger, a man who has filled volumes of autobiography where Drucker demurred, rounded out his tenth decade with a book that is instead concerned with the choices others made and their reasons for them. Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy is the result. One may wonder whether a man who is now a century old could truly be the author of such a substantial book. I can only say that it is certainly written in his voice. Kissinger appears to have lost nothing.

Kissinger’s subjects are immediately intriguing and attractive. He covers Konrad Adenauer, the Catholic mayor of Cologne who spent the years of Nazi influence in a kind of wandering exile and then emerged to reconstruct Germany after the war. Despite his age—he was called “Der Alte” (the old one)—Adenauer was able to reinvigorate a shattered people with half of their land now dominated by the Soviet Union and the other half supervised by the West’s winners of the war. He brought dignity and the ability to imagine a future to a people who had experienced both material and moral disaster. 

Adenauer was one of the rare individuals to be invited to the private home of the French general and president Charles de Gaulle, who is the second subject of Kissinger’s attention and deserves credit as the man who played the weakest of hands to the greatest possible effect and with minimal compromise. De Gaulle possessed an almost unbelievable amount of personal fortitude and confidence in his vision of France. He was able nigh single-handedly to elevate his country from an ally rapidly defeated into a party worthy of the winner’s table. Later he withstood unexpected years away from power only to return at a time of great crisis and to establish the political order that still governs France today. 

Richard Nixon is the third subject of analysis. Kissinger seeks to rehabilitate Nixon’s flexibility and deep understanding of geopolitical realities against something like a Reaganite reliance upon ideology. It is clear that Kissinger resents the damage done to potential foreign-policy outcomes by the break-in at the Watergate. The lesson is that good policy requires political strength. Neither side of the equation can be neglected. One of the fascinating elements of Kissinger’s portrayal is the degree to which Nixon counted on subordinates not to carry out some of his instructions, thus allowing him a kind of harmless emotional release by barking orders that would safely be ignored. Kissinger quotes Bryce Harlow, who explained Watergate by saying, “Some damn fool got into the Oval Office and did what he was told.” 

It is important to remember that Kissinger intersected with each of the individuals he discusses in the book. He clearly relishes the adventure of the “shuttle diplomacy” he carried out between Egypt and Israel. Kissinger sees Anwar Sadat as a leader who moved from being strategic to prophetic and was assassinated as a result. Egyptians wanted “a return to pre-war borders.” Sadat gave them “a vision of universal peace.” His vision was a bad match for that of his contemporaries. The Sadat chapter is a sobering one. 

Kissinger’s chapter on Singapore’s master statesman Lee Kuan Yew provides a rare moment of hilarity in a very serious book. In 1968, the much-heralded Lee was invited to a meeting of Harvard’s government faculty. Lee asked for the views of the professors regarding Vietnam. One by one, they passionately derided American participation in the war and clearly expected Lee’s approval. He surprised them by bluntly stating, “You make me sick.” 

Lee went on to explain the need for the U.S. as a counterbalance to Chinese ambition in his region. There is something delightful in the thought of American professors being so certain that they would faithfully replicate the “third world” geopolitical view and then being met with criticism by a highly successful Southeast Asian statesman who saw them as naïve or even dangerous. 

It is clear that Kissinger has tremendous personal admiration for Lee and his emphasis on excellence as the key to building a nation without natural resources. The story of Lee and Singapore is an important one during an era in which some of America’s most prominent political philosophers diminish the importance of merit.

The final figure Kissinger studies is Margaret Thatcher. She deserves his praise and far more. Thatcher was “a woman who had trained as a scientist” and the daughter of a grocer in a class-conscious England. Yet she claimed leadership first of the Conservative Party and then of the nation as she won three elections and laid the groundwork for a fourth that followed shortly after her departure. Had she been a woman of the left, we would be several decades into her secular sainthood as a kind of Ruth Bader Ginsburg of Britannia. 

Kissinger appreciates statesmen who overcome challenges. Thatcher found a way to rally an England that had become dysfunctional in the 1970s and to surmount impressive obstacles along the way. 

While these six studies of world leaders form the bulk of the book, the purchase price would be justified by the introduction and the conclusion alone. In his introduction, Kissinger acknowledges the reality of force as the real distinguishing feature of the state but notes that coercion typically signifies bad leadership. The great leaders “elicit in their people a wish to walk alongside them.” 

Leaders know how to analyze, how to inspire, and, critically, how to manage risk. They must match goals and methods to circumstances. One thinks here of Machiavelli’s view that most leaders have a single approach that succeeds or fails depending on the nature of the times, while the great leaders have the capacity to adapt. Kissinger clearly shares that notion. What is the proper study for great leaders? Kissinger agrees with Churchill that it is history. 

Kissinger also sets out two ideal modes of leadership, which are the statesman and the prophet. Giving due to both styles and granting that all six of his leaders “managed a synthesis” of the two, it is notable that he observes in understated fashion that the prophetic mode “will usually involve greater dislocation and suffering.” One might be tempted to add the famous gospel parenthetical, “Let the reader understand.”

Ultimately, for Kissinger, leaders matter. They are not simply caught up in the vast, impersonal forces of history. Rather, he writes, “what seems inevitable becomes so by human agency.” The great leaders carry “their societies to the frontiers of the possible.” 

Kissinger’s concluding section is stunning. It is as if he is saying, “I have demonstrated my knowledge through the presentation of portraits of six world leaders, all of whom I knew personally. Now, I hope I have earned the right to make some concluding statements on the state of the world and the culture in which we live.” 

He notes that meritocracy and democratization made possible the rise of middle-class leaders. None of the leaders he profiles in the book came from the upper class. Aristotle’s recommendation of the middle class as the best source of leaders lurks in the background. They know how to lead. And they know how to follow. 

Kissinger also observes that none of his group of leaders were “citizens of the world,” but all had a kind of middle-class nationalism. He approvingly cites Christopher Lasch for the idea that this kind of nationalism provides a common frame of reference and common standards that prevent a society from breaking into constant battles carried on by factions. Today we are in danger of having no center to hold. 

Religion is also part of the picture. Five of the six leaders came from strong religious backgrounds. Lee, the exception, adhered to the ideal of the Confucian gentleman. Faith provided self-control, a realistic view of one’s own shortcomings, and an orientation toward the future.

There are too many rich themes to be covered even in a review essay, but perhaps the one that strikes hardest is Kissinger’s reflection on what he calls “deep literacy.” He believes that “reading a complex book carefully, and engaging with it critically” has become so utterly countercultural as to have been basically lost to most of us. 

We have moved from a culture of the word to one of the image. The leaders Kissinger profiles came from the culture of the word. They had deep literacy and the sense of proportion that comes with it, which Kissinger defines as a kind of “mental distance from external stimuli.” 

Speaking words of which C.S. Lewis would have approved, Kissinger points to the way reading offers the opportunity to engage in intergenerational conversation. Today, winning political office is about packaging rather than competence and “emotional display over self-command.” The type of person who is taken seriously in public life has changed and is changing. 

This analysis helps us understand the phenomenon of the highly charged one- to two-minute YouTube video in which some American senator who wants to run for president unleashes primal emotions for the benefit of a social media audience. An influencer is a very different thing from a leader. 

Kissinger’s Leadership is a brilliant study of six leaders who shaped the twentieth century in powerful ways. But it also offers a compelling warning about a crisis of leadership in our technologically advanced period. We should hope that this is one “complex book” that will find an eager audience even in an age where deep literacy is in short supply.

Hunter Baker is the dean of arts and sciences and professor of political science at Union University.