Christopher Hitchens once called Henry Kissinger a “stupendous liar with a remarkable memory”. Leaving judgment aside on the first part of that description, at 99 Henry Kissinger seems set on proving Hitchens right on the second.
While many people who make it to that age struggle to recall their own name, the grand old man of realpolitik has produced a study of six national leaders – Konrad Adenauer, Charles de Gaulle, Richard Nixon, Anwar Sadat, Lee Kuan Yew and Margaret Thatcher – entitled Leadership. As is evident from the subtitle, Six Studies in World Strategy, Henry Kissinger, the geopolitical guru, is most interested in how leaders act on the world stage rather than, say, if they lie to their parliaments or transgress their own laws.
At the heart of his political outlook is the notion of strategy, and that in turn is informed by a concept of national interest and power relations that hasn’t 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 degree the best-laid plans are post-rationalised, is a question that lends itself to creative interpretation or historical revision. Henry Kissinger met or had dealings with all six of his subjects, most obviously Richard Nixon, for whom he was both national security adviser and secretary of state. And so there is an added layer of self-interest.
As such, his portrait of Nixon is predictably sympathetic, while not hiding some of the man’s notable character flaws. Unsurprisingly, he hails his efforts in foreign policy, which were all but indistinguishable from Kissinger’s own. The pair were famously close, in an operational sense, and both were keenly appreciative of the benefits of secrecy.
Much of his study of Nixon is taken up with two policies: the protracted effort to extract the US from the Vietnam war, and the bold attempt to build new relations with China, partly as a means of undermining the Soviet Union. But behind the headline initiatives were decisions that left no shortage of death and destruction in their wake.
In a typical piece of Nixon strategy, to bring peace to Vietnam he began secretly bombing Cambodia, thus helping to create the conditions for the monstrous Khmer Rouge to prevail. Henry Kissinger, who was initially against the Cambodian campaign before heartily backing it, skims over this episode.
On a similar scale of mass murder was the Pakistan armed forces’ and Islamist militia’s suppression of Bangladesh’s independence movement, as East Pakistan sought to breakaway from its more powerful sibling, West Pakistan. Estimates of the death toll vary between 300,000 and 3 million. But while the savagery was taking place, the US maintained a diplomatic distance, refusing to condemn Pakistan – not least because it was through Pakistan that it was conducting its secret negotiations with the Chinese.
In any case, Henry Kissinger pats Nixon (and himself) on the back for averting a global war over Bangladesh. As he puts it, neatly sidestepping the genocide that took place, what was important to the White House was “the maintenance of an appropriate international equilibrium”.
The world, viewed through Henry Kissinger eyes, is not so very different from the kinds of inter-house machinations dramatised in Game of Thrones, and you could picture him as the Hand of the King, forever whispering fiendish plots and dark truths to a paranoid master.
If Nixon was someone for whom strategic manoeuvres were often prioritised over moral considerations, then we’ve recently witnessed an American president who had no strategy – beyond ego fulfilment. One of Donald Trump’s few achievements in office is that he made Nixon seem, by comparison, like a towering political giant.
Henry Kissinger portrait of Richard Nixon focuses on the war in Vietnam. Photograph: Horst Faas/AP
Henry Kissinger treatment of Thatcher, whom he refers to as a dear friend, is uncomplicated by the societal tensions that are her legacy. The kind of free-market policies she introduced heralded an asocial individualism that remains a contradiction for old-style conservatives, which in many respects she was. Instead, he concentrates on the Falklands, her cold war stance and her handling of the IRA, none of which is original in presentation.
The most finely drawn portrait of the six is of De Gaulle. If a vital aspect of leadership is self-belief, then few leaders have ever displayed more of it in less auspicious circumstances. When he named himself leader of the Free French, De Gaulle had had only a fortnight’s political experience as deputy defence minister. He was barely known in London, where he set about establishing a government in exile that was to all intents and purposes him.
He annoyed every ally he met – in particular Franklin Roosevelt but also his host, Winston Churchill – and yet through sheer determination and a refusal to accept the weakness of his position he made himself into the figurehead of French liberation.
After the D-day landings he gave a speech in the main square of Bayeux addressing the crowd as if they were all members of the French resistance, celebrating the French war effort and not even mentioning the British and American troops who’d suffered terrible casualties fighting their way ashore.
A war hero in the first world war, De Gaulle enabled the French to see themselves as staunch resisters to the Nazis, all but removing the stain of Vichy from the French imagination. He created a political reality, Henry Kissinger writes, “by sheer force of will”.
You sense that Henry Kissinger, who has never undersold himself, admires De Gaulle’s gall, but it’s his statecraft that most commands his respect: “On every major strategic question facing France and Europe over no fewer than three decades, and against an overwhelming consensus, De Gaulle judged correctly.”
That’s a large claim, but then Henry Kissinger prides himself on being able to see the grand sweep of history, undistracted by minor diversions. It’s made him a kind of Yoda for foreign policy geeks. To his critics he will always be the man who told the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet that he was sympathetic with what he was trying to do. It’s a shame he didn’t include an essay on that brutal leadership.