Great Contemporaries: Kissinger on the Secrets to Leadership

Great Contemporaries: Kissinger on the Secrets to Leadership

In his new book Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy, Henry Kissinger offers a guide for the perplexed to international relations by presenting illuminating studies of leaders from the past century.

IN ASSESSING past leaders, Kissinger makes no secret of his concerns about the nature of America’s liberal elite. Kissinger recounts that in November 1968, Lee Kuan Yew, the forty-five-year-old prime minister of Singapore, visited Harvard for what he called a month-long “sabbatical.” He was invited to meet the faculty at Harvard’s Littauer Center. The assembled scholars, who saw him as the leader of a semi-socialist party and a post-colonial state, welcomed Lee as a kindred spirit. He inquired about the faculty’s views of Vietnam. They responded that President Lyndon B. Johnson was either a war criminal or merely a psychopath. “You make me sick,” Lee responded. It was vital, he said, for Singapore and other small nations that America provide a modicum of global security in order to maintain a balance of power in Southeast Asia. “To the astonished Harvard faculty,” Kissinger writes, “Lee articulated a worldview free of anti-American animus and post-imperial resentment.”

Since then, Kissinger’s apprehensions about the umbratile character of the modern academy have only mounted. In his concluding chapter, he issues a plea for a return to a broader humanistic education based on an engagement with philosophy, modern languages, history, literature, and classical antiquity. While American secondary schools and universities have become adept at educating, or, to put it more precisely, producing, activists and technicians, they have “wandered from their mission of forming citizens—among them potential statesmen.” Whether this development can truly be arrested is an open question. The American mind has been closing for awhile. But in producing Leadership, which is old-fashioned in the best sense of the term, Kissinger has produced a potent reminder that great men and, yes, women can make history rather than remain passive observers helplessly buffeted about by contemporary events.

Jacob Heilbrunn is editor of The National Interest.

Image: Reuters.