Henry Kissinger: The Internet Does Not Make Great Leaders
TIME · by Belinda Luscombe
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.”
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.