Exclusive: Kissinger sees 'painful' need for better leaders. Will they arrive in time?

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Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger says today's world leaders fall short of
Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger says today's world leaders fall short of

At age 99, Henry Kissinger finds himself worried about the country and the world.

The former secretary of state has written yet another book, his 19th, this one profiling six leaders who managed tumultuous change in the aftermath of two World Wars. Does he see any comparably "transcendent" leaders that, in his view, the times today demand?

After a pause, Kissinger replied with a single word: "No."

After a moment, he added one more. "Painful," he said.

"In fairness to the current leaders, they haven't had quite the occasion yet, either," he went on in an interview with USA TODAY at his office on Manhattan's Park Avenue. "But you could argue, and I would argue, that great leaders make the occasion."

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In his book, "Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy," published Tuesday by Penguin Press, Kissinger discusses leaders who navigated times of overwhelming challenge and helped build a new world order in the 20th century. They include Konrad Adenauer of West Germany, Charles de Gaulle of France, Richard Nixon of the United States, Anwar Sadat of Egypt, Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore and Margaret Thatcher of Great Britain.

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In each case, a successful outcome wasn't guaranteed, he said. Individual leaders were crucial in seeing a path ahead and pursuing it, sometimes at great cost. De Gaulle was sent into exile by war. Sadat was assassinated. All were divisive in their day.

Kissinger had dealings with each of the six, now all dead. His personal perspective on them is the benefit, he said with a smile, of "longevity." After the death of George Shultz last year, Kissinger is the last living member of Nixon's Cabinet and the oldest living Cabinet member from any administration.

During his tenure on Nixon's White House staff and in his Cabinet, Kissinger was a controversial figure, hailed by admirers as a brilliant theorist of realpolitik but reviled by critics as an alleged war criminal for the consequences of his policies. He has been consulted by presidents and policymakers ever since, among them Donald Trump and current Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

'The present age is unmoored'

He was appointed to his White House post when Nixon took office in 1969. Opposition to the Vietnam War was rising, and the nation had been convulsed by the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, of civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

Kissinger sees parallels to the international challenges of that time and this one.

"Once again, it is a tale first of exuberant confidence generating overextension and then of overextension giving birth to debilitating self-doubt," he wrote in the book. "Once again, in almost every region of the world, the United States confronts major interlocking challenges to both its strategies and its value."

That has led to "renewed potential for catastrophic confrontation," he warned. "The present age is unmoored."

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The challenges now, if anything, are "a little bit worse than it was then," he said in the hourlong interview. "Because then, our critics were part of the same system. ... What is happening now is – the debate is about the worthiness of America, whether America and what kind of America is worth it to conduct policy. That makes the dialogue even harder than it was then in terms of our internal debate."

Henry Kissinger sees parallels between this era and the international challenges of the Vietnam War.
Henry Kissinger sees parallels between this era and the international challenges of the Vietnam War.

Kissinger credits Nixon with a creative approach to foreign policy that included outreach to China, détente with the Soviet Union and shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East. Nixon's second term was cut short by the Watergate scandal that forced him to resign in disgrace in 1974.

"I think it was a tragedy. It was a stupidity," Kissinger said of Watergate. "I don't really think Nixon ordered it (the break-in), but he created the conditions out of which it grew. The Watergate itself was a petty transgression, but the obstruction of justice by the president, that cannot be. That was the reason why he fell."

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Handling a crush of information

Kissinger uses a walker and a cane to get about. His mind is as sharp and his voice as distinctive as ever, its accent reflecting his native Germany eight decades after his family emigrated to the USA. His 99th birthday party, hosted by friends, was canceled this spring because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but he allowed that it might be rescheduled to celebrate his 100th birthday next year.

After a lifetime as a diplomat, Kissinger doesn't criticize current leaders by name. In the 499-page book, he never mentions President Joe Biden, and he cites "the Trump administration" only twice and in passing.

Instead, Kissinger said, he tried to draw historical lessons from leaders in the past. They shared some common characteristics. All had humble beginnings; all were comfortable with solitude; all embraced boldness.

A demise of bipartisanship and the rise of technologies have made leadership more difficult, he said.

"The daily impact of events overrides reflection about its meaning," he said.

Does he worry that the leaders he says the United States and the world need won't emerge in time?

“Of course,” he replied. But he predicted new leaders would rise to the challenge, as they have in the past. “I count on the fact that some leadership will emerge to do this,” he said. When that happens, “the public then says, ‘That's what we really wanted.’”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Henry Kissinger sees "painful" need for better leaders: Exclusive