À 99 ans, son esprit et sa plume demeurent toujours aussi aiguisés. Henry Kissinger distille son expertise aguerrie des relations internationales et, malgré les controverses suscitées comme lorsqu’il conseillait que l’Ukraine devienne « […] un État-tampon entre la Russie et l’Union européenne », ses lumières sont toujours aussi éclairantes parce qu’elles sont dénuées de l’émotion chevillée au corps de la « tyrannie de l’instant ».
Henry Kissinger m’accompagne intellectuellement depuis mes années universitaires, alors que je me plongeais dans son livre-phare Diplomatie et que je partais à la recherche de sa dernière tribune. Nous n’avions pas accès aux banques de données à cette époque. L’exercice n’était donc pas aussi simple et rapide qu’aujourd’hui. Il ne cesse depuis de me fasciner et je prête toujours une oreille très attentive à ses propos.
J’étais donc extrêmement heureux de plonger le nez dans la biographie que lui a récemment consacré le diplomate français Gérard Araud. Henry Kissinger : le diplomate du siècle (Éditions Tallandier) propose un tour d’horizon solide de la vie, de la pensée et de l’oeuvre du grand homme. Alors que l’Holocauste frappe son Allemagne natale, l’adolescent juif de 15 ans arrive avec sa famille aux États-Unis en août 1938. C’est le début d’un parcours exceptionnel qui verra le jeune académique s’épanouir dans les cercles du pouvoir américain après la Seconde Guerre mondiale.
Sir Lawrence Freedman is not only an internationally acclaimed author, but he is also the dean of British strategic studies and Emeritus Professor of War Studies at King’s College London. I have a boundless admiration for this institution and I hope to enlist in the near future to the online Master’s Degree in War Studies it offers.
Sir Lawrence generously accepted to answer a few questions for this blog and I am extremely grateful for that. Here is the content of our exchange.
Russia is a constant challenge because it feels itself at threat from the West and has taken a tough stance that creates an edginess.
My point was then that the withdrawal from Afghanistan, chaotic though it was, was unfortunately expected and the lesson (not to put substantial ground forces into a civil war) had been learned a decade earlier. Russia is a constant challenge because it feels itself at threat from the West and has taken a tough stance that creates an edginess, especially as it plays a disruptive role in European affairs. It poses a challenge that is serious but should be manageable as its underlying position if weak. China has been getting stronger for the past three decades year on year, although that growth may be stuttering now. It has turned itself into a great power, militarily as well as economically, and under Xi has taken a much more assertive stance on a whole range of issues. I believe this stance will turn out to be counter-productive, but it creates a risky and dynamic situation which could spark a wider confrontation (see answer to next question).
Chinese still admire some aspects of the western world, but not, anymore, its political figures.
On page 71 of your compelling book, you write that President Nixon was impressed “[…] witnessing Zhou Enlai redo the front page of the People’s Daily.” I often ask myself if any figure has a comparable influence in Xi Jinping’s entourage?
I imagine the figures from the outside world that most impress Chinese leaders today are more our business or technology leaders than our political ones. The excitement of new acquaintance from the Nixon era has long gone. Now, figures like Warren Buffett probably arouse more interest in China, or Bill Gates. I guess this is simply a sign that Chinese still admire some aspects of the western world, but not, anymore, its political figures.
I think we deceive ourselves if we do think individuals can magically find a way around the issue of the relationship between China and the US.
In the case where there would be no such influential figure, do you think it would help, notably in the relations with the US, and why?
Henry Kissinger is still listened to in China, and indeed, till recently, went there. I don’t know however whether intermediary figures are of much help now. This is not an issue of individual people being able to sort this out – the disagreements between China and the US are structurally too deep. There are maybe groups of people who might, over time, help – academics, perhaps, in trying to at least maintain some middle space. But I think we deceive ourselves if we do think individuals can magically find a way around this issue.
In the process of writing my review of his excellent book, Holding the Line: Inside Trump’s Pentagon with Secretary Mattis, I got in touch with Commander Guy M. Snodgrass (USN, Retired), asking if he would agree to respond to a few questions for my readers. Despite a busy schedule and numerous media requests in relation with his book, he kindly accepted. I’m both grateful and impatient to put my hands on his upcoming book.
Commander Snodgrass, what’s your favorite political memoir, apart from Peggy Noonan’s (I assume it’s on the top of your list)?
All Too Human: A Political Education by George Stephanopoulos.
His favorite bios are the ones written about Henry Kissinger and George H. W. Bush
What’s your favorite biography? (My little finger tells me it might be “Kissinger” by Walter Isaacson).
Either Kissinger by Walter Isaacson (for it’s no-holds portrayal of Kissinger) or Power and Destiny by Jon Meacham (the biography of former President George H. W. Bush).
Given your past career, you certainly nourish an interest in military history? What’s your favorite book in that category?
I’ll give you the standard TOPGUN answer to your question: it depends. I have a lot of ‘favorites’ depending on the application or topic at hand. Top three are: Eisenhower At War by David Eisenhower, The Nightingale’s Song by Robert Timberg, and The Encyclopedia of Military History by Ernest and Trevor Dupuy. For fun I’ll throw in Robin Olds’s Fighter Pilot.
NATO Secretary General Jen Stoltenberg is largely unflappable, calm under pressure, and a gifted politician who never seemed to be a loss for words during a press conference.
During your tenure with Secretary Mattis, which international personality (military or political) left the best impression on you and why?
Jen Stoltenberg, Secretary General of NATO. He is largely unflappable, calm under pressure, and a gifted politician who never seemed to be a loss for words during a press conference.
The U.S. must find ways to coexist with both nations (Russia and China) on the world stage while holding the line with regards to U.S. interests.
I’d be very curious to know if you share Henry Kissinger’s vision about Russia and China? (I would have loved to read more about it in your book, but I understand it was not its scope)
No, at least not the way Kissinger views them now. Russia and China actively work to subvert U.S. influence around the world. Kissinger is far too eager to rush into their arms from what I’ve seen from him in recent years. Regardless, the U.S. must find ways to coexist with both nations on the world stage while holding the line with regards to U.S. interests.
Are you working on another book or is it something you are planning?
I was raised to put service before self, which is why a military career was so satisfying. I’m certainly open to pursuing a pathway that leads to a return to public service.
Would you consider a run for political office in the future?
Would I? Possibly. Both U.S. political parties are incredibly unsettled at the moment, so I have a hard time determining if recent shifts in platforms are permanent or merely a reaction to President Trump. I was raised to put service before self, which is why a military career was so satisfying. I’m certainly open to pursuing a pathway that leads to a return to public service. In the meantime, it’s an honor to be able to publish and make a positive impact in the lives of others.
Reading memoirs of important players who worked during presidencies has always fascinated me. I notably cherish the moments spent reading Dick Morris, Ed Rollins, Peggy Noonan, George Stephanopoulos and James Carville’s books during my University years. Classics in my humble opinion.
What strikes me upon finishing this book is how difficult it must have been to work for and with the 45th President. Picture this. You’ve prepared a briefing for the leader of the free world and this man is only fixated on organizing a big military parade in Washington, D.C., because he was impressed with the 14th of July celebrations in Paris. You therefore realize that, next time around, you will “[…] only use slides with pictures… no words.” You’re talking here about the individual who makes life-and-death decisions for 1.3 million members of the Armed Forces and can decide to start a war.
I could also mention the particular episode when Lockheed Martin’s executives decided to flatter Trump’s ego by pretending his involvement in the F-35 contributed to lower the cost. “The only problem? Those savings had been already planned for years in advance […].” That’s how insecure and immature the current resident of the White House is.
And then there’s the moment when people at the Pentagon – the Secretary of Defense at the top of the list – learnt, probably live on TV or over the Internet, during a summit between Trump and Kim Jong Un that “war games” historically planned and organized between the US and South Korean armies would be suspended. Talk about respecting your allies. Much the same happened with the creation of the Space Force. Not to mention the NATO summit when POTUS went off message. In brief, “the administration wasn’t operating strategically, but rather looking for issues to provide immediate satisfaction.” The type of instant gratification you can expect from children.
To a certain extent, this portrait of the man was to be expected. Donald Trump has never been renowned for being a serious person, an avid reader or an intellectually curious politician. Chances are slim he will fall in love with a tome about General George Marshall or the minutiae of military affairs. I doubt we will see a pile of books set aside for him at the Barnes & Noble downtown D.C. (I once saw such a pile set aside for President George W. Bush during one of my visits in the US Capital).
I don’t know why, but what flabbergasted me the most was to read how Mattis reacted to Trump and the way he accepted to be treated. On one hand, he could have a phone conversation with the President, using a very ingratiating tone of voice and, on the other, he would lose control of a meeting with National Security Advisor John Bolton, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and State Secretary Mike Pompeo, allowing them to interrupt him with impunity. Not the type of behavior you expect from a man who is compared to General George Patton and whose nickname is “Mad Dog”.
According to the author, James Mattis “[…] is actually conflict-adverse in dealing with people he sees on a regular basis.” Which could explain how a retired US Marines Corps General got trampled over by a real estate mogul and his minions. In other words, Mattis became a legend with men who served under him, but he was not necessarily cut to serve alongside a president who doesn’t believe in the tenets of diplomacy which are so important to Mattis and to Rex Tillerson who served as Secretary of State at the beginning of the current administration and was also fired by the Tweeter-in-Chief.
It goes without saying that Donald Trump could have benefited so much more from the talent, expertise and knowledge of a bookish military figure “[…] who at one point owned more than seven thousand books in his library […]” and who takes inspiration from the legendary Henry Kissinger, but these type of men need more than 180 characters to reflect and take action. In a sense, one wonders how is it that such a great man could stick around so long in an administration that doesn’t know the meaning of grace, diplomacy and vision.
Many books will be published in the future about the inside story of the Trump administration. But I’m certain Guy Snodgrass will be among the most interesting, because of his inspired style, but also his profound decency (between the lines, you can understand that this guy was way too kind for the treacherous world of politics). Like his former boss, he’s a warrior-scholar. And Lord knows we need such men more than trigger-happy provocateurs.