🔒 Who can fill Henry Kissinger’s role as the global sage? – Adrian Wooldridge

In the wake of Henry Kissinger’s passing, the world seeks a successor to his role as the preeminent global sage. While US politicians fall short due to partisan shifts, former world leaders emerge as contenders. Among them, Tony Blair stands out for his wide-reaching influence, diplomatic experience, and mastery of geopolitics. Despite criticisms, Blair’s liberal internationalism, tempered by past failures, aligns with the current need for a nuanced approach in an era of populist resurgence and liberal self-doubt. As the world navigates complex challenges, Blair emerges as the potential heir to Kissinger’s legacy.

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Who You Gonna Call Now That Kissinger’s Gone?: Adrian Wooldridge

By Adrian Wooldridge

The death of Henry Kissinger last November created the world’s most exclusive job vacancy: that of wise man to the world. When he left his job as secretary of state in 1977, Kissinger did not so much retire as ascend to a higher level: informal advisor to world leaders of every party, fount of wisdom on all things geopolitical, provider of gravelly commentary for radio and television, and all-purpose political consultant. Who can we get to replace him?

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To answer this question, we need to first ask why Kissinger was irreplaceable for so long. The German-born statesman was a remarkable blend of opposites: highly intelligent but practical-minded, wonderfully learned but a fixture at flashy social functions (at one Met Gala he was heard asking, of a fellow guest, “who is this Fluff Daddy?”).

He succeeded in being everywhere and knowing everyone: I remember watching him at the Saint Petersburg Economic Forum in the early 2010s thronged by Russian and Western businesspeople and politicians, the second most popular man in the room after Vladimir Putin. Yet he also wrote a succession of first-rate books culminating in his thought-provoking Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy.

The most obvious candidates for Kissinger’s throne are US politicians, because, as the country that wields the most power, the US prefers to listen to its own. Kissinger’s fellow Republicans have ruled themselves out by lurching from neoconservative over-reach under George W. Bush to populist derangement under Donald Trump. Who wants to hear from Paul Wolfowitz? Or Steve Bannon? That leaves a collection of Baby Boom Democrats.

Bill and Hillary Clinton both have a claim — Bill as the president who presided over a golden age of globalization and Hillary as an accomplished secretary of state. But Bill lives under a cloud because of his personal life and Hillary does not understand the populist forces that destroyed her presidential run and continue to reshape the world. After throwing himself into film production, podcasting and hanging out with celebrities, Barack Obama has recently put his toe back into politics as an advisor to Joe Biden on artificial intelligence. But he nevertheless seems to lack the gravitas for the role — he didn’t achieve anything in foreign affairs to justify his Nobel Peace Prize — and perhaps the enthusiasm. John Kerry is too pompous and stiff — more a classical statue of a Roman statesman than a real person. Al Gore is a monomaniac.

What about non-US politicians? Angela Merkel was one of Germany’s longest serving chancellors and, during the Trump era, acted as informal leader to the free world. As prime minister of New Zealand from 2017 to 2023, Jacinda Ardern moved her party to the center, keeping Covid at bay, no mean feat, coped with a horrific gun attack, and retired with dignity. Kevin Rudd, Australia’s prime minister from 2007 to 2010 and now its ambassador to the US, is a wise voice on handling China, the biggest strategic challenge of our age. Outside the West, Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore’s prime minister, and Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, Indonesia’s president, both deserve consideration — Lee as leader of the world’s best-administered country and Jokowi as the leader of the world’s single largest Muslim population and a representative of one of the mightiest global forces, the Asian middle classes.

Yet none of these figures is quite up to it. Merkel’s reputation is shrinking by the year, as we pay the price for her dithering, particularly her failure to improve Germany’s ability to produce its own energy. Ardern is a geostrategic lightweight and Rudd is a one-trick pony. Lee and Jokowi are both sitting politicians, and both bring problems: For all his intellect (he was Senior Wrangler or top scholar in mathematics at Cambridge), Lee has not demonstrated his father’s enthusiasm for commenting on global affairs while Jokowi’s support for the death penalty for drug dealers might give too many Westerners an excuse to block their ears.

Which leaves one candidate among former world leaders. After Kissinger’s death, politicians across the world from Bill Clinton to Vladimir Putin competed to sing his praises. But perhaps the most effusive praise came from Britain’s former prime minister, Tony Blair. “There is no one like Henry Kissinger…From the first time I met him as a new Labour Party opposition leader in 1995, struggling to form views on foreign policy, to the last occasion when I visited him in New York and, later, he spoke at my institute’s annual gathering, I was in awe of him…If it is possible for diplomacy, at its highest level, to be a form of art, Henry was an artist.” Let us consider this to be a successful job application.

Blair has a striking number of Kissinger’s qualities. He has admirers from across the political spectrum — Margaret Thatcher praised him for bringing the Labour Party in from the cold, David Cameron presented himself as “heir to Blair,” and George Osborne, Cameron’s right-hand man, described him as “the master.” His political connections stretch right across the world, from “the Stans” in Central Asia to the Middle East to Africa. He is a big figure in both Europe and the United States.

He took part in two signature peace-making processes — in Northern Ireland, as prime minister, culminating in the Good Friday Agreement and, less successfully, in the Middle East as a special envoy from 2007 to 2015. His think tank, the Blair Institute, makes Kissinger’s own shop, Kissinger Associates, look like a minnow, with a staff of more than 450. Blair is even the right age for an apprentice global wise man: he was 54 when he left office (Kissinger was 53) and is now a youthful 70.

To his critics, Blair also has a striking number of Kissinger’s deformities. Both men have been accused of being war criminals — Blair over Iraq and Kissinger over too many things to list. You can read The Trial of Henry Kissinger by Christopher Hitchens or watch The Trial of Tony Blair directed by Simon Cellan Jones. Both men have been suspected of treading a fine line between offering political advice and making money from it. And both men inhabit, or inhabited, a cosmopolitan world of conferences, luxury holidays and celebrity friends.

There are also striking differences between two men who were born 30 years apart. Blair lacks Kissinger’s intellectual depth, a depth that was nurtured by his personal experience of tragedy, as a German Jew who experienced Nazism. It is impossible to imagine a book such as Barry Gewen’s The Inevitability of Tragedy: Henry Kissinger and His World being written about the architect of Cool Britannia.

Yet the comparison is not merely negative. Blair’s gift for clarity and sound bites is more suited to the modern age than Kissinger’s convoluted sentences and thick German accent. Blair understands that modern geopolitics must embrace health care, demographics and climate change as well as grand strategy. In particular, he is much better informed than Kissinger about Africa, the continent with the world’s youngest population and with the capacity, if that population is not absorbed in productive employment at home, to destabilize Europe.

Kissinger gave the impression that he reveled in his reputation for being on the dark side; Blair, by contrast, clearly laments that he is not recognized as a saint. This is because the two men have radically different views of the world: Kissinger was a practitioner of realpolitik, willing to sup with the devil in order to prevent what he saw as disaster, whereas Blair is a liberal crusader, determined to make the world a better place.

Blair’s liberal internationalism is the one thing that should give us pause before promoting him to Kissinger’s high throne. But the former prime minister has mellowed with age: He’s not only been humbled by the fiasco in Iraq but, in his dealings with the Kazakhstan and elsewhere, shown a recognition that you need to handle the world as it is rather than how you would like it to be. Even more encouragingly, he’s shown a greater desire than, say Hillary Clinton, to understand the appeal of populism, a subject that he talks about frequently and that his institute has studied in some depth. Blair may be a liberal internationalist, but he’s the best sort of liberal internationalist: one tempered by failure and sensitive to overreach.

Blair outlined what a mature liberal internationalism might mean in his Ditchley lecture in July 2022. At previous inflection points in international relations — in 1945 and 1980 — statespeople have always combined a revolution in foreign affairs with a revolution in domestic affairs. The West needs to do this again. It needs to push back hard against Putin in Ukraine while also preparing for what might be an even more destabilizing war, that of China against Taiwan. But at the same time, it needs to stave off domestic discontent by improving government services at home, not least by applying new technologies to underperforming services like the National Health Service.

The key to both foreign policy and domestic reform is delivery: Set out tough but achievable goals and mobilize the resources, civil power as well as state power, soft power as well as hard power, to turn them into reality. This requires different policies with different autocracies — “strength through engagement” with China combined with a more hardline policy with Russia. It also requires the US to be much more willing to involve allies in high-level policy making. “Deliverology” needs to be added to the traditional language of diplomacy.

Chastened liberal internationalism is exactly what the world requires in an era of populist resurgence and liberal self-doubt, not Kissinger’s obsessive balancing. The West needs to recognize that we still need to do business with distasteful people, in the Stans, Africa and elsewhere. The man who built the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change into a goliath knows that as well as anyone. But the West also needs to regain its ability, when appropriate, to sing the song of freedom in a world in which too much of the music is provided by newly self-confident autocrats.

Blair is the only global statesperson with the talent to deliver an eloquent speech or make a moving intervention on behalf of liberal values. The US is too consumed by domestic culture and too riddled by domestic pressure groups to take the sort of stand that it took during the Cold War; the EU is too addicted to gray apparatchiks who say nothing and say it badly. It’s time for Sir Anthony Charles Lynton Blair to assume the mantel of a new and improved Dr. Henry Kissinger.

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