Where are the Kissingers for the 21st century?
From Sunday's Globe and Mail
These new leaders will have to share his talent for connection and calculated risk-taking
Henry Kissinger never attended a public policy school, he never took an economics course and he never worked for a law firm, a large corporation, or a traditional government bureaucracy. His career belies common assumptions surrounding professionalization and expertise.
At its core, leadership is about connections and calculated risk-taking. Mr. Kissinger excelled at both. He was a big-picture thinker who drew actively on the work of people with diverse areas of expertise. Mr. Kissinger might not have done the original research, but he knew how to identify and exploit valuable new knowledge. In the decades after the Second World War, Mr. Kissinger guided policy-makers in their responses to the challenges of postwar reconstruction, communist containment, the nuclear arms race, limited warfare, Third World revolutions and détente.
Whether one approves of Mr. Kissinger's policies or not, the challenges of the 21st century demand new Henry Kissingers. The problems - from failed states and the proliferation of violence, to environmental degradation, fossil fuel depletion and global disease - require leaders who can synthesize gigabytes of information without getting lost in the details. Leaders will have to connect apparently incompatible ideas and people, and they will have to take calculated risks.
The most advanced societies are visually challenged because they are so technically capable. Scientists and engineers have proven ingenious in developing machinery and medicine that allow countries to put off tough choices. Instead of addressing growing inequalities in access to basic resources, the impoverished get connected to the Internet. Instead of deliberating about the behaviour changes necessary to improve human health, some of the sick get expensive new treatments while others languish in Dickensian squalor. This cannot continue, but science and engineering have put off the day of reckoning, at least for a while.
Despite these deep forebodings, there is cause for optimism. Human history is filled with remarkable examples of creative leadership in the face of imminent disaster. We might have reached a similar juncture in recent years. The new Kissingers of the 21st century do not look or sound like Henry Kissinger. They do, however, share his talent for connection and calculated risk-taking. They are cosmopolitan generalists, not narrow specialists, and they congregate in the spaces between established professions, disciplines and political institutions. Like Mr. Kissinger, the new leaders of the 21st century are thinkers and doers at the same time. They often disagree on details, but they see themselves as part of a larger, serious, world-historical enterprise.
Who are they? They are the restless academics and journalists who left universities and newspapers because they wanted to be more relevant. In some cases, they found their generalist interests made them unacceptable for professional gate-keepers. In other cases, they achieved professional success but quickly found themselves frustrated with the narcissistic combination of moral outrage and behavioural indifference that characterizes much of intellectual life in the most advanced societies. Like Mr. Kissinger, these new leaders have used hard work, eccentricity and opportunism to build careers in between institutions, often floating among think tanks, foundations, government appointments, non-governmental institutions and temporary academic positions.
These promising new leaders lack one thing: intellectual fertilization from the academy and the business community. Mr. Kissinger came of age in a more clubby face-to-face world, where people met frequently for discussions about the big problems of the day. The conversations emphasized understanding and empathy more than labels and political positioning.
In a fragmented digital age, societies must build spaces for sustained discussion about big issues. They must nurture broader exchanges of ideas. The best place to begin - where Mr. Kissinger's generation began - is in universities. Instead of starving the humanities to feed the technical sciences, the time has come to reverse priorities.
The humanities are an incubator for the creativity and imagination that policy needs more than ever before. The humanities are also a natural connector for the arts, business and policy. The new Kissingers will not be traditional scholars of literature and history, but they will draw on the discussions surrounding that vital work. They will pioneer new humanistic applications of the modern world's incredible technical capabilities.
Jeremi Suri is E. Gordon Fox Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin. This is adapted from an article published in Global Brief.