Henry Kissinger and Charlie Munger were of an age.
They were also on my dream dinner-party list, along with Prince Philip, Jackie Kennedy and Golda Meir. Now the last two are dead too.
There’s been plenty of condemnation of Kissinger since his death this week at the age of 100.
He was a global statesman and former US Secretary of State who shared the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize for his role in negotiating an end to the Vietnam War.
But he was also savaged for the controversial way in which he pursued US interests. Reports of his death this week said his involvement in foreign conflicts and in overthrowing democratically elected governments resulted in opponents branding him a war criminal.
Yale University historian Greg Grandin, author of the biography Kissinger’s Shadow, told Rolling Stone magazine not long before he died: “There is no doubt he’ll be hailed as a geopolitical grand strategist, even though he bungled most crises, leading to escalation. He’ll get credit for opening China, but that was De Gaulle’s original idea and initiative. He’ll be praised for detente, and that was a success, but he undermined his own legacy by aligning with the neocons.
“And of course, he’ll get off scot-free from Watergate, even though his obsession with Daniel Ellsberg really drove the crime.” Rolling Stone headlined his death: “Henry Kissinger, war criminal beloved by America’s ruling class, finally dies.” This was a man who was also revered by autocratic regimes in China and Russia. Vladimir Putin was lavish in his praise. Xi Jinping treated him as a hero on his most recent visit to China — where Kissinger and former US President Richard Nixon played a major role in opening that nation to the West.
It is fascinating that this complex figure remained at the cutting edge of events and transformation almost to the end.
It was intriguing that he and pals, Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt and Daniel Huttenlocher, the inaugural dean of the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing, collaborated on the 2021 book The Age of AI.
The blurb said three leading thinkers had come together to consider how AI will change our relationships with knowledge, politics, and the societies in which we live. “Generative AI is filling the internet with false information. Artists, writers and many other professionals are in fear of their jobs. AI is discovering new medicines, running military drones and transforming the world around us — yet we do not understand the decisions it makes and we don’t know how to control them.”
Just last year, Kissinger published his last book, Leaders. He defined leaders as having to “think and act at the intersection of two axes: the first, between the past and the future; the second, between the abiding values and aspirations of those they lead. They must balance what they know, which is necessarily drawn from the past, with what they intuit about the future, which is inherently conjectural and uncertain. It is this intuitive grasp of direction that enables leaders to set objectives and lay down a strategy.”
Kissinger analysed six extraordinary leaders. There was Konrad Adenauer, who after World War II brought defeated and morally bankrupt Germany back into the community of nations by what Kissinger calls “the strategy of humility”. There was Charles de Gaulle, who set France beside the victorious Allies and renewed its historic grandeur by “the strategy of will”. During the Cold War, Richard Nixon gave geostrategic advantage to the US by “the strategy of equilibrium”. After 25 years of conflict, Anwar Sadat brought a vision of peace to the Middle East by a “strategy of transcendence”. Against the odds, Lee Kuan Yew created a powerhouse city-state, Singapore, by “the strategy of excellence”. And though Britain was known as “the sick man of Europe” when Margaret Thatcher came to power, she renewed her country’s morale and international position by “the strategy of conviction”.
One for Chris Luxon’s Christmas reading list, perhaps?
Many people have portrayed Munger as Warren Buffett’s sidekick. After all, he was vice-chairman of Berkshire Hathaway and Buffett’s closest business partner and right-hand man. But he was also a legendary investor in his own right.
His book, Poor Charlie’s Almanack: The Essential Wit and Wisdom of Charles T. Munger, is also worth putting in the Christmas stocking. “Spend each day trying to be a little wiser than you were when you woke up,” he advises.
The book is a compendium of 11 talks delivered by Munger.
He dropped the law as a profession. “I liked the independence of a capitalist. I liked figuring things out and making bets. I preferred making the decisions and gambling my own money. I usually thought I knew better than the client anyway, so why should I have to do it his way?
He had three basic rules for career satisfaction.
1. Don’t sell anything you wouldn’t buy yourself. “By and large, the people who have had this ethos win in life, and they don’t win just money and honours — they win the respect and the deserved trust of the people they deal with.”
2. Don’t work for anyone you don’t respect and admire. “We’re all subject to control to some extent by authority figures, particularly authority figures who are rewarding us. Dealing properly with this danger requires both some talent and will.
“I coped in my time by identifying people I admired and by manoeuvring, mostly without criticising anybody, so that I was usually working under the right sort of people. A lot of employers will permit that if you’re shrewd enough to work it out with some tact.”
3. Work only with people you enjoy. “I’ve found that intense interest in any subject is indispensable if you’re really going to excel. I could force myself to be fairly good in a lot of things, but I couldn’t excel in anything in which I didn’t have an intense interest or enjoyment.
“If at all feasible, you want to manoeuvre yourself into doing something in which you have an intense interest alongside people whose company you enjoy.
“Another thing you have to do is have a lot of assiduity. I like that word because to me it means: ‘Sit down on your ass until you do it’. I’ve had marvellous partners, full of assiduity, all my life. I think I got them partly because I tried to deserve them, and partly because I was shrewd enough to select them, and partly because there was some luck.
“I have been incredibly fortunate in my life when it comes to these basic rules. With Warren Buffett, I had all three.”