When a nonagenarian who has been an adviser to every US president for half a century comes to town, attention must be paid.
Dr Henry Kissinger, 94 years old, gave the keynote address at the Centre for Policy Studies Margaret Thatcher Conference on Security on Tuesday and several hundred people, a bit short of a full house, were on hand to listen to him.
The former Secretary of State and Nobel Peace Prize Winner gave his overview on the state of the world, touching on China, Russia, Brexit (he was against it but now he’s in favour), and cyberspace but, interestingly, without one word about Israel.
Introduced by Lord Saatchi, who at the tender age of 71 is young enough to be his son, Mr Kissinger addressed the question of Russia first.
The man who formulated the policy of détente was unsurprisingly empathetic on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s security concerns. "Russia wants to be accepted by Europe and transcend it simultaneously,” he said.
However, he added that Russia is “a vital element for European security.” That was a surprising comment considering that Russia’s propping up of Bashar al Assad has led directly to the refugee crisis that has overwhelmed parts of the EU and strengthened the hands of authoritarian leaders like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, who are not shy about using antisemitic tropes to maintain power.
He noted China’s rise, alongside Russian resurgence, and warned that if the West’s apparent disarray means it “withdraws providing stability, China and India will step in, as will Russia.” He added: “World politics will be revolutionised. If the West engages in conflict without strategic concept, chaos will ensue.”
Mr Kissinger’s comments on the Middle East were unexceptionable - the countries created by treaties at the end of the First World War are disintegrating, Isis is at war with modern society - and also surprising. There was no mention of either Israel or Iran. He also claimed: “The maxim no longer applies in the Middle East that your enemy’s enemy is your friend. Now, they’re probably your enemy too.”
It was an odd comment to make at a time when Israel and Saudi Arabia seem to be drawing closer, via the Trump administration, to confront Iran.
But the oddest thing of all was the absence of any reference to the American President. It is a reasonable observation that nothing has disturbed the security apparatus of the West in the last year like the election of Donald Trump, with his belligerent rhetoric towards the Nato alliance, his warm embrace of Mr Putin, and his paradigm shift of what is considered acceptable behaviour by the leader of the free world. Mr Trump is a man who does not use the word “democracy” in his big set speeches, something Margaret Thatcher always did.
Yet Mr Kissinger failed to mention this sea change in American politics, or the extreme tensions within American society brought to the surface during last year’s election.
This was the second Margaret Thatcher Security Conference and it was a very odd occasion, not just for the paucity of discussion about Mr Trump. Many of those in attendance had been in their professional prime when She bestrode the world. That era is long gone, although Mr Kissinger and other speakers seem not to have noticed. They might have addressed what is happening in our new world more clearly.
One of the talking points of the year since Brexit and then election of Mr Trump has been the observation that people are cocooning themselves in silos of information with which they agree. The conference was a paradigm of the silo effect. There was a terrible sameness on the panels. Since so much of the received wisdom from the heyday of Margaret Thatcher is being challenged, it might have been worth having a few panelists from outside the “one of us” category.
There is nothing wrong with sensibly criticising American leadership when it is wrong. Baroness Thatcher did it many times.