In 2015, Henry Kissinger was at the Bilderberg conference in Austria, listening to the head of Google DeepMind, Demis Hassabis, give a presentation on artificial intelligence, when he suffered what can only be described as a midlife crisis. As the giddying power of “self-learning machines” were laid out before him, the febrile mind of the former Secretary of State quivered with questions: “will AI’s decision making surpass the explanatory powers of human language and reason?” and if AI “makes strategic judgments about the future”, where does that leave human strategists like Kissinger?
His 92-year-old knuckles tightened on the edge of his desk as he felt himself teetering “at the edge of a new phase of human history”, one which promised nothing less than “the transformation of the human condition”. As a historian, he was determined to peer into this terrifying silicon future and make sense of it; to give the emerging technology the “guiding philosophy” it lacks. Today, as he turns 100, he’s still trying.
Just a week shy of his centenary, Kissinger found himself back at Bilderberg: this time in Lisbon, but once again with AI on the schedule and Demis Hassabis in the room. Other tech CEOs jostled for Kissinger’s attention: besides the DeepMind boss there were the heads of OpenAI, Palantir and Microsoft. And as ever, hovering at Kissinger’s right hand, his geopolitical acolyte and longtime AI collaborator, the former CEO of Google, Eric Schmidt.
Schmidt and Kissinger have traveled through the revolving door between government and the private sector in opposite directions. After leaving Google, Schmidt chaired the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, and has quietly eased himself into the role of an influential government advisor with deep links to the military and intelligence communities. This is the world of politics and policy that Kissinger conquered in the 1970s and then left, picking up a slew of directorships and cushy advisory jobs on the way.
But when Kissinger left government in 1977, the first position he accepted, just a few weeks later, didn’t come with a salary: it was a seat on Bilderberg’s steering committee. He has remained at the strategic heart of Bilderberg ever since. The workaholic schemer still works 15-hour days, although presumably half of that time is spent staring at a globe with his one good eye, rubbing his hands and murmuring “yes, yes, everything is falling into place”.
Kissinger has been strategizing at Bilderberg since 1957, when the ambitious academic was invited along as a guest of the billionaire banker David Rockefeller. This was the year in which Kissinger’s first great grapple with strategy was published: his sprawling doctoral dissertation at Harvard brushed-up into book form. In it Kissinger muses on the fundamental task of the statesman: “to have the strength to contemplate chaos, there to find material for fresh creation.”
At Kissinger’s first Bilderberg, the chaos being contemplated included “the problems of Eastern Europe”, which the conference is still contemplating today. In many ways, Bilderberg is largely unchanged since the 1950s: the governing structure and the schoolroom format of the meetings are more or less identical. Even the participants aren’t that different. In 1954 you’ve got the Director General of Esso. In 2023 it’s the CEO of BP. In 1954 you’ve got the ex-head of SOE (the Special Operations Executive, a secret British military intelligence unit in WW2). In 2023 it’s the ex-head of MI6.
This determined sameness seems an odd fit with Kissinger: in his writings about diplomacy he cherishes “spontaneity” and “inspiration”, and has a special hatred of “pedants” and “bureaucratic minds”. History, for Kissinger, is “the conflict between inspiration and organisation”, in which the “genius” of greatness is inevitably crushed by arthritic political institutions.
But the creaky monotony of Bilderberg as an institution has never bothered him — perhaps because the rigidity of its format belies a willingness to embrace new thinking. The conference began a bold pivot towards high tech years ago, with Craig Mundie of Microsoft the first Silicon Valley luminary to enter the discussions in 2003. Mundie joined the group’s steering committee in 2011, and has just now, after the Lisbon meeting, given up his seat to the current CEO of Microsoft, Satya Nadella.
These days Bilderberg has gone all-in on AI, with “artificial intelligence” first creeping onto the conference agenda in 2015 and exploding in Kissinger’s cortex. There’s a curious continuity between Kissinger’s ideas about statesmanship and his musings on artificial intelligence. He sees a curtain falling on age of Enlightenment, as human reason is usurped by the lightning-fast logic of machines. He worries about the inscrutability of computers — the eerie opacity of their decision-making processes — and yet this is precisely what for Kissinger characterizes the decision-making of the human actor on the world stage. “The statesman”, he says, “must act on assessments that cannot be proved at the time that he is making them.” Grand political actions represent a kind of black box thinking: the statesman “must inevitably act on the basis of an intuition that is inherently unprovable.”
Likewise, despite his global fame (and infamy), Kissinger is every bit as inscrutable as an AI. He’s published millions of words about geopolitics but not one of those words is “Bilderberg” — even when alluding to the conference he refuses to speak its name. And his main private sector interest is notoriously mysterious: a shadowy consulting company called Kissinger Associates, which he founded in 1982. The business is intimately connected to US intelligence. Its first president was Brent Scowcroft, two time National Security Advisor, who replaced Kissinger in the role in 1975. Until recently, and for more than a decade, the business was run by Jami Miscik, former Deputy Director for Intelligence at the CIA — the agency’s most senior analyst. And when John Brennan left the top job at Langley, who headhunted him as an advisor? Henry, of course.
You can see Kissinger Associates as a mirror of Kissinger himself: with one foot in the intelligence community, and the other planted firmly in Bilderberg. One of his consulting company’s first directors was Lord Carrington, the former UK Foreign Secretary, who went on to become the secretary general of NATO and, rather more importantly, the chairman of the Bilderberg group. Kissinger tapped two other Bilderberg heads for his boardroom: Etienne Davignon and Lord Eric Roll of Ipsden.
Bilderberg’s own history is woven through with transatlantic intelligence interests. At its outset, the annual conference was conceived as a joint-venture between British and American intelligence, and the list of former “honorary secretaries general” is packed with state department heavyweights. It’s no wonder Henry fitted right in. He began his career in military intelligence, rising to become the National Security Advisor in 1969. The current National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, attended last year’s conference in Washington, alongside the director of the CIA, William Burns — a Bilderberg insider who was briefly a member of the steering committee before resigning just prior to taking the post.
This year in Lisbon the usual slew of US intelligence officials included the Director of National Intelligence, Avril Haines, and Jen Easterly, who runs the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. They were joined from France by the head of their foreign intelligence service, and from the UK by the outgoing chief of GCHQ, Jeremy Fleming, who was presumably sniffing round the bank bosses and fatcat industrialists in search of a plum private sector directorship. If he ends up the new vice-chair of Kissinger Associates it won’t be the biggest surprise in the world.
What then is the future for Kissinger and Bilderberg? As he turns 100, the arch-machinator must surely be making plans for his retirement, in the next couple of decades or so. He can’t possibly be keeping up this pace when he’s 130. As for Bilderberg, what place is there in the age of AI for a conference which prides itself on letting participants “take time to listen, reflect and gather insights”? Time is a thing of the past. As Eric Schmidt says, reflecting on Kissinger’s career: “let’s think about how much time he had to do his work 50 years ago, in terms of conceptual time, the ability to think, to communicate and so forth. In 50 years, what is the big narrative? The compression of time.” As Schmidt says, the question now is: “what about when everything happens too fast for humans?”
Why nurture links with intelligence when human intelligence is being so thoroughly surpassed. Why invite experts and academics to a real-world conference when you can simply feed all their works into the latest incarnation of ChatGPT and ask it their opinion on anything under the sun? It’ll take eight seconds and you don’t have to buy it a hotel room. Why even ask along the head of OpenAI, Sam Altman, whose company developed this all-conquering chatbot? He’s every bit as defunct as everyone else round the table. Or should they carry on pretending to strategize when strategy is no longer a human concern?
In Lisbon, poor old Kissinger would have been listening to the head of Palantir, Alex Karp, talk about the militarization of AI. Karp said recently: “If you wheel these technologies correctly, safely and securely, you have a weapon that will allow you to win, that will scare your competitors and adversaries.” In other words, every diplomatic concern that Kissinger has ever pondered has been reduced to: my AI is smarter than yours. Why carry on thinking about war when — as Kissinger admits — there “no limitations” to the potential destructiveness of AI? Why try to comprehend the incomprehensible? This isn’t a task for theorists or historians, it’s become a job for mystics.
All those books and all those Bilderbergs, and for what? History is dead, thinking is dead, strategy is dead, reason is over, geopolitical theory is pointless, and elite transatlantic conferences are a waste of everybody’s time, money and luggage. Happy birthday Henry, and don’t let the door hit you on the way out.