The Synthesizing Mind in Politics and Diplomacy

by Howard Gardner

For decades, I have been interested in synthesizing. More recently, I have sought  to understand the nature of the synthesizing mind—its origins, development, how it functions, to what uses it can be put.

Until now, I have focused principally on the synthesis of ideas, typically culminating in a written product. On one end of the synthesizing continuum is the journalist. The journalist’s vocation is to take a topic—an event, a meeting, a person, a season—to learn as much possible in a short period of time; to prepare the story and write or post it; and then move to the next topic (long -form journalism has a different scale and scope).

On the other end of the synthesizing continuum is the work of a scholarly researcher.  The scientist or social scientist takes a particular topic, develops some kind of a hunch or hypothesis, collects the relevant data, evaluates the plausibility of the initial hypothesis, and then summarizes findings typically in a journal article. Unlike the journalist, the empirical scientist is likely to continue to probe that area in an effort to build up a larger evidence-based explanatory framework. Scholars in the humanities and the qualitative social sciences work in an analogous fashion—reviewing the existing material on their topic, and then recasting these analyses or probing the topic in an innovative way.

As it happens, for many years, I have operated within that capacious space as a synthesizer of ideas. Sometimes I acted as a journalist, sometimes as an empirical research scientist, occasionally as a humanistic analyst. But for the most part, I have taken on larger, more unwieldly topics, which lend themselves to treatment in book form—writing about creativity, leadership, artistic development, the effects of brain damage on adults, the effect of social media on young people, to name a few.

In my conceptualizations, the prototype for synthesis encompasses the journalist-writer-scientist-humanist who tackles a problem—large or small—and then writes up the findings and conclusions. You might say that it is academic or scholastic perspective.

And yet, synthesis is not only the activity of journalists and scholars. Any individual who operates in a broad sphere needs and values the products of intelligent synthesis: think of the head of a small business, a senior manager in a  corporation (as well as its CEO, COO or board chair), the leader of a university, the mayor of a city, the founder of a philanthropic organization, the conductor or the manager of a symphony orchestra, the director or producer of a movie. The list goes on. It’s worth understanding the kind(s) of synthesis done by each of these professionals, these senior workers—even though such syntheses are not likely to end up as prose or charts in the newspaper, a scientific journal, or  a trade or scholarly book – not, at any rate, unless someone with my penchant decides to write about it.

Within the United States, the chief executive is effectively the chief synthesizer. More so that anyone else in the government, the President’s task is to survey the landscape, consider options, enact or fail to enact approaches. We have every right to expect that the President will be an expert synthesizer and, moreover, that the President also selects as heads of agencies (or as members of the Cabinet, or as Supreme Court Justices) individuals with powerful synthesizing capacities. And because much of this synthesis occurs privately, we cannot expect to understand how particular presidents work—not at least until the memoirs are published… if then! (For my perspective on two presidents, please see my blogs here and here).

As we look back at recent American history, Bill Clinton is probably the president most able to synthesize effectively across topics and levels of expertise. Indeed, he actually used that very phrase to describe his approach to governing. Barack  Obama was an excellent synthesizer, at a more cerebral level, Ronald Reagan at a more demotic level. I hesitate to characterize Donald Trump in a positive way, but there’s no question that he provided explicit and implicit syntheses that worked for his core constituents—of whom there were (and still are) quite a few. 

But not all synthesizers are equally in the public eye. A telling example: the American political figure who was arguably the most outstanding “synthesizer on the ground” in recent decades has now been described in the compelling book The Man Who Ran Washington by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser.

By background, Baker was a typical well-off scion of a powerful family (like John Kennedy, like George HW. Bush). Bkaker went to Princeton, did a stint in the marines, and then returned to Houston to join the family law firm.  Interestingly, his father advised him never to go into politics. Young James Baker did well in legal practice and might have remained in Texas, but it was perhaps too small a platform. Among other factors, family tragedies propelled him to consider a more public life. He ran for office, without success, but then formed a very powerful bond with another up-and-coming Houston politician, George H. W. Bush. In 1980 he managed Bush’s unsuccessful campaign for the Republican nomination and immediately thereafter, he directed Reagan’s successful campaign against Jimmy Carter for the Presidency.

In the Reagan administration, he served successively as Chief of Staff and as Secretary of the Treasury. After Reagan’s two terms in the White House, Baker managed Bush’s success (and quite vicious) presidential campaign in 1988 and then served as Secretary of State and, briefly, Chief of Staff. And while Bush’s second presidential campaign was not successful, Baker continued to play an important role in public life as a member of various commissions and, most importantly, as the master strategist behind Bush v Gore. James Baker was the single person who did the most to ensure the desired judicial outcome for his political party in the tense period in December 2000. At 90 still alive, he is back in Houston.  His place in the Republican leadership is still important to him—in 2016 he voted for Donald Trump and has, to my knowledge, never publicly criticized him.

Clearly, Baker was in important places at important times. But that fact in itself does not merit a mammoth book by two top flight journalists.  Baker stood out because he was an amazingly successful operator under very challenging and fast changing times and conditions.

What made him such an effective operator? To  begin with, as a white shoed, gold plated lawyer, James Baker was well briefed and well informed—he always entered a meeting knowing as much as it was possible to know. As a skilled manager, he had an excellent staff- carefully selected, well-trained, totally responsible and responsive. Also, and very important in Washington, he built close to exemplary relations with journalists—knowing to whom to speak, what to say (and what not to say); when and how to leak;  when and how to cut off ties.  At the same time, he was quite a private person, with few close friends, one who dealt with often heavy personal issues in a private way.

Turning from tactics to goals: James Baker knew what he and his colleagues wanted, generally shared these aims, and worked effectively and tirelessly to achieve them. He had good, clear, accurate “mental models” of both the issues and the players—and was prepared to modify them as warranted. As a negotiator he played hard and could be tough, but importantly, he did not strive bull-headedly to get everything. He knew when to step back, when to quit (temporarily or permanently), when to compromise, when and how to seal the deal, how to quit while ahead. James Baker wanted to get certain things—indeed, many things—done and did so with striking impact.  

It’s appropriate to leave the last words to biographers Peter Baker and Susan Glasser, my chief informants:

He was no visionary, no innovator. He articulated no grand plan for the country or the world. He did not start Reagan’s revolution nor the one that later swept Eastern Europe. Yet, he figured out how to channel those forces, to harness them and focus them on constructive outcomes while averting disasters. He could bring together people who were more comfortable apart and find pragmatic ways to paper over any rifts. There was little idealism involved and a fair degree of opportunism. He was not above political hardball to advance his teams’ chances at the ballot box. He never lost sight of what was good for Jim Baker and he survived the ruthless arena of Washington. Asked in later years his biggest accomplishment, he regularly joked “leaving Washington unindicted,” a line he lifted from a Doonesbury cartoon. But somehow, in the main, it worked. Things got done. Little wonder that the country would summon him out of retirement again to fix the Iraq War…but Iraq brought home what had shifted since his time in power…He never saw America’s commitment to freedom as a mission statement to change a world that was not ready to change.

In my view, Baker serves as an excellent—indeed a prototypical—example of what I will term a “practical synthesizer in the political/diplomatic realm.” He knew the various factors at work, could deal with them on the ground, and could work tirelessly and effectively to institute the best possible course of action.

Yet, it’s clear that the broad realm of politics and diplomacy has room for, and perhaps needs, different kinds of synthesizers. Here’s how I would sketch out the lay of the land.

An excellent example of a “conceptual synthesizer” is George Kennan (1904-2005). By background and inclination, Kennan was a thinker, an analyst, a writer of talent, even a poet.  He was deeply steeped in history—particularly Russian history—and his role model was a distant relative named George Kennan, a leading scholar of Russia in the 19th century.

 Yet, for a career the second George Kennan choose the foreign service and rose to the top of the diplomatic hierarchy—eventually serving at senior posts in Europe, including ambassadorships in the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. As a staff person in several embassies, he was competent, but because of his candor and impatience, he was not a successful ambassador…and in fact left both posts with indiscreet “political egg “ on his face.

On the other hand, in the opinion of informed scholars, Kennan was the leading American strategic thinker in the post-World War II period. His famous long telegram of 1946 and “Mr. X” article in Foreign Affairs in 1947 set the tone for the policy of containment which obtained for over 40 years and helped contribute to the downfall of the Soviet Union. When just 50, Kennan left the Foreign Service, and thereafter, wrote over a dozen books and made many public statements that influenced diplomatic discourse and decisions over the course his very long life.

So, as exemplars, we have James Baker as a practical synthesizer, and George Kennan as a conceptual synthesizer.  Is it possible to combine these two stances?

For me, the obvious answer is Henry Kissinger (born in 1923). By background and initial inclination, Kissinger was a scholar—in particular a diplomatic historian—and one who attained tenure at Harvard at a relatively young age. Yet, early on in his scholarly career, Kissinger became intrigued by the possibility of more active involvement in diplomacy and action. He joined various politically-oriented groups, served as advisers to political figures, notably Nelson Rockefeller, a perennial unsuccessful candidate for the Republican nomination for president. And then, to the surprise of many colleagues and friends, Kissing3erbegan a very close partnership in foreign affairs, as National Security Adviser to President Nixon and then as Secretary of State to Presidents Nixon and Ford. Kissinger is rightly respected as the adviser who helped produce a thaw in U S China relations; but equally rightly condemned for his entanglement in the unsuccessful prolongation of the Vietnam War. Without entering into those value judgments, I consider Kissinger to be an exemplar of conceptual and practical synthesizing—and in that sense, in the tradition of three European leaders whom he admired—Klemens von Metternich (Austrian empire), Otto Bismarck (German), Charles de Gaulle (France).

Two final thoughts:

  1. Henry Kissinger on George Kennan: “Kennan came as close to authoring the diplomatic history of his era as any diplomat in our history.” (Quoted by Niall Ferguson in his biography of Kissinter.)
  2. I’ve sketched a possible continuum in synthesizing:
    Largely conceptual              Mix of conceptual and practical    Practical

 Kennan                                   Kissinger                                       Baker

Only further study will indicate whether this continuum makes sense. And time and energy permitting, it’ll be revealing to investigate other sectors—for example, traditional business, big business, information technologies—to see whether a similar continuum obtains.


Baker, P and Glasser S.   (2020) The Man Who Ran Washington. New York: Doubleday.
Ferguson, N. (2015) Kissinger: 1923-1968 The Idealist.  New York: Penguin
Gaddis, J (2011). George Kennan : An American Life  New York: Penguin.

© Howard Gardner 2021


2 Comments on “The Synthesizing Mind in Politics and Diplomacy”

  1. Sukanta Das February 9, 2021 at 7:23 am #

    Howard Gardner Sir, The Synthesizing Mind in Politics and Diplomacy is a big tusk. Your innovative thinking about this ideology with examples of the American Presidents is excellent. Being a pioneer social scientist of the day, Your conceptions will make the peoples of the world more liberal and democratic!

  2. Howard Gardner February 10, 2021 at 2:56 pm #

    thanks for your generous comment. Having studied a ‘synthesizing mind’ mostly in scholars, I am finding it interesting and educational to look at synthesizing in other fields. In the coming months, I expect to post additional blogs on synthesizing in economics, political science, investing, medicine. best wishes hg

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