Saturday 18 April 2015

Lee Kuan Yew and Henry Kissinger

The unnatural nature of peace and prosperity
Two men, one vision: Henry Kissinger and Lee Kuan Yew both grew up in brutal regimes and brought a sense of vulnerability to their adult geopolitical analysis
By Robert Blackwill, Published The Straits Times, 17 Apr 2015

AS THE debates rage along the Potomac regarding the Iran nuclear framework, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Ukraine crisis, the rise of Chinese power and a half-dozen other important United States foreign policy challenges, how better to think about these problems than to seek counsel from the two most impressive strategists of the post-World War II era - the late Lee Kuan Yew and Henry Kissinger.

The two men were born a few months apart in 1923: Mr Lee in Singapore and Dr Kissinger in Furth, Germany. Both had deeply traumatic experiences in their teenage years. At 18, about to enter university, Mr Lee watched Japan invade Malaya and conquer Singapore in less than two months, ending the myth of British imperial invincibility and of white men's genetic superiority over Asians.

He lived under brutal Japanese Occupation for four years. The Japanese introduced the system of "Sook Ching", or "purge through purification" in Chinese, to get rid of those deemed to be anti-Japanese. The Sook Ching Massacre claimed the lives of between 25,000 and 50,000 Chinese in Singapore and Malaya. These men were rounded up, taken to deserted locations around the island and systematically killed.

Japanese soldiers patrolled the streets during Occupation and residents had to bow to them when they passed by. The Occupation had a life-changing impact on young Mr Lee, who recalled being followed by Japanese security personnel, and slapped and forced to kneel for failing to bow to a Japanese soldier. This is the barbarous environment in which Mr Lee lived between ages 18 and 22. As he stressed: "I learnt about power long before Mao Zedong wrote that power came from the barrel of a gun."

As a boy in Furth, Dr Kissinger watched the rise of Hitler and Nazism. As one of his childhood friends said: "You can't grow up like we did and be untouched. Every day there were slurs in the streets, anti-Semitic remarks, calling you filthy names."

The family fled Germany in 1938 to the US when he was 15. He was 22 years old in 1945 when World War II ended and many of his relatives in Germany had been murdered in Nazi gas chambers.

Fighting malignant forces

THUS both of these towering strategists came to understand at an early age in the most tragic possible way the endemic evil capacities of the human species; the frequent inability of "civilised forces" to anticipate and to counter such monsters; and the deadly effects on ordinary people of these savage regimes.

With their cataclysmic personal histories, it is perhaps not surprising that the two men brought a sense of vulnerability to their adult lives, and came to conclude that the first protection that both responsible governments and ordinary people had against such malignant forces in the world could not be hopeful expectations based on man's idealistic humanity to man.

They judged that such protection could not be furnished by pious declarations like Neville Chamberlain's at Munich or those made frequently by every American president.

It could not be based only on the rule of law, which disappeared in Germany in 1933 and was never present in Imperial Japan.

It could not be reflective of public opinion polls when in the late 1930s most Americans believed the US should stay out of the European war, and today when the clear majority would like the US to disengage from current Middle East conflicts even though ISIS lacks not the genocidal will but only the industrial-sized extermination machine of the Third Reich.

Having this historical and moral framework, Mr Lee was persuaded that peace and prosperity is not the innate order of things. Regarding the future of Singapore he put it like this: "I was also troubled by the apparent overconfidence of a generation that has only known stability, growth and prosperity. I thought our people should understand how vulnerable Singapore was and is, the dangers that beset us, and how we nearly did not make it. Most of all, I hope that they will know that honest and effective government, public order and personal security, economic and social progress did not come about as the natural course of events."

Dr Kissinger has stressed and Mr Lee many times endorsed the proposition that maintaining in a determined and sustained way "a balance of power that enforces restraint where rules break down", to quote Dr Kissinger, has given the world whatever order it has enjoyed since the 17th century.

Balance of power

WITH this geopolitical compass, Mr Lee was profoundly pro-America. This was not because he concluded that the US has a flawless society. Quite the contrary. He understood very well the many shortcomings of the US governmental system and the inequalities that still plague American life.

But he was convinced that only the US could maintain the balance of power in Asia in a fashion that preserved Singapore's freedom of choice regarding its domestic political, economic and social arrangements and its international policies. In Mr Lee's mind there were no candidates in the world except the US to take on this essential strategic responsibility.

Mr Lee had this preeminent strategic conviction in the 1960s and 1970s when he supported the US military involvement in Vietnam because he thought it gave South-east Asian countries a decade of breathing space to build their defences against internal and external communist coercion. He had it throughout the Cold War as he endorsed US balance of power policies in Asia to thwart aggressive Soviet designs.

And he had it in the context of the rise of China. He believed that, of course, China wished to erode American primacy and to replace the US as the most powerful nation in Asia. Mr Lee took that for granted. Knowing the Chinese leadership over decades better than any other outsider, he did not look to Beijing to alter that grand strategy.

Rather, he encouraged the US to pursue policies that made such Chinese long-term hegemonic objectives impossible to accomplish. He urged Washington to maintain the balance of power that had brought peace and prosperity to so many nations and benefited billions of ordinary Asian citizens.

When asked what leaders he most admired, Mr Lee named former French president Charles de Gaulle, "because he had tremendous guts", Deng Xiaoping for executing China's rise, and Winston Churchill, "because any other person would have given up". Notice that all three of these great men, like Mr Lee and Dr Kissinger, personally witnessed the catastrophic results of the collapse of the balance of power in Europe and in Asia.

Is it any wonder then that Lee Kuan Yew and Henry Kissinger were close friends for six decades and that the 91-year-old Dr Kissinger travelled across the globe to attend Mr Lee's funeral?

Dr Kissinger observed: "I have had the privilege of meeting many world leaders over the past half-century; none, however, has taught me more than Lee Kuan Yew."

The feeling was mutual.


The writer is Henry A. Kissinger senior fellow for US foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, and a member of the board of the Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School.

He is the co-author with Graham Allison of Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master's Insights On China, The United States, And The World.

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