Sunday 10 December 2023

Henry Kissinger, Lee Kuan Yew and a friendship that influenced the world

Both men were realists who spoke frankly, and global leaders listened to them. They also shared a close bond.
By Shashi Jayakumar, Published The Straits Times, 8 Dec 2023

There is a delicious anecdote about a meeting in November 1968 at Harvard University, at what later became the Kennedy School of Government. Some professors were railing against the war in Vietnam and then US President Lyndon Johnson.

Singapore’s then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, in Harvard for a sabbatical of five weeks, on being invited to give a response, said tersely, “You make me sick”, before proceeding to give a clear and concise summary of why America had to stay the course and provide security against the communists bent on undermining South-east Asian nations.

Mr Lee remembered the incident in his memoirs as a respectful difference of views and omitted the pungent words.

But Dr Henry Kissinger, then a professor at the faculty encountering the Singaporean for the first time, related the entire incident in his own study of Mr Lee’s leadership, and in his last book before his death last week at the age of 100.

On arrival at Harvard, Mr Lee had said that he was there “to rest, to rethink, to reformulate policies, to get fresh ideas, to meet stimulating minds, to go back enriched with a fresh burst of enthusiasm for what I do”.

And what minds they were: political scientist Samuel Huntington, Graham Allison (the young postgraduate student at Harvard assigned to accompany Mr Lee to seminars, later a famous professor who co-authored a book on him), and the economists John Kenneth Galbraith and Paul Samuelson.

Some, like Ray Vernon of the Harvard Business School, and Michael Porter (whom Mr Lee met later) were to subsequently give advice to our leaders on Singapore’s development and economic policy.

Mr Lee maintained friendly contact or correspondence with some of these men for years.

From 1967 (his first trip to the United States as prime minister), impressed with the spirit, talent and innovatory zeal he found, the Singapore leader would make annual or biannual visits to the US to understand and engage US policymakers, and to seek out and engage with other bright minds in and out of government.

November 1968 marked the beginning of a seminal friendship between Mr Lee and Dr Kissinger.

Growing influence

In Mr Lee’s recollection of that meeting in 1968, Dr Kissinger was circumspect, and certainly not prepared to jump onto the liberal, anti-war bandwagon. He may already have had his future position in mind – shortly after, it was announced that he would be national security adviser (NSA) to President Richard Nixon.

Mr Lee was at an important turning point of his own. An Anglophile (educated in Cambridge across the Atlantic) and an admirer of British institutions, he had been called by former British foreign secretary George Brown the “best bloody Englishman east of the Suez”. But Mr Lee had already begun to intuit that the future did not lie with the United Kingdom, which had announced its withdrawal of its forces from South-east Asia in January 1968.

But – surely the question in Mr Lee’s mind – who would guarantee security in the region?

Before flying home in 1968, Mr Lee met Dr Kissinger (now the NSA appointee) again and emphasised the need to stay the course in Vietnam. This had been on Mr Lee’s mind for some time, as declassified US administration documents show.

In 1967, in conversation with then US Vice-President Hubert Humphrey, Mr Lee said that the Vietnam War was like a long bus ride. The US had had several chances to get off the bus, but it could not now disembark until the trip was successfully concluded.

Withdrawal was nonsensical – Thailand and Malaysia would fall and within three years, Mr Lee said sombrely, “I would be hanging in the public square”.

He was prepared to make the point in public, too. The few lectures Mr Lee agreed to give at Harvard show him being firm in the conviction that security had to be guaranteed by major powers, and that American involvement had to buy time for other South-east Asian nations to make changes for their own survival.

Even as Mr Lee was beginning to see the United States in a different light, declassified White House documents, State Department cables and other sources tell the story of how the US was beginning to change its view on him.

The administrations of Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy had been tentative in their appraisals, unsure of his political sympathies, with some assessments even allowing the possibility that Mr Lee might be some sort of crypto-communist.

This had changed by the mid-1960s when Mr Lee had decisively moved against the pro-communists, but concerns remained. Given the stated policy of non-alignment on the part of the Singapore Government, some officials were concerned about a possible closer alignment with the communist bloc.

By the later stages of the Lyndon Johnson administration, however, internal administration assessments that have been declassified show a growing appreciation of Mr Lee’s intelligence and candour, with respect too for how he was making Singapore a success.

There was also recognition of Mr Lee’s influence. Washington needed him on its side, despite his occasional past anti-American speeches.

Even though US-Singapore relations were beginning to improve markedly from 1966 to 1967, Mr Lee did not have any personal connection or insider track within Washington.

Enter Dr Kissinger, who from 1968 was at the centre of helping Mr Lee navigate the corridors of presidential power.

Reading through the file notes, briefing documents and memcons (memoranda of conversation), one is struck by the ease that Mr Lee displayed with presidents Nixon and (from 1974) Gerald Ford, with Dr Kissinger (who from 1973 took on the role of secretary of state) usually in attendance.

The topics of conversation ranged widely, from Vietnam to South-east Asian politics to China. None of the interactions that presidents Nixon or Ford (or Dr Kissinger) had with other South-east Asian leaders had this warmth and familiarity, or the willingness to listen.

As Dr Kissinger commented in his foreword to Mr Lee’s collected 20 volumes of interviews and speeches, “his analysis is of such quality and depth that his counterparts consider meeting with him as a way to educate themselves”.

Connecting with China

From 1970, Dr Kissinger was tasked to lay the groundwork for President Nixon’s historic visit to China.

Reading through declassified notes of Dr Kissinger’s conversations with Chinese leaders such as then Premier Zhou Enlai in planning the American President’s trip, one is struck by the ease and mutual respect that marked the conversations – despite the serious topics discussed, and despite differences in points of view (over Taiwan, for example).

And even when there were disagreements, both sides were still prepared to listen.

It is striking that in these meetings, Dr Kissinger took the trouble to talk about Mr Lee and Singapore.

In 1973, he told Mr Zhou in a meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing that his friend Lee was very intelligent and had built the most dynamic state in the region, and that Singapore was too small for his talents.

Mr Zhou’s laconic reply (said to laughter in the room) was that “it is the problem created by Chinese blood”.

When Mr Zhou raised the possibility of establishing relations with Singapore (something that was to happen only in 1990, after all other South-east Asian nations had done so), Dr Kissinger offered to raise the issue with Mr Lee, assuring Mr Zhou that the Singapore leader, while concerned about communist subversion, was certainly not against China.

As the relationship progressed, there were in later meetings occasional moments of light-heartedness. On one occasion, Dr Kissinger in Beijing repeated a Chinese proverb he had heard from Mr Lee: “When there is turmoil under the heavens, big problems are reduced to smaller problems and smaller problems should not obsess us.”

The reply from the Chinese leader on the receiving end: “The next time Lee Kuan Yew tells you a proverb, tell him there is an old Chinese proverb which says ‘Lee Kuan Yew invents Chinese proverbs’.”

As Dr Kissinger was to remark on Mr Lee’s death in 2015: “He always urged us to understand China, and explained what the Chinese were doing... and so I found his advice extremely helpful, but so did the succession of presidents and others.”

The backstory of how US-China engagements unfolded during this period and the period that followed has not been fully told yet. One wonders what input Mr Lee gave to American presidents who followed Mr Nixon and Mr Ford.

Mr Lee’s wise counsel was known to those who mattered in Washington, and was reflected in the respect that former president Ronald Reagan and his successor George H.W. Bush had for him. And both Mr Lee and Dr Kissinger could speak frankly, too, and in an unforced fashion, to Chinese leaders, earning them both the respectful encomium of “old friend”.

Dr Kissinger, Mr Lee, former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt and one-time US secretary of state George Shultz were close friends – all four men who thought deeply and in a pragmatic way on the state of the world, and who never bothered with fashionable theories of how the world worked.

As Mr Schmidt observed, all four were “more influenced by realism than by ideology”.

Among the four men, the closest bond was between Dr Kissinger and Mr Lee, as shown by the comfort that the American provided to Mr Lee when his wife Kwa Geok Choo passed away, by Dr Kissinger’s presence despite his own infirmity at Mr Lee’s funeral in 2015, and by Dr Kissinger’s moving eulogy to Mr Lee – Dr Kissinger noted that a world needing to distil order from incipient chaos would miss Mr Lee’s leadership.

Dr Kissinger stepped down from the position of secretary of state in 1977, following the election of Mr Jimmy Carter to the presidency, but Mr Lee and Dr Kissinger would continue to meet regularly in various international study group board meetings, and would find opportunities to have face-to-face discussions.

When Dr Kissinger visited Singapore in October 1981 to deliver the prestigious Singapore Lecture, Mr Lee used the opportunity to also bring Asean leaders in for informal discussions, with Dr Kissinger involved (this was something Mr Lee was to do on other occasions when Dr Kissinger passed through the Republic).

As Dr Kissinger acknowledged when delivering the Singapore Lecture, the US had reluctantly come to understand that conflicts in distant parts can affect America’s future.

For world peace, there has to be a balance of power – and there can be no progress without a significant American role in this balance of power.

Washington would of course have come to this conclusion, but still, this was also Mr Lee’s influence at work.

Dr Kissinger’s realpolitik approach in South-east Asia, though not without controversy, was aimed at balancing power dynamics, maintaining stability and preventing the spread of communism – all consonant with Mr Lee’s aims – and had a lasting impact on South-east Asia.

The last of the four men who were close friends has now left the stage.

The world is shorn of pragmatic realists like these – statesmen interested in what can work, and indeed what can be made to work beyond the limits of what seems possible – at a time when they are needed more than ever.

Shashi Jayakumar is the founder and executive director of geopolitical risk consultancy SJKGeostrategic Advisory.

No comments:

Post a Comment