Kissinger would miss his old friend Lee Kuan Yew in these troubled times

Former Lianhe Zaobao editor Lim Jim Koon looks back at the distinguished career of diplomat and political adviser Henry Kissinger, who had the ears of the most powerful people in the world. As Kissinger marks his 100th birthday, what insights has he offered before, and what is his current take on the state of the world?
Elder US statesman Dr Henry Kissinger gives Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew (left) a hug just before Mr Lee was awarded a lifetime achievement award by the US-Asean Business Council for fostering US-ASEAN ties, 27 October 2009. (SPH Media)
Elder US statesman Dr Henry Kissinger gives Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew (left) a hug just before Mr Lee was awarded a lifetime achievement award by the US-Asean Business Council for fostering US-ASEAN ties, 27 October 2009. (SPH Media)

Henry Kissinger, the renowned American diplomat, international political theorist and (not undisputed) winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, celebrated his 100th birthday on 27 May of this year.

Deep concern over global situation

He is a practitioner of pragmatic diplomacy and is widely recognised as a master of power balance in realpolitik. Most notably, he was involved in multiple secret diplomatic initiatives during his time in office, in particular his secret visit to China in 1971 that led to US President Richard Nixon’s “icebreaker” visit in 1972.

However, this influential and legendary figure has not been immune to the ravages of time. He now appears bent and feeble, with difficulty walking. Nevertheless, recent interviews with several media outlets show that his mind remains exceptionally sharp, and his thinking remains rigorous and meticulous.

“We are on the path to great power confrontation.” — Henry Kissinger

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US President Nixon's special adviser, Henry Kissinger (left), shakes hands with Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai (R), during their secret meeting, on 9 July 1971 in Beijing. (AFP)

Even given his advanced years, Kissinger refuses to sit back and enjoy retirement, because he remains uneasy and deeply concerned about the current global situation.

The Economist published an eight-hour interview with Kissinger on 17 May. During the interview, he expressed that the fate of humanity depends on whether the US and China can get along. However, he warned, “We are on the path to great power confrontation.”

He believes that both sides should be aware that the only way to prevent ruinous conflict is hard-headed diplomacy, and suggested that they lower the rhetoric to ease the tensions in the Taiwan Strait and set up small groups to lay the groundwork for meetings between their leaders of China and the US. He also believes that artificial intelligence with its disruptive potential will become a key factor in security within five years, and emphasised the need for both sides to begin exchanges on the impact of technology on each other and “take baby steps towards arms control”.

China-US relations ‘at the top of a precipice’

On 26 May, The Wall Street Journal also published an interview with Kissinger. He said that the US has always pursued a diplomatic policy characterised by a self-proclaimed “righteousness”, but countries such as China do not buy into it. 

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Dr Henry Kissinger speaking over a virtual call at the Bloomberg New Economy Forum 2022 at Capella Singapore on 15 November 2022. (SPH Media)

He believes that China is seeking “security” rather than wanting to dominate the world, and to avoid military conflict with China, the US needs to exercise restraint and seek dialogue instead of blindly confronting them. He stated that both of the most recent two US presidents have sought to exact concessions from China, which he considers to be a grave mistake.

... Kissinger has been ignored by the US political arena that he hoped to influence.

On 16 June, Bloomberg published a more than an hour-long interview with Kissinger. In the interview, he could not hide his concerns about China-US relations, stating that the two countries were “at the top of a precipice” and that a military conflict could occur. He emphasised that “the current trajectory of relations must be altered” and both sides needed to step back from confrontation.

However, despite the continued attention from major media outlets and their interviews with him for his 100th birthday, Kissinger has been ignored by the US political arena that he hoped to influence. In an interview with the New York Post on 9 July 2022, he expressed his disappointment that current US President Joe Biden is the only US president since Nixon that did not invite him to the White House.

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US President Donald Trump (right) shakes hands with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger during their meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, on 10 October 2017. (Mandel Ngan/AFP)

This is not surprising given the current US climate, whereby the two parties are escalating their anti-China rhetoric in a competition to see who can be more anti-China. In such an environment, who would listen to Kissinger’s inconvenient words of wisdom? Which politician would dare to respond?

In its interview on 17 May, The Economist stated, “Nobody alive has more experience of international affairs, first as a scholar of 19th-century diplomacy, later as America’s national security adviser and secretary of state, and for the past 46 years as a consultant and emissary to monarchs, presidents and prime ministers.”

Yes, which other living person with his number of years of international diplomatic experience can say: “Who else but me?” Right now, Kissinger stands at the summit surveying his surroundings, perhaps feeling slightly lonely and desolate.

“[Lee] understood the relevance of China and its looming potential and often contributed to the enlightenment of the world on this subject. But in the end, he insisted that without the United States there could be no stability.” — Kissinger on Lee Kuan Yew

Kissinger’s high praise for Lee Kuan Yew

At this time, will he miss his old friend, with whom he had a lot of common understanding? Wouldn’t he like to discuss global affairs once more with this strategist, who also adhered to the idea of power balance in realpolitik?

Unfortunately, his close friend and founding prime minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, who had debated politics and more with Kissinger over decades, left this troubled world eight years ago.

I believe so. Kissinger’s admiration and respect for Lee is well-known. On the day of his dear friend’s passing on 23 March 2015, Kissinger published a heartfelt tribute in The Washington Post, titled “The World Will Miss Lee Kuan Yew”. In this eulogy, he reminisced about his old friend: “Lee Kuan Yew was a great man. And he was a close personal friend, a fact that I consider one of the great blessings of my life. A world needing to distill order from incipient chaos will miss his leadership.”

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A picture taken off TV showing Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew (left) discussing world economic problems with former West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt (centre) and former American Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (right) in Japan in 1983. (SPH Media)

The two met when Lee Kuan Yew visited Harvard University in 1967, and their close relationship spanned nearly 50 years. Kissinger recalled, “... [I had] hundreds of encounters… with him during international conferences, study groups, board meetings, face-to-face discussions and visits at each other’s homes over 45 years. He did not exhort; he was never emotional; he was not a Cold Warrior; he was a pilgrim in quest of world order and responsible leadership.”

“[Lee] understood the relevance of China and its looming potential and often contributed to the enlightenment of the world on this subject. But in the end, he insisted that without the United States there could be no stability,” he added.

Kissinger spoke very highly of Lee: “As the decades went by, it was moving — and inspirational — to see Lee, in material terms the mayor of a medium-size city, bestride the international scene as a mentor of global strategic order.”

He continued, “A visit by Lee to Washington was a kind of national event. A presidential conversation was nearly automatic; eminent members of the cabinet and Congress would seek meetings. They did so not to hear of Singapore’s national problems; Lee rarely, if ever, lobbied policymakers for assistance. His theme was the indispensable US contribution to the defence and growth of a peaceful world. His interlocutors attended not to be petitioned but to learn from one of the truly profound global thinkers of our time.”

It is clear from the eulogy that Kissinger deeply recognised Lee’s view of the world and the balance between China and the US, despite the fact that both men spoke from their respective national interests.

Dr Henry Kissinger, former United States secretary of state and Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s friend of more than four decades, paying his last respects to Mr Lee at Parliament House on 8 March 2015. Accompanying him are Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his wife Ho Ching. (SPH Media)
Dr Henry Kissinger, former US secretary of state and Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s friend of more than four decades, paying his last respects to Mr Lee at Parliament House on 8 March 2015. Accompanying him are Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his wife Ho Ching. (SPH Media)

In addition to the eulogy, Kissinger also came to Singapore on 28 March 2015 to pay his last respects to his old friend at the Parliament House.

In 2013, two years before Lee’s passing, Kissinger penned the foreword to the book Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States and the World by renowned Harvard University professor Graham Allison et al. Kissinger praised Lee’s wisdom: “Lee has made himself an indispensable friend of the United States, not primarily by the power he represents, but by the excellence of his thinking. His analysis is of such quality and depth that his counterparts consider meeting with him as a way to educate themselves.”

He added, “For three generations now, whenever Lee comes to Washington, he meets with an array of people spanning the top ranks of the American government and foreign policy community. His discussions occur in an atmosphere of rare candour borne of high regard and long-shared experience. Every American president who has dealt with him has benefitted from the fact that, on international issues, he has identified the future of his country with the fate of democracies.

“Furthermore, Lee can tell us about the nature of the world that we face, especially penetrating insights into the thinking of his region. Lee’s analyses shed light on the most important challenge that the United States confronts over the long term: how to build a fundamental and organic relationship with Asia, including China,” Kissinger wrote.

US President Ronald Reagan and Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, during an official welcoming ceremony at the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, US, on 8 October 1985. (SPH Media)
US President Ronald Reagan and Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, during an official welcoming ceremony at the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, US, on 8 October 1985. (SPH Media)

He continued, “There is nobody who can teach us more about the nature and the scope of this effort than Lee Kuan Yew. As this book demonstrates, however, his insights extend far beyond US-China relations; they encompass virtually every challenge of international relations. It will not take long for readers to discover why Lee is not only one of the seminal leaders of our period, but also a thinker recognised for his singular strategic acumen.”

China as a big, powerful, rising state

In 2022, Kissinger, who was still writing at the age of 99, published Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy, in which he analyses six world leaders, including Lee. A chapter in the book expounded on Lee’s profound geopolitical concerns, especially the intensifying China-US relationship.

On 23 July 2022, Lee Huay Leng, editor-in-chief of SPH Media’s Chinese Media Group, wrote an article titled “Lee Kuan Yew Through the Eyes of Kissinger” (《基辛格笔下的李光耀》). When discussing Kissinger’s book, she said, “Kissinger, who has listened to Lee Kuan Yew’s views on China and the US several times, believes that Lee spoke about China and the US in an ‘unsentimental’ manner. But Lee had already predicted in 1993 that China’s impact on the global balance of power would be so great that the world would have to find a new balance in the next 30 to 40 years.”

She added, “Lee thought that China was not ‘just another big player’ but ‘the biggest player in the history of man’. In his own words, Lee urged the US not to treat China ‘as an enemy’ but to accept ‘China as a big, powerful, rising state’ and give it ‘a seat in the boardroom’.”

Furthermore, China-US relations have taken a sharp turn for the worse and the political climate in the US no longer heed such warnings.

China’s Economic Observer said that Kissinger also mentioned Lee Kuan Yew’s advice to both China and the US in his book. Lee suggested that China had to know how to become a great power — while it was inevitable that China would become a great power, the type of great power that it chose to become needed to be well considered. Meanwhile, Lee suggested that the US must be prepared to coexist with a power much more powerful than the former Soviet Union, i.e. China.

In 1988, Lee Kuan Yew met Chinese paramount leader Deng Xiaoping at the Great Hall of the People, Beijing, China. (SPH Media)
In 1988, Lee Kuan Yew met Chinese paramount leader Deng Xiaoping at the Great Hall of the People, Beijing, China. (SPH Media)

From Kissinger’s perspective, Lee’s life was dedicated to the pursuit of world order because this order is what guarantees Singapore’s survival and growth. At the same time, such an order cannot be achieved without a balance of power between major powers.

Indeed, China considers both Kissinger and Lee “old friends”. Kissinger had visited China nearly 100 times over the last 50 years while Lee had made 33 visits. There is no doubt that they possess a deep understanding of China and are experts on the country.

Both “China experts” share an important consensus on China-US relations: China’s rise is inevitable, and China and the US must not be caught in a conflict. They had both reiterated this warning on different international occasions, and their words had taken some effect.

But unfortunately, Lee has passed and it is difficult for Kissinger to clap with one hand. Furthermore, China-US relations have taken a sharp turn for the worse and the political climate in the US no longer heed such warnings. Even if both men were working together, the situation can hardly be salvaged, let alone the fact that Kissinger is now left to tread this rocky path alone.

“A hundred years of solitude” in this boundless space and time — this is probably what Kissinger is feeling now. 

This article was first published in Lianhe Zaobao as “百年“孤寂”基辛格”.

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