Editor’s note: Journalism professor Buck Ryan in Kentucky and English lecturer Lei Jiao in Wuhan, China, pursue cross-cultural understanding through current events — this time Henry Kissinger’s book tour at age 99.
BUCK: Hey, Lei, have you read Henry Kissinger’s new book?
LEI: Oh my God, Buck, is he still writing? I read his book “On China” — the Chinese version of course — but a long time ago.
BUCK: Yes, he is! Kissinger is only 99 years old and now he’s kicking it on tour with his 19th book.
LEI: What’s this one?
BUCK: “Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy.” It has interesting, didactic profiles of six world leaders in the 20th century, from 1960 to 1988, highlighting key attributes of leadership.
LEI: Well, Buck, China grew dramatically in that period — out of Mao’s Cultural Revolution and up through Deng Xiaoping’s Four Modernizations.
BUCK: Four, eh?
LEI: Yes, Deng set out to strengthen the fields of agriculture, industry, defense and science and technology. China’s GDP rose tenfold.
BUCK: Leadership “with Chinese characteristics,” eh? Deng’s secret to success was allowing capitalism in new economic zones.
LEI: Does Kissinger profile Deng in his book?
LEI: That figures – another lost opportunity to bring equilibrium to East and West through respect and understanding of our commonality.
BUCK: Funny you say that, Lei, because Kissinger writes that one key attribute of a great leader is achieving “equilibrium.”
LEI: Oh, which of the six leaders exemplified that?
BUCK: Nixon. You know, the guy who had his unbalanced moments.
BUCK: Yes, President Richard Nixon, circa 1969, the year Kissinger was appointed his national security adviser.
LEI: Huh, well, Nixon did intervene in 1969 to save China from the Soviet Union’s threat to attack our nuclear arsenal.
BUCK: We were that close to nuclear war, you say.
LEI: Yep. In March 1969, Chinese soldiers attacked Russian border troop positions and that fight became a bloody mess. Then Nixon signaled he would consider using nuclear weapons to get the Soviets to back off.
BUCK: I guess that’s one way to make friends and restore equilibrium.
LEI: Right. Nixon was flexing his “madman theory” of diplomacy. You know, he had a crazy number of China connections. Have you ever heard of the Chennault Affair?
BUCK: Hmm, tell me more.
LEI: In 1968, Nixon deployed Anna Chennault, a wealthy Chinese-American widow, to throw a monkey wrench into Lyndon B. Johnson’s peace negotiations to end the Vietnam War.
BUCK: Who was Chennault?
LEI: She was a glamorous Republican fundraiser born in China. In 1947, she married General Claire Chennault, who was leader of the Flying Tigers, American mercenaries working for China in World War II to fight Japan in the air.
BUCK: How do you know all this?
LEI: Chennault wrote a memoir, “The Education of Anna.” You can also check out the Chennault Affair file from the LBJ Library.
BUCK: I see. What was Kissinger doing at the time?
LEI: In July 1968, Kissinger called Nixon “the most dangerous, of all men running, to have as president.” Of course, then he was supporting his boss, New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, in the GOP primary against Nixon.
BUCK: Wait, Lei, how did Kissinger become a Nixon man?
LEI: After Nixon defeated Rockefeller for the GOP nomination, Kissinger told Nixon’s campaign manager, John Mitchell, he had changed his mind.
BUCK: Sounds like to achieve equilibrium, one must be flexible.
LEI: Ha! But not too flexible, Buck, or you’ll go to prison like Mitchell in Watergate. Just watch the mini-series “Gaslit” to see how his wife lit that fuse.
BUCK: Lei, you Chinese must take advanced classes in U.S. scandals.
LEI: Happy to be your teacher about all things China and America, Buck. Tell me more about Kissinger’s book.
BUCK: His six studies in world strategy focus on Egypt (Anwar Sadat), France (Charles De Gaulle), Germany, or West Germany at the time (Konrad Adenauer), Great Britain (Margaret Thatcher), Singapore (Lee Kuan Yew) and the U.S. (Nixon).
LEI: OK, why them?
BUCK: Because Kissinger knew them personally and respected their rise based on merit from their modest middle-class upbringings.
LEI: So they are all alike in some ways?
BUCK: Yes, Kissinger sees them as being both pragmatic and managerial “statesmen” and visionary and transformational “prophets.”
Here’s a quick rundown:
For Thatcher in 1988 it’s about her stubborn “conviction” to revive Britain’s economy and military, whether that be the Falklands War with Argentina, her Cold War stance or her dealing with the Irish Republican Army.
For Anwar Sadat in 1978 it was his “transcendence” of leading Egypt out of its humiliating defeat in the Six-Day War in 1967 and pursuing peace with Israel in 1978.
For Lee Kuan Yew in 1968 for Singapore’s first prime minister from 1959 to 1990, it was his strategy of “excellence” that turned a British colony occupied by Japan in WWII into a thriving, multicultural city-state.
For Konrad Adenauer in 1960 it was “humility” that characterized his lifting up of Germany from the ruins of Nazism to restore a legitimate democracy.
For De Gaulle in 1965, it was his “will” dating back to resisting the Nazis during their World War II occupation and declaring himself the leader of Free France. Kissinger says De Gaulle created a political reality for France “by sheer force of will.”
LEI: Buck, you know De Gaulle drove the U.S. nuts when he reopened France’s relations with Beijing in 1964, pre-empting Nixon’s strategic genius.
BUCK: Good one, Lei.
LEI: Americans might be surprised to hear many Chinese people speak highly of Nixon and Kissinger.
LEI: In China people, especially those who don’t know much or understand the American political system or Watergate, view Nixon in a very positive light.
BUCK: What about Kissinger?
LEI: Positive, too. He’s often labeled as “the old friend of the Chinese people,” “a China hand” or “Sinologue,” terms of respect and admiration.
BUCK: What makes a great leader isn’t so easy to calculate.
LEI: Right, Buck. Mao once commented on Stalin’s legacy — when everyone was trashing him — with the same 70/30 view that Deng used to describe Mao.
LEI: Yes, 70% right, 30% wrong. Someone’s faults shouldn’t overshadow his merits.
BUCK: You know, Lei, we have people here who think Nixon was indeed a crook who should have gone to prison and Kissinger is a war criminal.
LEI: That may be one big cultural difference between us, Buck. Americans tend to see things as either black or white when we Chinese take a more nuanced view, whether we’re assessing leaders or anything else.
BUCK: Fifty shades of red, eh?
LEI: My guess is the “equilibrium” attribute related to Nixon’s strategy back in the day to drive a wedge between China and the Soviet Union, and bring China closer to the U.S.
BUCK: Right, though Nixon’s profile was the longest one by far. Kissinger, who praises Nixon for balancing geopolitical rivalries, covers everything from Vietnam to China to Watergate and many crises in between.
LEI: Somehow I hear Winston Churchill’s echo in the background.
LEI: “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.”
BUCK: Ha! At 99 I guess you have only so many years to get your legacy straight.
LEI: It’s a little scary, don’t you think, that Kissinger couldn’t find a 21st-century leader to profile.
BUCK: I know. We really need someone to lead us out of the trap Zbigniew Brzezinski warned us about, especially now that Russia is trying to improve relations with Iran.
LEI: Who’s Brzezinski?
BUCK: He was a Democratic rival to Kissinger in the LBJ and Carter administrations.
LEI: What did he say?
BUCK: The U.S. can be an enemy to Russia and the U.S. can be an enemy to China — just not at the same time, if we want a stable world order.
LEI: Got that right.
BUCK: Brzezinski’s book, “The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives,” made this chilling prediction:
“Potentially, the most dangerous scenario would be a grand coalition of China, Russia, and perhaps Iran, an ‘antihegemonic’ coalition united not by ideology but by complementary grievances.”
LEI: Looks like the world needs all the books on leadership it can get.
About the authors: Buck Ryan, a University of Kentucky journalism professor, and Lei Jiao, an English lecturer at Wuhan University of Technology, Hubei Province, China, collaborate on articles to advance cross-cultural understanding. You can read their last romp on emojis (“Wait, what’s that word I’m looking for? I got it now, the perfect sentiment to end my sentence.”) here:
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