Editor’s note: Journalism professor Buck Ryan in Kentucky and English lecturer Lei Jiao in Wuhan, China follow cross-cultural understanding through current events – this time Henry Kissinger’s book tour at the age of 99.
DESIRE: 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.
DESIRE: Yes he is! Kissinger is only 99 years old and is now touring with his 19th book.
LEI: What is that?
DESIRE: “Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy.” It contains interesting, didactic profiles of six 20th-century world leaders, from 1960 to 1988, and highlights the key attributes of leadership.
LEI: Well, Buck, China has grown dramatically in that time – from Mao’s Cultural Revolution to Deng Xiaoping’s Four Modernizations.
DESIRE: four, right?
LEI: Yes, Deng wanted to strengthen the fields of agriculture, industry, defense and science and technology. China’s GDP increased tenfold.
DESIRE: “Chinese-style” leadership, right? Deng’s secret of success was to allow capitalism into new economic zones.
LEI: Does Kissinger profile Deng in his book?
LEI: This is another missed opportunity to balance East and West through respect and understanding of what we have in common.
DESIRE: Funny you should say that, Lei, because Kissinger writes that a key trait of a great leader is achieving “balance.”
LEI: Oh, which of the six leaders exemplified that?
DESIRE: nixon You know, the guy who had his unbalanced moments.
DESIRE: Yes, President Richard Nixon, circa 1969, the year Kissinger was appointed his national security adviser.
LEI: Well, Nixon intervened in 1969 to save China from a Soviet threat to attack our nuclear arsenal.
DESIRE: We were so close to nuclear war you say.
LEI: Yes. In March 1969, Chinese soldiers attacked Russian border guard positions, and the battle turned into a bloody mess. Then Nixon signaled that he would consider using nuclear weapons to induce the Soviets to withdraw.
DESIRE: I think that’s a way to make friends and restore balance.
LEI: Right. Nixon bowed to his “insane theory” of diplomacy. You know, he had so many connections to China. Have you ever heard of the Chennault Affair?
DESIRE: Hmm, tell me more.
LEI: In 1968, Nixon used Anna Chennault, a wealthy Chinese-American widow, to thwart Lyndon B. Johnson’s peace negotiations to end the Vietnam War.
DESIRE: Who was Chennault?
LEI: She was a glamorous Republican fundraiser who was born in China. In 1947 she married General Claire Chennault, leader of the Flying Tigers, American mercenaries who worked for China during World War II to fight Japan in the air.
DESIRE: How do you know all that?
LEI: Chennault wrote a treatise entitled The Education of Anna. You can also check out the Chennault Affair file from the LBJ library.
DESIRE: Aha. What was Kissinger doing back then?
LEI: In July 1968, Kissinger called Nixon “the most dangerous of all men in office to have as President.” Of course, at the time, he supported his boss, New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, in the GOP primary against Nixon.
DESIRE: 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, that he had changed his mind.
DESIRE: Sounds like balance, you have to be flexible.
LEI: Ha! But don’t be too flexible, Buck, or you’ll end up in jail like Mitchell did in Watergate. Just watch the “Gaslit” miniseries to see how his wife lit that fuse.
DESIRE: Lei, you Chinese must take advanced courses in US scandals.
LEI: Glad to be your teacher on all things China and America, Buck. Tell me more about Kissinger’s book.
DESIRE: His six studies in world strategy focus on Egypt (Anwar Sadat), France (Charles De Gaulle), Germany or the then Federal Republic of Germany (Konrad Adenauer), Great Britain (Margaret Thatcher), Singapore (Lee Kuan Yew) and the USA (Nixon). .
LEI: ok, why her?
DESIRE: Because Kissinger knew her personally and respected her advancement due to her humble middle-class upbringing.
LEI: So are they all kinda the same?
DESIRE: Yes, Kissinger sees them as both pragmatic and managerial “statesmen” and visionary and transformative “prophets.”
Here is a quick overview:
For Thatcher, 1988 is about her stubborn “conviction” to revitalize Britain’s economy and military, whether it’s the Falklands War with Argentina, her Cold War stance, or her dealings with the Irish Republican Army.
For Anwar Sadat, 1978 was his “transcendence,” leading Egypt out of its humiliating defeat in the 1967 Six-Day War and pursuing peace with Israel in 1978.
For Lee Kuan Yew in 1968, Singapore’s first prime minister from 1959 to 1990, it was his strategy of “excellence” that transformed a British colony occupied by Japan during World War II into a thriving, multicultural city-state.
For Konrad Adenauer, it was “humility” in 1960 that lifted Germany out of the ruins of National Socialism to restore a legitimate democracy.
For de Gaulle in 1965, it was his “will,” dating back to opposing the Nazis during their occupation of World War II, that declared himself the leader of Free France. Kissinger says De Gaulle created a political reality for France “through sheer force of will”.
LEI: Buck, you know that De Gaulle drove the US mad when he restored France’s relations with Beijing in 1964, forestalling Nixon’s strategic genius.
DESIRE: Good Lei.
LEI: Americans may be surprised to hear that many Chinese praise Nixon and Kissinger highly.
LEI: In China, people, especially those who don’t know or don’t understand the American political system or Watergate, see Nixon in a very positive light.
DESIRE: What about Kissinger?
LEI: Also positive. He is often referred to as “the Chinese people’s old friend,” “a Chinese hand,” or “Sinologist,” meaning respect and admiration.
DESIRE: What makes a good manager is not so easy to calculate.
LEI: Right Buck. Mao once commented on Stalin’s legacy – when everyone was beating him down – with the same 70/30 view Deng used to describe Mao.
LEI: Yes, 70% right, 30% wrong. One’s mistakes should not overshadow one’s merits.
DESIRE: You know, Lei, we have people here who believe Nixon is actually a crook who should have gone to jail and Kissinger is a war criminal.
LEI: That might be a big cultural difference between us, Buck. Americans tend to see things as either black or white when we Chinese take a more nuanced view, be it evaluating executives or anything else.
DESIRE: Fifty shades of red, right?
LEI: My guess is the attribute “balance” in the context of Nixon’s strategy at the time of driving a wedge between China and the Soviet Union and bringing China closer to the US
DESIRE: Right, although Nixon’s profile was by far the longest. Kissinger, who lauds Nixon for smoothing out 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: “The story will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.”
DESIRE: Ha! At 99, you probably only have that many years left to put your legacy in order.
LEI: It’s a bit scary, don’t you think, that Kissinger couldn’t find a 21st century leader to profile.
DESIRE: 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 mend relations with Iran.
LEI: Who is Brzezinski?
DESIRE: He was a Democratic rival to Kissinger in the LBJ and Carter administrations.
LEI: What did he say?
DESIRE: The US can be an enemy of Russia and the US can be an enemy of China – just not at the same time if we want a stable world order.
LEI: Got that right.
DESIRE: Brzezinski’s book The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives made this chilling prediction:
“The most potentially dangerous scenario would be a grand coalition of China, Russia and perhaps Iran, an ‘anti-hegemonic’ coalition united not by ideology but by complementary grievances.”
LEI: It looks like the world needs all the books on leadership it can get.
About the authors: Buck Ryan, Professor of Journalism at the University of Kentucky, and Lei Jiao, Lei Jiao, Lecturer in English at Wuhan University of Technology, Hubei Province, China, collaborate on articles to promote cross-cultural understanding. You can read her latest romp on emojis (“Wait, what’s that word I’m looking for? I got it now, the perfect feeling to finish my sentence.”) here: