The U.S. should look to Lee Kuan Yew for guidance on China, the authors write. | AP Photo
Most everyone in Washington has an opinion about the rise of Chinese power and what the U.S. should do about it. Strongly held convictions range from confronting to containing to hedging to accommodating. As is often true on the Potomac, too few ask what others more qualified to have thoughtful views think about the issue.
Consider the toughest questions about the rise of China, the future of Asia and the impact of developments there on the U.S. Who is most qualified to have informed, insightful answers?
For people in the know, the unanimous first choice is: Lee Kuan Yew.
Founding father of modern Singapore and its prime minister from 1959 to 1990, Lee Kuan Yew has served as mentor to every Chinese leader from Deng Xiaoping to Xi Jinping and as counselor to every American president from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama. He led a small, poor, corrupt port city-state to first-world status in a single generation and knows a lot about governance. Having guided a small nation whose survival depends on staying alert and agile in adjusting to the actions of big neighbors, he has developed a well-deserved reputation as “the man who saw tomorrow.”
As Henry Kissinger says in the foreword to our new book, “Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World”: “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.”
China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, calls Lee “our senior who has our respect.”
President Obama refers to him as a “legendary figure of Asia in the 20th and 21st centuries.”
For former Prime Minister Tony Blair, he is “the smartest leader I ever met.”
Another formidable former prime minister of the United Kingdom, Margaret Thatcher, praises “his way of penetrating the fog of propaganda and expressing with unique clarity the issues of our time and the way to tackle them.”
Lee “has the most modern and the most strategic view of anyone I have met,” according to former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
Over the past 18 months, we have been privileged to put to Lee the questions we think Americans will find most important. His direct, candid answers summarize his strategic insights about why China is determined to displace the U.S. as the world’s pre-eminent power, how it plans to do so, and how he thinks the U.S. should respond. Lee does not agree with those who believe that the U.S. is in systemic decline. Indeed, he is bullish on America’s “can-do culture,” despite his worries about our sclerotic political system. But America “cannot stop China’s rise,” so it must try to find some way to share leadership of the 21st century.
Americans frustrated with a do-nothing Congress will find his perspective on governance particularly penetrating.
“A successful democratic society,” Lee Kuan Yew says, requires two things: a constantly active, “interested and vigilant electorate” and “the ablest, the toughest and most dedicated of leaders.”
In his view, the U.S. today deserves failing marks on both fronts.
More controversially for Americans, Lee challenges prevailing Western views that civilization is marching toward Western-style democracy. Pakistan and the Philippines are reminders that effective governance is not assured “by just setting up a democratic constitution.” For him, the test of governance is: “Does it work?” “The millions of dispossessed in Asia,” he says, “care not and know not of theory. They want a better life.”
Asked whom he admires, he names
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.”
While he expresses little interest in how he will be remembered, we are confident that history will count him among the grand masters of strategy.
We especially commend his penetrating thoughts to Secretary of State John Kerry’s new team and to their colleagues at the White House and the Pentagon.
Graham Allison is director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs; Robert D. Blackwill is Henry A. Kissinger senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. They are co-authors of “Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World,” published Feb. 1 by MIT Press.