4 very powerful friends: Lee Kuan Yew, Helmut Schmidt, Henry Kissinger, George Shultz

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 in Japan in 1983.
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 in Japan in 1983. PHOTO: ST FILE

Helmut Schmidt, Lee Kuan Yew, Henry Kissinger, George Shultz are slowly saying farewell 40 years on

This article was first published in The Straits Times on July 21, 2012

Once they were powerful. Dreaded. Admired by many, hated by some. Their lives are coming to an end. Yet, there is still one story to tell, the story of a friendship.

It is about four men who cannot be more unemotional.

Helmut Schmidt, Lee Kuan Yew, Henry Kissinger and George Shultz: cool, if not cold, power-hungry politicians.

Yet, for more than 40 years, their friendship has been close, almost intimate. Now they are slowly saying their farewells to each other.

Schmidt wanted to meet Lee, the founding prime minister of the Asian metropolis, for the last time.

He has not looked forward to a trip for a long time as much as this one to see 'Harry', how Lee has been called among his friends since he was a student at Cambridge in England. From Singapore, Schmidt will be travelling to China for five days, also a long-cherished wish.

Schmidt is 93. Who would still go on a 15-hour trip from chilly Hamburg to hot and humid Singapore at that age? In March, his doctors gave the green light: The thrombosis he is suffering from does not prevent him from flying.

Lee, 89 years old, wrote to him to say how happy he was about the visit. Also, that his friend would need some rest after arrival, at least one night, to overcome the jet lag. The next evening, he would invite him to dinner.

Afterwards, they want to sit down together on three afternoons, to talk with each other. About China, America, Europe - the big picture, the way they always used to do.

A book shall be produced, a collection of their conversations on the world's situation. Neither would accept anything less.

And then the conversation begins very softly. 'My wife passed away and left me at the age of 91,' says Schmidt. 'Loki died at 91?' - 'Yes, it was a big loss. Must be the same for you.' - 'Yes, it creates a deep hole in our life; nothing can fill it.'

Three weeks before Loki Schmidt's death, at the beginning of October 2010, Lee's wife Choo died.

As students at Cambridge, the two Lees stood out intellectually. Driven by ambition, they returned to Singapore. Lee established an educational dictatorship there which, despite all its successes, was feared.

Lee could be merciless. He persecuted political opponents, sent them to their financial ruin with lawsuits, gagged the press.

But when his seriously ill wife had been bound to bed unable to talk or move for more than two years, he came to sit next to her and read to her every night. He wanted her to die in peace. They were married for 64 years.

'We were married for 68,' says Schmidt. 'We had hoped to stay together for 70 years,' he says. 'Yeah,' sighs Lee with a hoarse voice. 'Yeah.'

Schmidt is sitting in a wheelchair on Lee's right; he can hear only with his left ear. Lee is sitting upright. He is wearing a dark blue Chinese silk jacket, and with his almost bald head, he appears like an aloof Beijing mandarin.

Lee formulates articulately, in Oxford English full of nuances. In front of him stands a glass of hot water, but he does not take even one sip during the conversation.

Schmidt is not allowed to smoke for hours, a torture to him. Lee, in the past a heavy smoker himself, is now allergic to cigarette smoke.

Once, absorbed in thought, Schmidt reaches into the left pocket of his jacket, pulls out a box of cigarettes, lights a Reyno. Lee is going stiff, not saying anything, just looking at Schmidt, who is suddenly startled: Where is the ashtray? There is none.

He hesitates and flings the cigarette with verve into a deep coffee cup. Great hilarity!

'For me, this is a sentimental journey,' Schmidt says, picking up the thread again. He had been in Singapore for the first time in 1958 or 1959, had stayed at the famous Raffles Hotel back then. 'The old colonial officers pretended to drink tea but drank whisky instead!'

Schmidt abruptly switches to politics, wants to know when Lee met Deng Xiaoping for the first time. It was in 1978, Lee replies, two years after the death of Mao Zedong, when Vice-Premier Deng began the economic transformation of the giant country.

Lee believes that Singapore was Deng's example. A free market and a strong government - that's what he learnt from Singapore.

It was also in 1978 that Schmidt and Lee met for the first time. Lee does not recall their first meeting. Schmidt's recollection of that day is more vivid. He had come from Japan and had stopped in Singapore on the way back, Schmidt says. Lee showed Loki the Botanic Gardens, and she was very impressed.

Mr Olaf Ihlau, correspondent of Suddeutsche Zeitung at the time, wrote about Lee's and Schmidt's first meeting: 'Both politicians are very alike. They are men of action and pragmatists, experts on economic matters and are against ideological reveries.

'Both are of great intelligence prone to impatience, and find it difficult to control their sense of superiority. The head of the South-east Asian island of prosperity has stopped appearing at press conferences a long time ago, where he had to answer possibly annoying questions.

'Lee considers journalists to be 'crackpots'. Another stance that is probably not that far removed from Helmut Schmidt's.'

Back in those years, nobody, not even the crackpots, could deny that Singapore was blossoming. After separating from Malaysia, Lee was pushing the former outpost of the British Empire with an iron hand into modern times.

George Shultz also became interested in the South-east Asian economic miracle. On his way to an Asian summit meeting, America's then Treasury Secretary stopped in Singapore in 1972.

Forty years later, Shultz talks about this visit while we are sitting at the Adlon Hotel in Berlin.

It is May 24, and later that evening, he will receive the Henry Kissinger Award of the American Academy. Kissinger is also in town. And so is Schmidt, who will deliver the laudatory speech for Shultz.

One is missing. Lee was not able to join them last autumn, when Schmidt, Shultz and Kissinger met in New York.

Shultz remembers how both Lees proudly showed him their city, and how he told Kissinger about it after his return. 'It is very rewarding to talk to Lee, I said to Henry, who already knew him. We understand each other.'

Shultz is the great organiser; he was the one who brought all four together for the first time. That was in 1982.

Schmidt was still Federal Chancellor of Germany, and Shultz was just named Secretary of State by Ronald Reagan.

Shultz brought Schmidt along as his guest to 'Bohemian Grove', a kind of summer camp for America's economic and political elite in California, with lots of drinking, bawdy jokes, and little talk about politics and business.

Kissinger invited Lee, Shultz says. After the camp, they drove to Shultz's house on the campus of Stanford University for lunch. 'All four of us sat around my kitchen table and talked for two, three hours, until my wife and Choo (Mrs Lee) asked us to get up so they could prepare lunch. I was thinking to myself: What a great lesson for a new secretary of state!'

Lee remembers how Schmidt sat down at the piano and 'professionally played classical pieces without any sheet music'. The four were smitten with each other. This was the beginning of a friendship that still lasts today.

At that point, Schmidt and Shultz had already known each other for 10 years. They met at the 'Library Group' in 1972. In the wake of the annual meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), he wanted to meet the most important finance ministers in Washington, Shultz recalls.

'Of course, Helmut was one of them.' He invited Schmidt, France's Valery Giscard d'Estaing, Britain's Tony Barber, and, later, Japan's Takeo Fukuda to a discussion over lunch.

'I told the President about this. Nixon said: Good idea! Why don't you add some style to the meeting and hold it at the White House? So we went to the library of the White House - a wonderful room. Great food! And it worked.

'We met again, we could talk on the phone, and it all led to mutual trust. Somebody then suggested to call our circle the 'Library Group'.'

And it would become even more. During the meetings at the library of the White House, the idea of the Group of Seven summits was born.

Of course, Kissinger and Shultz had known of each other before. Both had a career at university. Kissinger at Harvard, and Shultz just a couple of kilometres away at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). One is a historian and political scientist; the other an economist. 'I didn't know him personally,' Shultz says, 'but I knew of him.' 'Because what he said had a high public profile.'

Richard Nixon brought the two of them together. Kissinger became National Security Adviser to the President, and later Secretary of State. Shultz was Secretary of Labour, then Treasury Secretary.

Have they ever been rivals?

'No,' Shultz says. They complemented each other. He, for instance, provided a study about the American dependence on oil imports, Shultz adds, while Kissinger was thinking about the strategic implications.

Even after their time under Nixon, they remained in touch. When Shultz himself became Secretary of State, he sought the advice of his friend and predecessor.

In old age, both Republicans have lent their authority to an astounding nuclear disarmament initiative: 'Global Zero' - total nuclear disarmament!

However, Schmidt does see some differences between the two. 'Shultz is convinced about the need for nuclear disarmament; Henry is more reserved.' With regard to nuclear matters, Kissinger is 'the most rational and realistic'. 'He exaggerates realism a bit, as I see it.' And Schmidt's own view? 'Almost entirely on Shultz's side.'

Why is there this surprising change of mind on nuclear policy matters by the former nuclear strategists? 'It was not a sudden change,' Schmidt explains. 'It was a slow development. I have always considered nuclear rearmament to be exaggerated.'

And nevertheless: The change of mind cannot be denied. And there are good reasons for this.

The former Cold Warriors had realised that a 'balance of terror' will only succeed between the high performance military of developed industrial nations, and that their cold instrumental rationality was only able to keep the peace through a stroke of luck.

They believe that in these times of unpredictable nations such as Iran and North Korea, or even terrorist groups striving for the bomb, it is no longer possible to rely on the stability of mutual deterrence.

Of course there are differences between the four when it comes to political issues. 'A great point of disagreement: Possibly opposed to Lee and definitely to Henry, I consider the American maritime nuclear deployment towards China to be quite exaggerated,' says Schmidt.

China! All four of them take a passionate interest in China's rise to its former greatness. Naturally, Schmidt has read Kissinger's new book On China. 'Something is missing. Too much Kissinger, too little China. The book could be called 'On Henry'! Overall, however, it displays great respect towards Chinese civilisation. Germans often mix up civilisation and culture!'

Kissinger and Schmidt first met at 1950s end. Where and how exactly - at Harvard or at the America House in Hamburg - is disputed between the two.

Kissinger likes to tell the story about how he, before their first meeting, confused Schmidt, introduced to him as an 'up-and-coming politician', with Carlo Schmid, one of the fathers of the German Basic Law. 'This was the more important German I knew.'

More than half a century has passed since then, and the dialogue between the two has never stopped. Schmidt explains that they obviously did not always agree when they were still both in office, Schmidt as Federal Chancellor, and Kissinger as National Security Adviser and Secretary of State.

During the East-West negotiations in the 1970s, for instance, 'Kissinger was much more sceptical about the closing meeting in Helsinki than me and his boss, Jerry Ford'. They also had opposing views when it came to the Vietnam War: 'He wanted to end the war, but much too slow. I wanted to speed it up.'

Were Chile and Cambodia an issue between the two, the overthrow of Allende by Pinochet and the bombardment of Vietnam's neutral neighbour by the Americans? 'Neither Cambodia nor Chile played a big role between us,' Schmidt replies, 'while I have always assumed, but never knew, that Henry was burdened.'

What lies at the core of this friendship?

'Human dependability,' Kissinger replies. 'I know when Helmut needs to talk, even when he would never ask for it. I know, on the other hand, that he would be there if I needed him.'

However, don't they say that friendships cannot exist in politics, we ask Helmut Schmidt.

'Yes, this is a mistake!' he grumbles. 'These four people can be sure that one of them does not say anything but what he considers to be his truth.'

'What he considers to be his truth,' Schmidt repeats. 'What you say in public may differ in some cases.'

Isn't there more: Are they not all typical political realists? Well, Schmidt says, 'more influenced by realism than by ideology, that is true for all four of us'. But he does not like the term political realist. 'We would have never used such a term! Why should we stick a label on us?'

Realists and internationalists at the same time. 'We do not think nationally when it comes to issues that affect all of us,' says Kissinger. 'It's about real global issues after all, so we discuss them from a global perspective.' Schmidt calls Kissinger, the Jew who fled Germany with his family in 1938, an 'American global citizen'.

'I have many friends,' Kissinger continues, 'but I would say that I always end up with these four. Most people do not even know this group exists. In this sense, it's exclusive.'

Our meeting in the afternoon before the award ceremony is short. Kissinger wants to go over to Helmut Schmidt's office next to the Reichstag. But he wants to know one more thing before he leaves: What did Lee say when we met him in Singapore? What does he think about the friendship of the four?

Lee also talked about trust and added: 'Our minds work in similar ways.' He talks on the phone with Kissinger at least once every two months, he said. They mostly talk about China or about other current major political issues. And one other thing: 'Henry called to console me when my wife Choo passed away.' This touched him.

Yes, says Kissinger: 'I called him almost every day back then.' Because in Lee's culture, it is very difficult to express personal grief, he adds. Was he able to console his friend? 'I think, he was consoled by being able to talk about Choo - so yes.'

At the end of life, when the final balance sheet is drawn up, one thing remains: friendship, partnership, love. 'If my former wife was still alive, we would be married for almost 70 years now,' George Shultz says. She died 16 years ago from cancer. The (former) husband of his current wife Charlotte also died from cancer. 'So we got married,' says Shultz.

A radiant Charlotte Shultz enters the room during our meeting in Berlin. She was Head of Protocol of California under Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The wives, says Helmut Schmidt, played 'a certain role' in the friendship of the four. Nancy Kissinger is 'a politically interested and intelligent woman who is reserved when expressing her views'. 'The second Mrs Shultz likes to talk, as she is full of impulses.'

The atmosphere is completely different when the wives are present, but they are also talking politics. What else are they talking about? 'About age, old age dementia, about the world, and about Dear God!'

Just as last year in New York. They met at the Waldorf Astoria. 'There were two different meetings,' says Helmut Schmidt. 'One for several hours with just Shultz, Kissinger, and Schmidt. And then a dinner with all three and the two wives - Mrs Shultz and Nancy.' It was his trip to say goodbye to America. Schmidt happily takes another drag from his cigarette: 'But I'm still alive!'

Another trip to America? 'No!' And if a friend needs him? 'I wouldn't rule it out completely, but I have no plans to do so.' He is determined to not make any more big trips. 'Within Europe - that is something else. Or Moscow, that is also something else.'

So Moscow would be tempting? 'Yes.' Are there any plans? 'No, nothing is planned.'

How to go about plans when you are getting older? - This is what we ask Kissinger. 'You have to choose. The things you can do are limited. So you should be doing things that are important and rewarding. Therefore, each one of our meetings is something special.'

Of course, it is important that we see each other, Kissinger adds. 'But there is nothing left we need to tell each other. Nothing will remain unfulfilled because of it. Nevertheless, the loss will be great when one of us passes.'

The critical interest in each other is still alive, the constant curiosity. George Shultz says: 'Every once in a while, Helmut sends me one of his speeches. I always read it very thoroughly. And then I read it again.

'It usually includes some subtleties you have to search for. He is a careful thinker. But he knows how to think big. Most people say utter nonsense when they are thinking big. When Helmut thinks big, it has meaning.'

And so they continue working. And they impress the people around them with their presence and creative power. At this warm evening in May in Berlin, they are sitting next to each other on the podium of the 'Weltsaal' (World Room) of the Federal Foreign Office: George Shultz, 91, Helmut Schmidt, 93, and Henry Kissinger, 89. There is not one person in the room who can withdraw from this touching moment.

All three have made history. They comfortably scan the rows in front of them: Shultz, sitting proud and straight with a crimson bow tie; Kissinger, slumped and with a wavering gaze; and between the two, Schmidt in his wheelchair, his hands without cigarettes on his lap.

They are well aware of their aura, and enjoy it with the kind of ironic distance of people who have seen too much to take every praise seriously. And who, nevertheless, always enjoy hearing it! You can put on a grim expression. Or grumble a bit. There is nothing that delights people more.

Schmidt, who delivers the laudatory speech for awardee Shultz, remembers Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, George Kennan, George Marshall, Eisenhower, and Kennedy. 'George, you are one of the American leaders that established the friendship with the Germans - after two world wars, in which we Germans were your enemies. And for this, I will forever be your thankful friend.'

The brief moment together in an adjoining room before the award ceremony is more important to the three than the actual event itself. This is what they were looking forward to. This is why they have travelled from Hamburg, New York, and San Francisco.

And this is why Schmidt flew to Singapore one last time.

'This is my last visit to this part of the world,' he said at the end of the third day. 'All the best to you, Harry.' - 'For you too,' Lee replies, and his voice is coarse. 'It was an honour to have known you.' They lean towards each other and hug. Very carefully.

For a moment everything is quiet in the room. Then Schmidt calls for his bodyguards. 'Wheel me out of here!'

The writer is the Chief International Correspondent of the German weekly Die Zeit. The article first appeared in German in the July 5, 2012 edition of Zeit Magazin, the magazine supplement of Die Zeit.