LRCCS Spotlight: Kenneth Lieberthal

Kenneth Lieberthal   Professor Emeritus

Kenneth Lieberthal

Professor Emeritus

In this edition of the LRCCS Spotlight, I sat down with Professor Emeritus Kenneth Lieberthal, former LRCCS director, Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, and Senior Director for Asia on the U.S. National Security Council, to name just a few of his distinguished titles.  In the interview, Professor Lieberthal talks about how he initially got involved in Chinese Studies, his time working for President Clinton, and his vision for the future of our Center.

Interview conducted and edited by Eric Couillard

Couillard: How did you initially get interested in China?

Prof Lieberthal: By accident.  I studied Russian in high school and college, including doing a college major that focused on Russian/Soviet history, culture, economics, and politics.  I then enrolled at Columbia for a Ph.D. in political science.  

I prioritized Columbia because it had one of the best Russian Institutes in the country. But when I met with my advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski (who went on to become President Carter’s National Security Advisor), before classes started, he said, and I’ll never forget this, “Well Mr. Lieberthal, my advice to you is to not take any courses in the Russian Institute; you’ve already covered everything we have to offer.  You should do something else.”

As this was two days before the beginning of classes, I quickly reviewed the course catalogue to see what else looked interesting – and I spotted  one lecture course on the Chinese revolution.  I knew nothing about China, but I was interested in communist revolutions.  So I signed up for that class.  It was like stepping in quicksand, and I’ve been sinking ever since.  

Couillard: So that conversation with Professor Brzezinski was the catalyst that shifted everything.

Prof Lieberthal: Exactly.  Ironically, decades later, I moderated a panel that he was on in Washington, and afterwards I was chatting with him and I said, “I have to thank you for my being known as a China specialist here.”  He said, “What do you mean?”  So I reminded him of that conversation at Columbia in 1965, and he said, “You know, I have no recollection of that whatsoever.”

Couillard: Hah

Prof Lieberthal: That really struck me because it’s one of the things that’s really exciting about teaching and always worth remembering – that as a teacher that you have an opportunity to interact with young people when they are developing the interests that will shape their lives.  A number of times over the years I have seen students I had thirty, twenty, or even ten years ago, who commented to me that something I said, either in class or in conversation, changed their life.  But at the time it’s often hard to know what’s having a significant impact on whom.

Couillard: Do you think you’re more passionate about teaching, scholarly work, or policy work?

Prof Lieberthal: For many years I wasn’t passionate about policy.  I was very interested in research, writing, and teaching, and I quickly found that each contributed significantly to the others.  Research gave me a deeper understanding of what I was trying to teach.  It helped set my agenda and got me engaged in ways that went beyond what reading and teaching alone could do.  And writing was a tremendous discipline.  I found that could I get away with a lot of imprecision in speaking that I just couldn’t get away with in writing.  So I did not start writing a piece until I had figured out what I wanted to say.  And once I started writing, I would realize all the things I had not sufficiently figured out.

Writing is itself a great learning experience, and it carries over to teaching – not only in terms of what to communicate, but also the phraseology.  How you put things so that – ideally – someone with almost no background will understand what you’re saying, and a specialist in your field will still find what you’re saying interesting and valuable.  

Former LRCCS Director Ken Lieberthal speaking on the current state of the Chinese government's relations with the US at the 2017 UM Pan-Asia Alumni Reunion in Shanghai

Former LRCCS Director Ken Lieberthal speaking on the current state of the Chinese government's relations with the US at the 2017 UM Pan-Asia Alumni Reunion in Shanghai

Couillard: What about the policy side?  What brought you into that?

Prof Lieberthal: A variety of circumstances rather than any single event or opportunity. To the extent that any one individual proved critical in my becoming interested in the policy side, that was a former mentor and colleague of mine, Michel Oksenberg.  Mike became a central figure both at the UM and nationally in the development and ongoing evolution of major national efforts to understand and deal with China.  He was President Jimmy Carter’s chief China staff on the National Security Council and played a major role in the negotiation of full diplomatic relations between the US and China.  In the late 90s I was asked to become Senior Director for Asia on the National Security Council and special adviser to President Clinton for National Security Affairs – which frankly had a big impact on my life.

Couillard: What kind of a job was that?  Did that completely take over your life?

Prof Lieberthal: Oh yes.  And at that time (1998-2000), President Clinton saw major opportunities in foreign policy, and thus it was a great time to serve on the National Security Council (NSC).  For me, the job was totally consuming – 24/7.  I had a specially encrypted phone next to my bed, getting calls anytime of the night (which was not at all infrequent, given the roughly 12 hour time difference between Washington and Asia).  But I always saw it as a privilege.

Couillard: Did you get burnt out toward the end? Or were you still enjoying it?

Prof Lieberthal: I got worn out, but I wouldn’t say burnt out.  I was the second oldest person on the NSC staff when I served there – about 55.  It was somewhat a younger person’s game, in part because the work demands were so extreme.  We were always on call.  The advantage of the NSC is that you have very little bureaucracy – at least when I was there.  The total NSC staff then was about 100 people to cover the entire world.  It was a very flat hierarchy – there was one layer between NSC Senior Directors and the president.   The disadvantage was that we had almost no staff.  Things were coming at us a mile a minute, and errors could have very serious consequences.

Couillard: Were you a part of the administration during the Chinese embassy bombing in Yugoslavia?

Prof Lieberthal: I was.  It was physically and emotionally a horrendous time.  It came right after a huge project I was involved in that had completely consumed my life regarding China’s accession into the World Trade Organization.  In the aftermath of that, on my first night of rest, I was headed to a concert at the Kennedy Center with my wife – it was a Friday evening.  We were about to walk out the door, and I was saying to her, “This is the first time I’m going to get to relax for a little bit.”

Couillard: Uh-oh

Prof Lieberthal: And then my secure phone rang – “Dr. Lieberthal, we’ve got a situation here…” We do not have time to go over the developments that took place over the ensuing weeks, but it was one of the most intense and exhausting experiences of my life.

Dernberger Symposium (2015) left to right: Yuen Yuen Ang, Kenneth Lieberthal, Yasheng Huang, Thomas Rawski, Dwight Perkins, Mary Gallagher. Symposium photos by Peter Smith.

Dernberger Symposium (2015) left to right: Yuen Yuen Ang, Kenneth Lieberthal, Yasheng Huang, Thomas Rawski, Dwight Perkins, Mary Gallagher. Symposium photos by Peter Smith.

Couillard: That sounds terrible.  There’s so much more I’d like to know, but in the interest of time, I’d like to change the subject a bit.  One thing I’m really curious about hearing is what you’re up to now.

Prof Lieberthal: I’m doing a variety of things.  At the UM I am a member of the Provost’s Advisory Committee, I am on the board of the William-Davidson Institute, and I have tried to help raise funds for the China Center.  I also serve on a variety of Advisory Boards in China (of universities and think tanks in Beijing, Shanghai, and Kunshan), Singapore and the US, as well as on the editorial boards of five journals in the US, Europe, and Asia.  I also do some private sector consulting.  And I remain engaged in Washington, mostly in the think tank and NGO communities. 

Couillard: What’s your vision for the Lieberthal-Rogel Center for Chinese Studies?

Prof Lieberthal: The idea behind the UM China Center, from its inception in 1961, has been to bring together faculty from different disciplines who work primarily on China so that they can, through interacting, develop a better understanding of China and benefit from each other’s scholarship and broader efforts.  And to offer courses to prepare students to have a multidisciplinary understanding of China.  Over the years, the China Center has had two centers of gravity – one more focused on the social sciences, which had a large component of policy related activities in the 70s, 80s, and 90s; the other on the humanities.  

The Center now reaches out across the University in ways that in the 60s or 70s we never would have dreamed of.  Now, engagement with China is a reality across the University – whether it’s the School of Public Health, or Engineering, Medicine, Music – you name it, and they’re doing substantive work with individuals and institutions in China.  Within that context, the goal is to have the LRCCS be able to be a source of information and provide advice to programs across the University, help to provide a bridge to Chinese counterparts, and as always to try to train the next generation of top scholars, people in government, business, non-profits, and more.

Couillard: Last question, and it’s a big one - how do you think we should approach the understanding and study of China?


Prof Lieberthal: With an appreciation of the forces that shape China – its history, culture, political system, and major challenges. First, deep history: what are the intellectual, philosophical, and societal legacies of China’s deep history?  Second, modern history, especially the repercussions of the industrial revolution in the West that directly and indirectly caused the decline of the Qing Dynasty to lead not to the establishment of a new dynasty but instead to the disintegration of the dynastic system itself.  Third, how the political system actually works.  This includes not only political struggles at the very top but also how policies are developed, adopted, and implemented.   Mike Oksenberg and I wrote a book on this called Policy Making in China: Leadership, Structures, and Processes.  Finally, you have to understand the details of key substantive problems that the country confronts.

In other words, if you want to understand a major country, you’ve got to understand its deep past, you’ve got to understand its recent past, you’ve got to understand how the system actually works, and you have to understand the serious technical dimensions of the issues it’s grappling with.  The interplay of these fundamental factors inevitably profoundly affects any country’s goals, fears, and principles, and I believe the LRCCS can provide great value to the extent that it can communicate the importance of that set of factors and provide expertise on each of them.