When I was in Junior College, I had the rare opportunity to go to Kurayoshi, Japan to attend a student conference. It was an exciting opportunity, but I was also aware that it was a rather heavy responsibility. After all, I was not just representing myself, nor my school, but my tiny, oft-forgotten country. As I confirmed during the trip, it was the first time that many of the Korean or Japanese students there had ever interacted with a Singaporean. For some students, it is entirely possible that it was also their last. This is because, despite its substantial influence, Singapore remains a community of small headcount. This is even more true of the Singaporean diplomatic and strategic community. Hence, on those rare occasions that a Singaporean diplomat, past or present, makes a controversial comment, people listen. And on those rare occasions that former diplomatic heads squabble and debate about strategy, principles and concepts, people listen especially closely, if for nothing else but the remarkable spectacle of intellectual sparring.
In 2017, such a spar, or perhaps a spat, occurred. Kishore Mahbubani, a former Singaporean diplomat, used the then-ongoing Qatar-GCC conflict to argue that small states should act as small states to ensure their prosperity and survival. He explicitly framed this lesson as instructive for Singapore. Four years later, we’ll revisit the debate that occurred around that article, with newly available hindsight on what actually ended up happening in the Qatar-GCC conflict.
In the article, Mahbubani reacted to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC, an organization of Gulf States including Saudi Arabia and the UAE) decision to blockade Qatar. This decision stemmed from among other things, Qatar maintaining its Al Jazeera network (which was often critical of fellow GCC members and their American partners) and not fully committing towards containing Iran. As part of his commentary, Mahbubani noted the importance of mutlilateral organizations such as ASEAN and the UN – an uncontroversial point though there was a surprising lack of comparison with Qatar’s own regional organizations of the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council.
However, the article’s main point rested on small states and how they should act. Mahbubani believed that Qatar’s fundamental error was to have acted without considering its power position as a “small state”. He saw its regional difficulties as a product of its hubris and, turning to Singapore, had the following advice for small states:
What’s the first thing we should do? Exercise discretion. We should be very restrained in commenting on matters involving great powers.
Hence, it would have been wiser to be more circumspect on the judgment of an international tribunal on the arbitration which the Philippines instituted against China concerning the South China Sea dispute, especially since the Philippines, which was involved in the case, did not want to press it.
When I hear some of our official representatives say that we should take a “consistent and principled” stand on geopolitical issues, I am tempted to remind them that consistency and principle are important, but cannot be the only traits that define our diplomacy. And there is a season for everything. The best time to speak up for our principles is not necessarily in the heat of a row between bigger powers.
To this, multiple prominent Singaporean voices made their opposition known. Writing to the Straits Times, Ambassador-at-Large Ong Keng Yong noted the importance of national interests, arguing that there can be circumstances where “there is no choice but to stand up” and that failure to do so would invite even more foreign aggression. Then, he leveraged his background within Singapore’s multilateral diplomatic scene to highlight the benefits Singapore gained from norms that punished big state aggression, and hence the importance of Singapore’s role in promoting and strengthening those norms. He noted this included speaking up and acting in ways that Great Powers might find inconvenient, or might cost Singapore in the short term, but was ultimately important in building the international norms that would safeguard Singapore’s long term security.
It was Bilahari Kausikan’s Facebook response, however, that grabbed the most attention. Honing in on the concept of respect, Kausikan argued that standing up for national interests could earn Singapore political capital and bargaining chips to use with, or against, Great Powers even without the international system of norms that Ambassador Ong described. He leveraged the case study of former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s success in dealing with Great Powers, which Mahbubani had introduced but claimed was anomalous, to demonstrate this concept. To Kausikan, “the Chinese respected [Lee] and that is why he later had a good relationship with them.” He then drew out a wide range of professional anecdotes and historical case studies, citing Foreign Minister George Yeo’s refusal to cave to Chinese pressure in 2010, Foreign Minister S Dhanabalan’s refusal to cave to American demands regarding Cambodia in 1981 and Lee Kuan Yew’s refusal to grant Indonesian terrorists clemency despite requests from Jakarta. Jumping on the bandwagon, Minister K Shanmugam applauded Kausikan’s remarks and shared some anecdotes from his own experience as a foreign policy practitioner.
In sum, the different responses mostly attempted to demonstrate how Mahbubani’s conceptual takeaway from the Qatar episode, that small states should act like small states, simply was not the case for Singapore historically and should not be the approach for Singapore’s future. But perhaps, what is more significant are the conceptual holes within this takeaway itself, which this essay will explore.
What makes a state small?
Interestingly, throughout the entire controversy, there was never a systematic examination of what makes states small or big. Ambassador Ong did hint at an interrogation of what makes states big or small, instead settling for the conclusion that Singapore, by virtue of its landmass and involvement in “small state” groupings, was small.
This lack of definitions is all too fatal for Mahbubani’s argument. In making prescriptions for “big states” and “small states”, Mahbubani makes the implicit assertion that the sizes of states are inherent. The metrics of state power, or otherwise effective “size” are not necessarily obvious at all. For instance, Qatar might be smaller in population and size than Iraq or Syria, but it is certainly larger in forms of soft power, such as its al Jazeera network, which broadcasts to a global audience, as well as its basic stability that enables it to conduct all forms of power projection.
Similarly, Singapore might be small in terms of land size, but it is certainly the largest state in terms of airpower in Southeast Asia, with both quantitative and qualitative superiority to every other regional state, including Indonesia and Malaysia combined. North Korea has a substantial military capacity with its nuclear warheads, but a tiny economy. Vatican City could be considered by some to command one of the largest communities in the world, and it is undoubtedly minuscule, barely exceeding a kilometre at its greatest length. Is Vatican City small? Is North Korea small?
It is because of this complexity that weighing and calculating the effective size and power proportion of countries is an immensely subjective practice. This is also why more ambitious “power-measuring” projects like the Lowy Institute’s Asia Power Index allows users to use sliders to adjust how much each measure of power is weighted in the calculation of the overall regional power rankings. For instance, people who value military capabilities more than cultural influence or economic capabilities can make military capabilities account for 80% of the overall calculation while leaving 20% as an aggregate of other measures. This level of calculation can be discretely customized down to deciding whether the possession of specific weapons systems, overall defence spending or defence networks with other states matter more.
Indeed, it is worth noting that more geographic or demographic size can surprisingly result in less power. Large landmasses and extended borders can make states more vulnerable and contested, within and without. This is one reason why Israel withdrew from the Sinai Peninsula, and why historical hegemons like Rome did not end up expanding everywhere forever. Large populations can also lead to administrative breakdowns or severe unemployment, youth radicalization and subsequent instability. This is a reason why many developing countries, most famously China, use large scale birth control and population control measures. Large resource pools can also be highly problematic – as explored by the “resource curse” literature in economics, political science and sociology.
These measures also change according to variations in time and space. A powerful French or German army might be a tremendous component of power within continental Europe, but not so much across the channel in the UK. Similarly, having a larger population might have near-guaranteed military domination two centuries ago, but certainly does not anymore, as evidenced by Israeli’s half-century of regional military pre-eminence amidst much more populous Arab powers.
So, it is not so easy to draw conclusions on the relative size of states, which makes Mahbubani’s argument dead on arrival. After all, while there are some clearly holistically small countries such as Palau, Bhutan or Laos, those are clearly not the case studies he wants his grand “geopolitical rules” to apply to.
What does acting small or big even mean?
But for the sake of argument, one can assume that small states do exist. Maybe one can consider Denmark, Nepal or Latvia. How should these powers act? Mahbubani has the following instructions, “Exercise discretion. We should be very restrained in commenting on matters involving great powers.”
However, this seems a Herculean task. By virtue of Great Powers being Great Powers, all matters will sooner or later become “matters involving great powers”. Choosing whose pineapple to buy, whether to maintain sovereignty within one’s own fishing waters, which criminal heiresses to put under house arrest – these are all matters that could bring great offence to at least one great imperial capital. Some of China’s “14 Grievances” with Australia included “outrageous condemnation of [the CCP] by [Australian] MPs” and “unfriendly or antagonistic reports on China by media”. One wonders if Mahbubani is advocating for totalitarian Quisling police states that muzzle politicians and press in order to appease Great Powers.
In addition, sometimes choosing to act “small” and accord respect to one Great Power might incense other Great Powers. Certainly, for Qatar, following the GCC line on combating Iranian influence might have resulted in becoming the target of Iranian, Hezbollah or Houthi military threats similar to how Saudi Arabia itself has been targeted and, in 2019, hit by missile fire. For Singapore today, decisions that please Beijing, such as halting military exercises in Taiwan or Australia, might not be well-regarded by Washington DC or Tokyo. Acting small to one Great Power might constitute acting big to another.
But perhaps, if Mahbubani could not explain what small states should do, then one could draw conclusions based on what he claims Qatar did wrong, and how those actions led to its current predicament. Unfortunately, another argumentative hole is exposed here – he doesn’t actually say what Qatar did or didn’t do to directly cause its predicament. Mahbubani does list some things that he viewed as errors from Qatar. These include sanctioning Syria in 2011 and bombing it in 2014, as part of broader coalitions. However, as he notes, “The current blowback against Qatar is not a result of its interference in Syria. Ironically, it was actually working on the same side as Saudi Arabia and the UAE when it intervened in Syria.” He claimed that the Syria example is a symptom of wider problems, “part of a larger pattern of behaviour where Qatar believed that its mounds of money and its close relations with the US would protect it from consequences.” This was a rather unhelpful comment, akin to saying that the one reason someone got a math problem wrong is because they had the wrong attitude towards math – very convenient for moralizing and preaching, but too floaty to rebut and certainly inappropriate advice for a teacher to give.
So, then we circle back to the same question – how should small states act? To resolve this question it is perhaps important to examine big states. How did the Great Powers of today become Great Powers? Was there always Germany, China and the United States? Clearly not. Before the fifty United States, there were a meagre thirteen colonies alongside Spanish and French presences. Before a coherent Chinese Empire, there was the state of Qin alongside Zhou, Chu and other states and tribal confederations. Before Germany, Brandenburg faced off states like Bavaria, Bohemia and Saxony. As a more recent example, before the present-day European Union, there were a medley of warring states up till 1945 or arguably 1989. These historically small states did not become their present large forms through constant and reckless jingoism, intervention and so-called Great State behaviour. However, they definitely did not attain their position through always erring towards prudence, contentment or sycophancy either. Instead, they came from a wide range of strategies.
These states, at least relatively successful in their resilience and present socioeconomic status, demonstrate that the path towards power and prosperity does not come from the pithy, static “eternal rules of geopolitics” that Mahbubani proposes, but evolving, dynamic strategies with conditions for strategic success or failure, and fresh strategies ready to replace failing ones. As unsatisfying as it may be, the lesson is that often there is no easy lesson – as Machiavelli said, “Fortresses are useful or not according to circumstances.”
As for Mahbubani’s easy way out, it is true that accommodation can often be the surest path to peace. Surrender often brings an end to the fighting. However, those forms of peace are not often satisfying to the national interest, popular will or state power. More serious strategists might consider puzzling over how to build strategies that maximize techniques and resources to attain national interests, rather than advocating for more narrow national interests to make their job easier.
So how did Qatar fare anyway?
Of course, theory is theory. What about the case study that sparked off this whole discussion? Did Qatar end up surrounded and dismantled, shanked by its neighbours for its hubris in defying the sacred rules of geopolitics? Mahbubani certainly believed that Qatar was experiencing some suffering, vitally because, in his words, “as much as 40 per cent of its food comes over the Saudi border”. So did the people of Qatar end up emaciated and undernourished, shaking their fists to the sky, bemoaning the hubris of their government?
Apparently, not. Qatar remains at the end of the day, largely fine and possibly strengthened. Its domestic food situation, once that source of great anxiety, has been largely resolved. From having relied on imports for 72% of its dairy supply, Qatar achieved self-sufficiency in 2019 and has become a net dairy exporter. It expanded its vegetable production and also built a new $7.4 billion port to handle trade from outside the GCC. More broadly, it plans to achieve 50% self-sufficiency for food overall, a remarkable goal that its Gulf neighbours and other states like Singapore are watching carefully. In this case, geopolitical stress spurred growth and innovation, not collapse – particularly important in a region where resource wealth often entrenches complacency and discourages experimentation. Hence, today’s Qatar looks more like an inspirational story than a cautionary tale.
This growth has not been without cost – importing 18,000 Holstein cows was not cheap and continues to tax the already strained water supply. In particular, growing the fodder necessary to feed Qatari farm animals already accounts for half of groundwater usage. In response, new regulatory frameworks and technical solutions are being brainstormed and drafted, such as regional plans to replace groundwater with treated sewage water for fodder production use by 2025. But still, not a bad showing from Doha. Mahbubani chided Qatar for believing “that its mounds of money and its close relations with the US would protect it from consequences.” What appears to have happened is that Qatar’s mounds of money and close relations with the US have protected it from the consequences.
Conclusion: A Note on Tone
Above all, I learnt from them that a small state needs to be truly Machiavellian in international affairs. Being ethical and principled are important in diplomacy. We should be viewed as credible and trustworthy negotiators. But it is an undeniable “hard truth” of geopolitics that sometimes, principle and ethics must take a back seat to the pragmatic path of prudence.
Throughout the article, Mahbubani attempted to frame his argument as a daring proposition in the war between principles vs strategy, the Romantic vs the Machivallean, Sweet Idealism vs the Cold Hard Truth. To this end, he proclaimed that his arguments were on the side of the “truly Machiavellian”, and harped on the need to respect the “undeniable ‘hard truth’ of geopolitics that sometimes, principle and ethics must take a back seat to the pragmatic path of prudence.” In doing so, he attempted to subtly take the banner of strategy for himself, while inserting a strange sort of dogmatism in that strategic discourse with his absolutist language about “hard truths” – which by implication could not be reasonably challenged or debated. One might have guessed that he was pre-empting a response from international aid organizations or pacifist activists.
However, it became clear from the responses he received that it was a battle of strategy vs strategy, a vigorous discourse over which particular geopolitical approach best achieved security, prosperity and power. His opponents were not moralists but rather fellow members of the Singaporean diplomatic, strategic and academic communities who could easily match him in hard-nosed pragmatism, but saw error in superpower sycophantry.
Mahbubani proceeds in his current academic journey, in a position perhaps not quite as prestigious as that which he held when he first made the article. As he continues, it might prove prudent and productive to avoid caricaturing his intellectual opposition and people with whom he disagrees. Unfortunately, this does not seem likely when one observes how he described present US policy towards China in a 2021 interview with PRC tabloid, Global Times:
Therefore, the real problem in Washington, DC today is that there are no more Henry Kissinger-type figures. Instead you have simplistic thinking.
Simplistic thinking indeed.
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