Qatar: Big lessons from a small country
by Prof. Kishore Mahbubani*
Qatar’s experience reminds Singapore of the need for small states to behave like small states, and to cherish regional and international institutions.
As a long-time student of geopolitics (for over 46 years), I am rarely surprised by geopolitical developments. There is an almost inevitable logic to them.
Let me cite an example. Many Western observers reacted with shock and horror when Russia seized Crimea in violation of international law. Yet, this was an almost inevitable blowback from the reckless Western expansion of Nato onto Russia’s doorstep. Geopolitical follies have serious consequences.
Against this backdrop, one recent geopolitical development didn’t just surprise me. It shocked me. This was the decision of Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to break off diplomatic relations with Qatar.
They didn’t just break off relations. Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, UAE, the Maldives, Libya and Yemen have closed their airspace for landings and take-offs between their countries and Qatar. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and UAE have also closed all transport links by air, land and sea. This has caused some suffering for Qatar because as much as 40 per cent of its food comes over the Saudi border.
And why did they do this? The official explanation given in a statement by the state-run Saudi Press Agency was that Qatar was “dividing internal Saudi ranks, instigating against the State, infringing on its sovereignty, adopting various terrorist and sectarian groups aimed at destabilising the region, including the Muslim Brotherhood Group, Daesh (ISIS) and Al-Qaeda”.
My simple rule in analysing geopolitical developments is that it is never a black-and-white case. No one side is completely right and no other side is completely wrong. The reality is often messy. So I will not try to analyse the rights and wrongs of this Qatar development.
However, I would like to emphasise as strongly as I can that this Qatar episode holds many lessons for Singapore. We ignore them at our peril. There are at least three big lessons we should learn and take corrective actions to implement the learning.
Lesson No. 1: Small States Must Always Behave Like Small States.
This was one big mistake that Qatar made. Because it sits on mounds of money, it believed that it could act as a middle power and interfere in affairs beyond its borders.
I recall that I was truly shocked when Qatar decided to interfere in the affairs of Syria in 2011. It imposed sanctions on the regime of President Bashar al-Assad as part of the Arab League.
I was even more shocked when Qatar decided to join in a United States-led bombing mission against Syria in September 2014 (along with Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates). I told myself then that Qatar would pay a price some day for not acting prudently like a small state should.
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.
Still, this action was 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.
In so doing, Qatar ignored an eternal rule of geopolitics: small states must behave like small states. Why? The answer was given by the famous historian, Thucydides, when writing about the war between Athens and Sparta: “Right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”
When I spent a year in Harvard in 1991/1992, Professor Joseph Nye highlighted this rule constantly in his lessons of history.
Mr Lee Kuan Yew never acted as a leader of a small state. He would comment openly and liberally on great powers, including America and Russia, China and India. However, he had earned the right to do so because the great powers treated him with great respect as a global statesman. We are now in the post-Lee Kuan Yew era. Sadly, we will probably never again have another globally respected statesman like Mr Lee. As a result, we should change our behaviour significantly.
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.
One of my future books will be about our three geopolitical gurus: Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Dr Goh Keng Swee and Mr S. Rajaratnam. I learnt a lot from them. 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.
When I was ambassador to the United Nations in 2003, Singapore supported the American invasion of Iraq even though it was not endorsed by the UN Security Council. As Mr Kofi Annan said, this made it an illegal war. However, we prudently followed our geopolitical interests, not our principles, in the Iraq War.
In the jungle, no small animal would stand in front of a charging elephant, no matter who has the right of way, so long as the elephant is not charging over the small animal’s home territory. Let us, therefore, use the Qatar episode to ask ourselves whether we have been Machiavellian enough in recent years.
Lesson No. 2: Cherish Your Regional Organisation
There are many reasons why our neighbours are unlikely to take against us the actions that Qatar’s neighbours took. One of the biggest reasons is that we have developed a high level of trust among all the South-east Asian countries as a result of Asean.
As Mr Jeffery Sng and I document in our recently published book The Asean Miracle, Asean has developed an ecosystem of peace. Who is benefiting most from this ecosystem of peace? It is Singapore. No country in the region has total trade that is 31/2 times the size of its GDP. All our trade depends on the Asean ecosystem of peace. And are we working hard to strengthen Asean? The simple answer is no. Our book explains why.
If we want to avoid a Qatar-type situation for Singapore, there are many things we should do. In my view, the first important step is to invest more in Asean. The Asean Secretariat services 630 million people. Somewhat shockingly, the budget of the Asean Secretariat is only US$19 million, or S$26 million.
A small comparison will indicate how absurdly small it is. The combined gross national product of the European Union is only six times the size of Asean. Yet the EU Commission budget is 8,000 times larger.
Can we just make it 1,000 times larger? Would it involve a lot of money? Not at all! Can we afford it? Well, if we can afford to spend S$900 million on the People’s Association (PA), as reported in The Straits Times, can we afford to spend a fraction of the amount on Asean? The People’s Association has enhanced the sense of community in Singapore. The Asean Secretariat can enhance the sense of community among the Asean populations. Surely, we should give it more money to do this.
Lesson No. 3: Cherish The U.N.
Another lesson of geopolitics is worth stressing here. For thousands of years, before the United Nations Charter was promulgated, it was normal for small states to be either bullied or invaded and occupied by their larger neighbours. The UN Charter didn’t completely stop this: Witness the invasions of Afghanistan in 1979, and Iraq in 2003, and Crimea in 2014. However, there has been a sharp drop in small states being invaded and occupied. The UN Charter has made the world a safer place for small states.
The UN is, therefore, the best friend of small states like Singapore. For the same reason, great powers dislike the UN. This is how distinguished American scholar Edward Luck describes American attitudes towards the UN: “The last thing the US wants is an independent UN throwing its weight around…They aren’t going to allow the organisation to dictate things inconsistent with the objectives of US leadership.”
Let me, therefore, conclude this column with a simple question. When you examine your beliefs about the UN, do you think that the UN is a positive force on the world stage? Or do you buy the line of the Anglo-Saxon media that the UN is a fat, bloated and pointless organisation that should be cut down?
If you believe the latter, you are paving the way for Singapore to be treated like Qatar some day. Be careful of the intellectual poison you are ingesting daily into your brains through the Anglo-Saxon media.
To sum up, what is happening in Qatar is not just about regional rivalry in the Middle East, or power play between the superpowers. In Singapore, we should pay close attention to developments there, and most of all, draw the right lessons from Qatar’s current plight, no matter how hard it may be to swallow the painful lessons from this episode.
*Prof. Kishore Mahbubani is dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore and co-author with Jeffery Sng of The Asean Miracle: A Catalyst For Peace.