Small states on the superpower seesaw

Lesson for Singapore lies in how US has been consistent in South-east Asia, but has reversed its positions in Middle East several times

While the crisis swirling around Qatar is symptomatic of fundamental problems in the Middle East, its predicament seems to have struck a strong chord elsewhere in the world. A robust debate has erupted in Singapore among its titans of foreign policy.

Professor Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, kicked off with a reflection on how small states ought to behave in a larger world. He argued that they should act in proportion to their size.

Singapore under the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, a giant on the world stage, was an exception, and should recalibrate with his passing, Prof Mahbubani counselled.

The piece, Qatar: Big Lessons From A Small Country (The Straits Times, July 1), drew criticism from veteran diplomat Bilahari Kausikan, among others. He argued that Singapore could not let subordination to bigger states become a norm in its foreign policy.

Since going by territory, most other states are larger than Singapore, Prof Mahbubani's detractors are not willing to be constrained by that measure, and would rather act with the advantage of Singapore's achieved heft in other dimensions.

Who is right?

Most states, big or small, seek to shape their external environment. Certainly Qatar and Singapore have punched above their weight, in soft power terms.


US President Donald Trump being welcomed by Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud (right) at King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh on May 20. The writer says there was a palpable sense of relief when Mr Trump went to Riyadh. The US was back. He even promised to take sides in their internal disputes, calling Qatar names. But he was soon contradicted by his generals and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has since been working to resolve the crisis. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Singapore, as vocal cheerleader of Asean, has succeeded in playing a part to keep its immediate neighbourhood benign. While South-east Asia was tumultuous in the past, today, the neighbourhood is very different from Qatar's, with wars raging in the Middle East. Whether a state is big or small, what foreign action means in peaceful South-east Asia today is very different from its counterpart in a Middle East at war.

The current wars raging across the Middle East and North Africa have erupted in the wake of the Arab Spring, which dislodged a number of three-decade-long presidents-for-life.

What is appropriate action for a small country depends on whether the large power acts consistently and predictably or not. In South-east Asia, the US has been very consistent over the past half-century.

In the Middle East, it has reversed itself a number of times. The divergent responses of the GCC countries to superpower seesawing, and their coming to a head in the current dispute, fascinate Singaporeans because they sense it heading their way. President Trump's cancellation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership plan was a first taste. There will surely be more.

While these internal eruptions took most by surprise, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries soon intervened and essentially made bets on rival parties in each country undergoing upheaval. The dominoes seemed to be falling in their direction, and they took prudence to mean forward-leaning action in neighbouring states.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar leaned in the same direction in Yemen and Syria, against the incumbents. In Egypt and Libya, their bets diverged - Qatar going one way, while Saudi Arabia and the UAE went in the opposite direction.

Those differences are one of the issues in contention in the current crisis. Within the Gulf itself, they all supported their fellow Bahraini monarch to a man.

What makes the Qatar crisis appear odd to the rest of the world is that the GCC countries seem to have more that unites than divides them. After all, if the Arab Spring revolts were a measure of misrule and internal discontent, the kings have come out looking rather better than the presidents. They have self-rotated more frequently through succession. It is the erstwhile presidents who have been booted out.

ASEAN'S DOMINOES 50 YEARS AGO

The Asean countries, of course, had their own fear of dominoes falling 50 years ago, and tried to shape their external environment by supporting the United States in war against North Vietnam.

Whether Thailand or Malaysia, Indonesia or Singapore, they were all small countries militarily, and acted accordingly, standing loyally behind a large American shield, helping where they could with bases, supply and so on. The US was consistent in its anti-communism then, and life as a small state was to that degree easier.

That has not been the situation in the Middle East over the past few decades.

The problem is that large powers change their mind, and drastically so. The differences between Qatar and Saudi Arabia/UAE stem at root from their different responses to alternating US action in the Middle East.

With respect to the US, and in terms of military power, these are all small states, like those of Asean. Not one of them is able to fix its external environment through changing or shaping regimes.

But they have tried to do so, especially in the wake of the Arab Spring, because US support has been inconsistent, and its guarantee turned out to be not absolute.

The fall of longtime US ally president Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, recipient of US$1.5 billion (S$2.07 billion) of US aid annually, concentrated minds. It convinced the GCC states, which were large of purse but small in military terms - Saudi Arabia included - that small states had to take things into their own hands. They had to take big actions. Thus the bets around the neighbourhood on Arab Spring outcomes.

It was not always so. In the 1980s, the countries with actual military power in the Middle East, Iraq and Iran, conveniently balanced each other, slogging it out with huge loss of life. In the Nineties, they seemed exhausted and were kept at bay from the GCC countries through an American policy of "dual containment". Dual containment acknowledged their military heft, and entailed US troop presence in the region.

Coming after Iraq's occupation of Kuwait, US bases were welcomed, and indeed became a point of rivalry among GCC states. As small states, they are not at odds with the US behemoth, but rather want its shield for themselves, individually. This is another major point of contention in the crisis, as Qatar is the current holder of this prize.

IMBALANCE OF POWER CREATED

The high point of GCC dependence on US protection was reached when Saddam Hussein and his whole apparatus was taken out by US forces under president George W. Bush.

This left Iran as the sole regional military power, and created a fundamental imbalance in the region that haunts Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies. To top it off, the US bungled its Iraq occupation, and handed much of the country to Iran on a silver platter.

The Arab Spring arrived at a time when US Arab allies felt threatened by Iran, and felt maximally dependent on the superpower. What did the US do?

President Barack Obama proceeded to withdraw his favour, taking his troops out of Iraq, and the carpet out from under Mubarak. This was perceived as a one-two blow by the US's Arab allies, making them fearful of both external and internal threats.

Coming at the height of dependence on US protection, the sharp reversal of US foreign policy induced something akin to whiplash among its Arab allies. Their response was a 180-degree turn in foreign policy, sending warplanes to neighbouring countries instead of just cash.

So when President Donald Trump went gladhanding to Riyadh, there was a palpable sense of relief. The US was back. Iran would stop eating their lunch. He even promised to take sides in their internal disputes, calling Qatar names. But he was soon contradicted by his generals and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has since been working to resolve the crisis.

What is appropriate action for a small country depends on whether the large power acts consistently and predictably or not.

In South-east Asia, the US has been very consistent over the past half-century. In the Middle East, it has reversed itself a number of times.

The divergent responses of the GCC countries to superpower seesawing, and their coming to a head in the current dispute, fascinate Singaporeans because they sense it heading their way. President Trump's cancellation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership plan was a first taste. There will surely be more.


  • The writer is director of the Middle East Institute, and Muhammad Alagil Distinguished Visiting Professor of Arabia Asia Studies at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 06, 2017, with the headline 'Small states on the superpower seesaw'. Print Edition | Subscribe