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Balancing pragmatism and principle

One reading of the diplomatic mess in the Persian Gulf is that tiny Qatar attempted to punch above its weight and "now it's paying the price", as a New York Times headline announced. Others too might hold the view that the difficulties being faced by Qatar are an example of an overweening foreign policy which can put a small state between a rock and a hard place. Is that a simplistic perspective?

During the 18th and 19th centuries, colonial powers built empires forcefully: Might was right. Next came an era which saw the United Nations promoting multilateral diplomacy. But small and medium-sized states are only too aware that despite being in the majority, the shots are often called by a small group of dominant nations. One instance of this is the composition of the United Nations Security Council. If elected, smaller players too can serve for two years, but while over 60 of them have never been part of the council, five big states have permanent seats. American hegemony after the end of World War II and its ascendancy during the post-Cold War era then became a dominant feature of international relations. This conditioned the foreign policy responses of many smaller states.

Like others, Singapore had to take account of the Western-led global order too. Now, it has to factor in Trumpian "America First" dogma, and the rise of China, as well as others in the region like India. In this decidedly more complex diplomatic environment, it would not be prudent for small states to think they can simply cock a snook at giants asserting themselves, and for the small to behave as if they are big states, as Professor Kishore Mahbubani noted recently. This does not mean small nations are doomed to act subserviently. That would win them no respect and only embolden those inclined to impose their will on them to do so. Small states can and must stand up for their interests, speaking up clearly, consistently and civilly, to assert their rights. This calls for a savvy balance between principles and consistency, on the one hand, and strategic flexibility and pragmatism, on the other, as Professor Chan Heng Chee correctly pointed out, adding that it is hardly necessary for Singapore to "be ideological" about taking a principled position.

Small states can punch above their weight by cultivating soft power, like the respect they earn for good governance, economic development, efficiency and the stability of institutions. Such power combined with skilful diplomacy can make size relative in international relations. Singapore's success in doing so over the years is reflected in the high regard many countries have for the Republic and its leaders. The fact that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has been invited repeatedly to participate in Group of 20 meetings - something the country earns by adding value to deliberations each time - attests to this.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 07, 2017, with the headline 'Balancing pragmatism and principle'. Print Edition | Subscribe