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The secrets to small state survival

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Sept 20, 2013

DURING a recent conference on The Big Ideas Of Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Professor Chan Heng Chee, Singapore's former ambassador to the United States, declared that Mr Lee's most important contribution to Singapore was to have "thought through and implemented a strategy of small state survival".

Mr Lee had said in 2009: "Small countries have little power to alter the region, let alone the world. A small country must seek a maximum number of friends, while maintaining the freedom to be itself as a sovereign and independent nation... We must make ourselves relevant so that other countries have an interest in our continued survival and prosperity as a sovereign and independent nation."

Could this formula for survival be applied to the foreign policies of other small states?

At the same conference on Sept 16, former permanent secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Bilahari Kausikan stated that although Singapore "has modelled itself on Switzerland as a metaphor", in the area of foreign policy, the Swiss example was "utterly and totally irrelevant" to Singapore because of their different geographical locations.

This is a curious statement to make, since Switzerland shares many of the concerns that Singapore faces and has pursued similar strategies in its desire to overcome its inherent vulnerabilities.

At their cores, the foreign policies of Singapore and Switzerland have been driven by the same concerns of survival and vulnerability. Their objectives are similar: to safeguard independence, autonomy and sovereignty in a world dominated by larger powers.

Both countries' foreign policies converge in a number of concrete ways. The first is military capability: Both small states' foreign policies are reinforced by an emphasis on self-defence. In defence policy, Singapore's strategy has been compared to that of a "poisonous shrimp", a tiny morsel that would poison would-be aggressors, while Switzerland uses the analogy of the "armed hedgehog", rolling itself up into a ball to fend off hostile forces. In foreign policy, this has translated into the twin pillars of "deterrence and diplomacy" in Singapore and the "armed neutrality" doctrine in Switzerland.

The second convergence is that both countries use diplomacy as a tool for trade. Both Singapore and Switzerland have made adroit use of their diplomatic capital to advance their economic interests. Both have been noted for their pragmatism. As early as 1965, Mr Lee Kuan Yew had pointed out Singapore's pragmatic willingness to "trade with the devil if necessary", but the same statement could easily apply to Switzerland. In 1978, then Swiss Foreign Minister Pierre Aubert spoke of how neutrality "was adapted to the needs of Swiss trade diplomacy", and expressed solidarity with both the winners and losers of World War II "because both were needed as trading partners".

Trade remains integral to the survival and success of both small states, and their actions in defence and foreign policy - such as Singapore's presence as an observer in the Arctic Council, or Switzerland's role as a major arms exporter - can be linked to their interests in trade.

A third role that Singapore and Switzerland have carved out for themselves internationally is their ability to play the role of "neutral" brokers to mediate between states or host sensitive dialogues.

Singapore has hosted high-profile conferences such as the Shangri-La Dialogue and provided a neutral meeting ground for rising Asian powers such as China and India. Similarly, Switzerland has attempted to broker peace between the Israelis and Palestinians in the "Geneva Initiative", and represented US interests through its embassies in Cuba and Iran. Both small states have thus punched above their weight and played a constructive role at the international level.

Similar policies, opposing beliefs

YET paradoxically, such similar strategies for survival are driven by diametrically opposing underlying foreign policy beliefs.

While Switzerland has held fast to the concept of strict legal neutrality, Singapore has preferred the practice of strategic engagement. Thus, while Singapore maintains close relations with all major powers and is involved in various international political and security institutions, Switzerland has transformed the legal conception of neutrality into a reluctance to undertake certain actions in Swiss foreign and security policy.

Many diplomats the authors interviewed in the course of their PhD research suggested that these divergences could be attributed to differences in their historical experiences and geopolitical contexts.

Singapore's narrative of exceptionalism is well-known.

Deep-seated vulnerabilities such as its small size, its openness to sea routes, its lack of a natural hinterland and the presence of hostile neighbours imbued Singapore's foreign policy orientation with a "siege mentality".

To ensure its survival after independence, Singapore emphasised a balance of power even as it pursued engagement. This entailed forging relationships with great powers and joining multilateral organisations such as the United Nations in 1965 and Asean in 1967.

Through Asean, Singapore not only fulfilled its desire for survival, but was also able to harness Asean as a platform to advance its interests on a regional and international level, going from a position of vulnerability to one of influence.

Similarly, the Swiss Confederation's history has shaped the direction of its foreign policy of "armed neutrality", reinforced by its identity of being a sonderfall, or special case. Bolstered by a robust defence force and surrounded by mountains, neutral Switzerland survived centuries of geopolitical upheavals in Europe.

During the 1815 Congress of Vienna, the Great Powers of Europe guaranteed the "perpetual neutrality" of Switzerland, a legal concept meaning non-participation in war. Although Swiss neutrality started out as a realist defence mechanism against the bigger powers in Europe, after the two world wars, it gradually became a norm that was internalised by the Swiss population, which objected to political integration with the European Union, and held off joining the UN till 2002.

While both Singaporean and Swiss foreign policies are driven by similar underlying desires to survive and retain independence in an increasingly multipolar world, they were also developed during a very different era.

For Singapore, the notion of "survival" has been redefined. It is success that it now pursues. Singapore is now less worried about its sovereignty being compromised than about losing its ability to take independent action. Thus, according to Singapore's former ambassador to the UN Kishore Mahbubani, although Singapore is more secure now, it is "still focused on making sure that all the great powers have a vested interest in its survival".

Divided on neutrality

AS FOR Switzerland, the definition of "neutrality" may have to change. Former Swiss ambassador to Singapore Daniel Woker commented that "there were always, and certainly are still, two sides to neutrality. On the one hand, it was a somewhat useful tool for Swiss foreign policy when Europe was divided. On the other hand it has become a national dogma, a myth now standing in the way of an intelligent foreign policy of Switzerland. But that happens, of course, in a lot of countries. We all have our national myths".

During the Sept 16 conference, Mr Kausikan articulated his view that "domestic politics should stop at the water's edge", and that politicisation would "slow things down".

Mr Woker expressed similar sentiments when he said that "Swiss foreign policy, in contrast to the foreign policy of Singapore, is being complicated by our system of direct democracy". For example, after voters rejected two national referendums to join the European Union, the Swiss Federal Council, though in favour of EU membership, downgraded this from a "strategic goal" to an "option" in 2006.

The world is in a state of flux.

A multipolar international political environment, and increasing interdependency among states, requires international engagement and not isolationism. Strict political neutrality may become obsolete, while engagement must be pursued with great caution.

Like other small states striving to maintain their independence, both Singapore and Switzerland must continue to rely on adroit diplomacy for their survival. Despite their differences, perhaps the greatest lesson they offer to other small states is their embodiment of what Prof Chan described as the "inextricable link" between domestic achievements and a successful foreign policy.

In this respect, both Switzerland and Singapore, respectively ranked first and second in the World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness Index for the last three years, fit her description of "a hub, a pace-setter, an innovator", and ultimately, as countries "that get things right".

The authors are PhD candidates at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Sept 20, 2013

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