Foreign policy in an age of democratic dysfunction

Veteran diplomat Bilahari Kausikan gives his unvarnished take on foreign policy trends in this collection of his essays and speeches. Below is the book's epilogue.

"He that goeth about to persuade a multitude, that they are not so well-governed as they ought to be, shall never want attentive and favourable hearers; because they know the manifold defects whereunto every kind of regiment is subject, but the secret lets and difficulties, which in public proceedings are innumerable and inevitable, they have not ordinarily the judgement to consider. And because such as openly reprove supposed disorders of state are taken for principled friends to the common benefit of all, and for men that carry singular freedom of mind; under this fair and plausible colour whatsoever they utter passeth for good and current. That which wanteth in the weight of their speech, is supplied by the aptness of men's minds to accept and believe it." - Richard Hooker, 1554-1600, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity

In 2016, two unexpected events - Brexit in Britain and the election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States - drew attention to what ought to have been obvious: that the international system of the last quarter century, the American-led "liberal international order", globalisation for short, was fraying at its edges. Both events were symptoms, not causes, although as these events play themselves out in the coming years, they may well accelerate its unravelling.

In retrospect, the extent to which the maintenance of the liberal order depended on the existence of its anti-thesis, the Soviet-led "socialist" order, was underestimated. The promise of the socialist order was false. But for 70 years, it was nevertheless a promise that gripped the imagination of millions who acted, lived and died for it. Any good idea taken to extremes becomes absurd. Without the balance imposed by its anti-thesis, globalisation became self-subverting.

Political dysfunctionalities accentuated the challenges of globalisation in a vicious feedback loop. Populism has become the term of choice to describe what has happened. Few would quarrel with the term. But populism is again only a symptom. Identifying the cause leads to an uncomfortable conclusion: in the 21st century, democracy has become dysfunctional.

Democracy is a protean term. But what all forms of democracy hold in common is the idea that ultimately sovereignty resides in the Will of The People. A monarchy or a theocracy may be popular or unpopular, but it cannot be accused of being populist because these political systems validate themselves by different principles. Populists claim to represent the authentic voice of The People; so does democracy. Populism is democracy metastasised into something ugly. Democracy worked best when it was in fact oligarchy legitimated by periodically subjecting itself to the discipline of free elections.

For most of the 20th century, there was little to distinguish the political elites of different parties in mature Western democracies. Parties distinguished themselves primarily by the programmes they professed to meet the fundamental purposes of government: the provision of physical, cultural and economic security. Although political rhetoric often exaggerated the differences, the range of options to provide these public goods was usually not overly broad. Elections were the formal means by which elites circulated. In return, elites required, and by and large received, the trust of The People, at least until the next election.

This was the compact on which the stability of the system rested. It was not perfect, but it worked tolerably well.

That compact is now broken or severely strained in many countries. Notably, but not only, in the United States and many member states of the European Union, it has become harder and harder to do less and less through the political process. What went wrong? Some of the chapters in this compilation attempt to partially answer this question.

Policy always requires trade-offs. In the 21st century, technology simultaneously deconstructed and broadened the idea of The People, making it ever more difficult to know their Will and thus provide public goods - now demanded as rights or entitlements - in a manner that satisfies everyone. Jean Claude Junker, president of the European Commission, best defined the essential dilemma: "We all know what to do, we just don't know how to get re-elected after we've done it." Too often, promises were made that could not be fulfilled. The People responded with a sense of betrayal.

The consequence is a growing gap between the values of elites and those of the people they ostensibly represent. Ideas, once less than respectable, and movements, once marginal, have now occupied that space. It is increasingly difficult to reconcile policy, which is or ought to be based on reason, with politics, which is essentially based on emotion. Well-meaning attempts to enhance democracy by amplifying the voice of The People, for example through systems of proportional representation, compound the problem by making political systems less coherent.

The fundamental responsibility of leaders is to lead. Leadership requires trust, which brings me to the quotation by Richard Hooker with which this epilogue began. When Hooker wrote, the idea of the sovereignty of the people was still inchoate. A 19th century French politician once quipped: "There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader." It is no longer just a joke. Every public servant knows that what The People want is not always what is best for the country or even feasible. Now, more than ever, does Enoch Powell's bitter prophesy - "All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs"- appear perilously close to fulfilment.

There is no alternative to democracy. Can Western democracies remake themselves? I think they eventually will, but this requires a wrenching revaluation of the fundamental values and premises on which these systems are based that is yet to begin. The situation will probably have to get worse before it can get better.

Non-Western systems are not better off. China's system has the same intellectual roots as Western systems and suffers its own - in someways more acute - version of the dysfunctionalities. For the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the dilemmas may well prove existential. The solution is not for China to become more like the West. There is no good alternative to the rule of the CCP. The combination of genuine elections with an assertively nationalist electorate, which has for decades been indoctrinated in a very selective version of Chinese history, is not an eventuality that anyone should contemplate with equanimity.

Most of these essays deal with foreign policy. But sound foreign policy must rest on a foundation of sound domestic politics. It would be imprudent to believe that Singapore is immune from the political disease that this epilogue - somewhat starkly for emphasis - has sketched. We are already displaying mild symptoms. That they are still mild should not be an excuse for complacency.

Policy options for a small city-state are narrow, as are margins for error. History teaches us that city-states are particularly vulnerable to rapid technologically driven changes in the structure of the global economy such as those the world is now experiencing. There are no easy or perfect solutions. What is necessary will not necessarily be popular. To continually adapt and survive, trust between the government and people must be maintained. This requires all citizens to be aware of the unique possibilities and limitations of a city-state and the confidence to remain ourselves.

When Straits Times Press asked me to compile my speeches and essays, I was reluctant because they were occasional pieces that I doubted had any lasting value. I agreed only when my friend and ex-colleague, Tan Lian Choo, persuaded me that they might be of benefit to our younger compatriots and took on the onerous task of editing them. I am grateful for her efforts. Since this book is aimed at young Singaporeans, it is dedicated to my children - my daughter Catherine Kamala Wei Sin P S Kausikan, and my son, David Raman Wei Siong P S Kausikan: These are some of the things I wanted to tell you but could not.

• Bilahari Kausikan is a veteran Singapore diplomat who retired in 2013, after serving in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for 32 years. He was Second Permanent Secretary and subsequently Permanent Secretary of MFA from 2001 to 2013. He is now Ambassador-at-Large. Mr Bilahari is known nationally and internationally for his strategic analyses, and has a following in international foreign policy circles. He has also established a reputation in social media circles,especially among young Singaporeans.

• This is an edited excerpt from his new book, Singapore Is Not An Island, published by the Straits Times Press.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 25, 2017, with the headline 'Foreign policy in an age of democratic dysfunction'. Print Edition | Subscribe