Do the lessons of Thucydides apply to Singapore?
Professor of International Security & Intelligence Studies
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Recently the Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore, Kishore Mahbubani, dropped a bombshell. He declared that Qatar’s experience of being embargoed by its neighbouring states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) ‘reminds Singapore of the need for small states to behave like small states, and to cherish regional and international institutions’. His answer is for Singapore to ‘exercise discretion’, being ‘very restrained in commenting on matters involving great powers’.
Prominent Singaporean pundits denounced his declaration but its resonance could be felt around Southeast Asia. ASEAN is not the GCC and the great power dynamics at play in the Middle East differ considerably from those affecting ASEAN and, in particular, Singapore. But the parallels are sufficiently resonant to make Mahbubani’s comments unsettling. After all, like Qatar, Singapore is a small state that has been the base for a considerable regional US military presence. Yet there are limits to the parallels, in part because of the different great power dynamics in Asia.
Graham Allison’s book Destined for War has brought into vogue the term ‘the Thucydides trap’, which refers to the work of the ancient Greek historian Thucydides. Writing about the Peloponnesian wars in the middle of the fifth century BCE, Thucydides recorded details of the clash between the rising great regional maritime power, Athens, and the land-locked city-state of Sparta. Worried that leaving Athens’ power to grow unchecked would lead to its own downfall, Sparta embarked on a catastrophic war that saw both states suffer greatly. The implication is that the structural stress that results when a rising power challenges a ruling one make war almost inevitable.
Great power dynamics can certainly generate tensions but the jury is out on whether such a war is inevitable in Asia. Smaller states sometimes play disproportionate roles, and other times not. During that war, for instance, Athens subjugated the city-state of Melos, which had sought to stay neutral in the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides observed that in subjugating Melos, Athens demonstrated a truism: ‘the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must’.
There is a sense that Mahbubani seems to have tapped into a fear that Singapore may have some Melian-like tendencies and that if not careful, the city state could become a casualty in a great power clash in and around Southeast Asia reminiscent of Thucydides’ war.
The seizure of Singaporean armoured vehicles en route from Taiwan in late 2016 by Chinese authorities in Hong Kong pointed to a growing concern that China was sending a message to Singapore: that China was unhappy with Singapore’s close associations with Taiwan, and by implication with the United States. The implication was that Singapore should heed Mahbubani’s advice to exercise greater discretion.
Mahbubani has been criticised by some eminent contemporary Singaporean pundits including Singaporean Law and Home Affairs Minister Shanmugam and by diplomats Bilahari and Ong Keng Yong, who have declared Mahbubani’s commentary ‘questionable intellectually’. Their view is that, for Singapore at least, size does not matter.
One pointer to that being so comes from the neighbourhood.
To read the entire article by John Blaxland, visit the East Asia Forum website.
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