By Sigurd Neubauer
Is the world unraveling? “We have to be quite careful with this concept,” responds Bilahari Kausikan, before quipping: “Unraveling from what? We’re in an unusual position in history,” he says, referring to the past several decades of U.S. global supremacy.
Kausikan, who previously served as Permanent Secretary of Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 2013-2018, believes that the eminence of America has until recently eradicated the possibility of great power competition, which otherwise is inherent. From the fall of communism in 1989 to the Great Recession of 2008, this period was an “exception” rather than the norm, a reference he’s making to when Washington enjoyed primacy without facing any significant geopolitical competition.
“We’re now returning to normalcy,” he explains while taking a stab at Francis Fukuyama’s book, “The End of History and the Last Man” (1992), which Kausikan describes as “a stupid illusion.” The history of the world is marked by great power competition, he asserts.
Prior to his appointment as Permanent Secretary of Foreign Affairs, he served as Second Permanent Secretary from 2001-2013 and before that as ambassador to the United Nations from 1996-1998.
“The war in Ukraine is a sideshow, as dangerous as it is, but the main competition is between the United States and China,” the former top diplomat asserts.
Many mistakes were made by the West when the Soviet Union collapsed, including that it didn’t understand that Russia is a civilization
To drive home his point, the Singaporean stresses that Russia’s long-term trajectory is only downwards, which in turn is driven by the combination of demographics (a shrinking population) and economy.
“President Vladimir Putin’s miscalculation regarding Ukraine is only accelerating this trend,” he says while adding that Russia’s economy resembles that of the Third World.
Kausikan knows Russia well. He served as Singapore’s ambassador to Moscow in the immediate years following the 1991 collapse of Soviet Union, from 1993-1995.
“Many mistakes were made by the West when it collapsed, including that the West didn’t understand that Russia is a civilization. When the USSR collapsed, the [Russian] civilization endured,” he says.
Fukuyama is not the only American academic Kausikan is critical of as “he never understood” the logic behind what he refers to as“Jeffery Sachs’ shock therapy” for Russia.
Sachs, who at the time was at Harvard University, believed that a radical program – commonly referred to ever since as “shock therapy” was needed to reform Russia. “He proposed the United States and multilateral development agencies help Russian reformers succeed with a $30 billion aid package, akin to what America had provided Europe after WWII with the Marshall Plan. Sachs also called for the cancellation of Russia’s debts. But these ideas were rejected by American leaders,” National Public Radio reported in March 2022.
“It is one thing to experiment with his academic theories, “but Russians shouldn’t have believed him,” Kausikan says as the resulting “deep hardships the country faced enabled the rise of Putin.”
The Singaporean is also critical of some of NATO’s expenditures following the collapse of the Warsaw Pact. He’s referring specifically to the Baltic states as “their borders are not defensible,” which Kausikan argues, was “more or less admitted at the 2022 Madrid Summit.
“It is not credible to defend them,” he adds. The Baltic states, like Ukraine, but unlike Finland, have no natural boundaries separating them from Russia. Ukraine’s geography made it easier for Russia to invade, which it did on February 24, 2022.
Returning to the subject of the 2022 NATO Summit, where leaders from Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand participated, a historic first, Kausikan argues that having Asian countries participate “doesn’t make a strategic difference. The same goes for when European Union countries participate in military exercises in the Pacific.”
“It only adds more flags but has no strategic impact,” he adds.
Singapore’s founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew visits President Ronald Reagan at the White House in 1985
Great power competition
“Singapore was born in major power competition,” the former top diplomat says about its founding in 1965.
Returning to the period between 1989-2008 when the United States enjoyed global supremacy, Kausikan describes it as a time marked by [strategic] “laziness.”
This new period, which is marked by U.S.-Chinese strategic competition, “is more complicated,” he explains as “the previous competition was between two systems: the U.S. and the Soviet.”
Kausikan, exhibits clear candor on the present U.S. foreign policy discourse vis-à-vis China. “It is intellectually lazy to describe what’s happening as a new ‘Cold War’ as the two countries are both in the same system. The rest of the world, including Singapore, is connected to both of them.” Kausikan describes the present stage of the strategic competition as “a new phenomenon.”
This new phenomenon, he explains, is linked through supply chains of all sorts, “which has never been seen before in history.” He doesn’t believe that the bifurcation will go into two different systems but concedes that there has been some in terms of technology, pointing to the semiconductor industry and internet/telephone systems because of national security.
At the same time, Kausikan points out that all of the key components of the supply chain for the semiconductor industry are held by U.S. and its allies. China, on the other hand, holds 40 percent of the semiconductor market.
“It cannot be a simple binary competition. In that complexity there is agency for third countries,” Kausikan says, referring specifically to Singapore and others as they are not responding to the global changes in the same fashion they did during the Cold War.
“The U.S. and China may want to dominate the other, but cannot do so without destroying the other, which they don’t want to do. It’s easy for the U.S. to talk about being more self-reliant when it comes to supply chains,” he says but quips: “For the foreseeable future, the two countries are competing within the same system.”
New opportunities exist for “those who have wit, agility and courage to take advantage of the changes. This doesn’t deprive countries of agency – Singapore has that courage – that’s why we exist. Mistakes can be made by the principles and third countries,” a reference to Washington and Beijing, but “fatalism is fatal for small countries.”
The new era will be marked by geoeconomics, which Kausikan refers to “as a fundamental reality.” It needs to deal with both the United States and China, but stresses that there is no country in the world that is not concerned by either of their behavior, including close U.S. allies and partners.
“Singapore and other Southeast Asian nations are not going to align with the U.S. with all our interests,” he says, explaining that some of Singapore’s economic interests will be closer to Beijing but that its security interests will be aligned with Washington.
“The U.S. remains indispensable in Asia. In order to deal with Beijing, one has to deal with Washington,” Kausikan says. With that objective in mind, Singapore signed in 2005 a Strategic Framework Agreement which strengthens the partnership but remains below treaty ally.
“Singapore does this to keep the U.S. around,” the former top diplomat explains.
Kausikan, meanwhile, remains critical of Chinese diplomacy which he sees as “infused with entitlement” based on grievances over perceived historical humiliations. “President Xi Jinping is likely to double down on this as growth in China slows as he will have to rely on nationalist rhetoric to justify his rule.”
In reference to Washington’s ever polarizing discourse, Kausikan says that Singaporeans see it as “dreadful. Now it is more dreadful than before.”
“The U.S. has never been a reliable partner – as changes occur every four years with a new administration – and there is no historical recollection of what happened over the previous four years. But, whereas America is not reliable, it is indispensable. Kausikan, however, does take comfort in the wisdom and resiliency of the American people, especially those outside of Washington, D.C.
Whereas America is not reliable, it is indispensable