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Large States and Small States in a Changing World Order


07 Sep Large States and Small States in a Changing World Order

The Qatar diplomatic crisis has sparked a debate in Singapore on the appropriate behaviour of small states. On 31 August, we held an evening talk with Professor Danny Quah, Vice Dean (Academic Affairs) and Li Ka Shing Professor in Economics at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, NUS, on “Large States and Small States in a Changing World Order”. The session was moderated by SIIA Chairman Simon Tay.

More photos from the event are available on Facebook.


The Small States Debate

Summing up the existing debate in Singapore, there are essentially two points of view. One argument, raised by Professor Kishore Mahubani in his now high-profile newspaper commentary, can be labelled “pragmatism”, but this view has been criticised as too compliant or too short-sighted. The other argument is the “principled” view, which states Singapore must still take action based on its values. But the counterargument is that Singapore still needs to be realistic.


Defining Small States

However, even the label of “small state” can mean different things. Technology has changed what we think of as a “small state”. The ease of manufacturing and transporting goods across borders means that even small countries can effectively have an economic hinterland.

In terms of military power, developments in drone technology and the increasing prominence of hacking attacks mean that even a small state could potentially cripple a larger opponent.

There are certainly some forms of influence that large states can wield and smaller states cannot. There are economies of scale. Small states are not able to provide global public goods or construct institutions that span the world.

But it is also important to remember that there are far more small states in the world than large states. Most of the countries in the world are relatively small, and Singapore is not alone in being a small state that wields some level of power.

What does this mean for the future of international politics?


A Ride-Share World Order

The transformation of the taxi industry in Singapore and across the world represents a beautifully emergent order – and a potential example of how world order could be shaped by the market.

Taxi fares and transport costs have now been driven down. How is it possible for prices to be determined by small individuals, the commuters and consumers, rather than large corporations? The rise of ride-sharing demonstrates that demand from ordinary people can influence innovation and change on the provider side.

The taxi analogy is not perfect, but it is possible that a future world order could evolve along similar lines. Larger countries such as the US and China would still have a role in such a market-based world order as the provider of public goods and institutions, much like transport is still provided by companies, but the smaller nations of the world could still have a say.