Drawing on his answers to these and many other questions, Lee’s own writings and speeches, and other publicly available sources, we tried to distill his most important strategic insights into a book that was published February 1st, Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013).
Given the respect that Lee commands among leaders in the U.S. and China, his observations about the dynamics between those two countries are of particular interest. He does not subscribe to the declinism that is increasingly common among U.S. commentators, emphasizing America’s regenerative capacities as well as the myriad challenges that China confronts in trying to sustain a robust rate of growth. At the same time, he argues, given China’s historical experience and present momentum, one should not be surprised that it eventually aspires to be the world’s preeminent power. It is accustomed to a Sino-centric international system in which its neighbors pay it tribute, it will soon have the world’s largest economy, and it is making it harder for the U.S. military to operate in the Asia-Pacific.
These trends, among others, have crystallized a strategic competition between the U.S. and China. Unlike most observers, however, Lee was discussing the inevitability of such a competition in the 1990s, when it was common to hear that the dissolution of the Soviet Union had yielded a unipolar international system. In 1993, for example, in an essay for Foreign Affairs, Nicholas Kristof cited Lee’s observation that the international system would have to reconfigure itself to accommodate the China of 30 or 40 years hence. “China,” Lee noted, “is [not] just another big player. This is the biggest player in the history of the world.” Three years later, he ventured that China might be able to contest U.S. preeminence in three decades.
In a nod to his panoramic worldview, Arnaud de Borchgrave dubbed Lee the “Kissinger of the orient” (incidentally, Henry Kissinger has stated on many occasions that no world leader has taught him more than Lee). One of the limitations to that analogy, of course, is that while Kissinger has had the opportunity to shape the foreign policy of the world’s preeminent power, Lee has been constrained to implementing his vision in one of its smallest countries: with an area of 697 square kilometers, Singapore is only about 3.5 times as large as Washington, DC. That he emerged as one of the world’s leading strategic thinkers is further remarkable given his responsibilities; while the leader of a stable, secure, and prosperous country might have more time to contemplate trends in international order, he was consumed with far more exigent tasks: creating a country amidst hostile conditions and then preventing it from collapsing.
Given the gravity of those tasks, it is not surprising that Lee has grown accustomed to speaking honestly, succinctly, and forcefully—not as an idle provocateur, but as one who believes that candor is essential to developing prudent policies. In a January 1950 address to Malay students in England, he stated that “between platitudes and personal convictions…it is my duty to state my convictions vigorously,” and warned against “ignoring unpalatable facts and avoiding unpleasant controversy.”
It is doubtful that any observer would agree with all of Lee’s judgments (indeed, he would probably be disappointed if one did), especially concerning governance. Given his success in modernizing Singapore as well as his criticisms of democratic excess—he famously argued in 1992 that the “exuberance of democracy leads to undisciplined and disorderly conditions which are inimical to development”—he is often characterized as an enlightened authoritarian who advocates “Asian values.” He is not, however, a reflexive supporter of the “Beijing Consensus”: essentially, a fusion of authoritarian governance, state capitalism, and incremental reforms. Indeed, Lee increasingly discusses the challenges that the information revolution will pose to Chinese governance. Above all, then, he is not an ideologue, but a pragmatist: he does not see governance as the process of executing policy in accordance with principles, but rather, of developing principles by using trial and error to determine which policies work. This judgment will doubtlessly frustrate those who believe that certain values are intrinsically superior, even universal; given the challenges that presently confront both East and West, however, it has much to recommend it.
Ali Wyne is an associate of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and a contributing analyst at Wikistrat.