I’ve taken in the coverage of the Singapore summit and have yet to find a commentator mention the unique influence Singapore has had on its region’s politics. This small city-state looms large as a proverbial city upon on a hill, projecting an image of what many East Asian countries have aspired to be: free but undemocratic.
Singapore’s economy enjoys a freer market than our own and yet it’s governed by an autocratic one-party rule. It could very well be the case that Singapore is so free precisely because it’s undemocratic. Their unique governance has been able to insulate their market economy from most rent-seeking.
It, of course, remains to be seen if Singapore can sustain this. In Lee Kuan Yew, they were lucky to have been governed by a benevolent ruler. Since Yew’s failing health in 2011 and death in 2015, Lee Hsien Loong has proven himself to be a promising successor, but that’s the primary weakness nondemocratic polities are plagued with: succession. If Singapore is able to govern its marketplace so lightly when they’ve celebrated their 242nd year of independence from Great Britain as we will next month, then that will be a remarkable accomplishment.
This has been where many reform-minded Asian dictators have wanted to be. General Chiang Kai-Shek’s military rule of Taiwan sought such liberal authoritarianism. So did Syngman Rhee, the strong-man founding father of South Korea, but both these two countries eventually democratized and had elements of Japanese industrial policy, missing the Singapore mark in both politics and economic policy. Singapore is exactly where Deng Xiaoping hoped to take China when he set the people’s middle kingdom on its present path four decades ago. After consolidating power from his 1976 coup, Deng’s first foreign trip as de facto head of state was to Singapore. There Deng was taken in by Lee Kuan Yew who became a life-long confidant.
So perhaps the most significant moment that occurred in Singapore this week was not the actual summit, a propaganda opportunity North Korea has sought from U.S. presidents for a long time. The most historic event this week would be if, when Kim Jong Un took a walk on the town the night before with Singapore government officials, he decided that this was a direction he wanted to take his country too, realizing North Korea does not have to be democratic to be prosperous.
He does not even need to give up his nuclear weapons either. China is already downplaying the need for further sanctions. All North Korea has to do is continue stringing the United States along and let Trump continue to isolate America from the very countries needed to maintain tight sanctions on the Hermit Kingdom. By getting Trump to rehabilitate him in the eyes of the world as some kind of a 21st century Gorbachev, Kim Jong Un got all the concessions he needs from us without giving up anything in return.
And thus only Donald Trump could make peace with North Korea. Setting in motion the end of U.S. containment before North Korea agrees to any concrete steps, let alone the big CVID (complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization) is certainly a road to peace that no prior president ever considered. Donald Trump is either not a national security conservative, which is quite possible since he campaigned on unilaterally withdrawing U.S. forces from Korea, or he was easily taken advantage of, which is also quite possible given his lack of preparation and attention span. Either way, this is a great result, because a nuclear-armed North Korea will be something we can live with.
Trump has much in common with Richard Nixon, and only Nixon could go to China. We normalized relations without kidding ourselves that we’d get China to give up their nuclear weapons. After a long process, it will become clear that North Korea’s understanding of “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” includes removing all U.S. missile silos, bombers, and submarines that can reach their peninsula. “We’ll go to zero when you go to zero” is how these negotiations will likely end, if they get that far. By the time even Fox News viewers realize North Korea isn’t giving up all its nuclear deterrent against regime change, hopefully, the Singapore dream will have taken hold in Pyongyang.
Eric Shierman lives in Salem and is the author of We were winning when I was there.