Unclear if other countries can fill US’ global leadership void: PM Lee

Unclear if other countries can fill US’ global leadership void: PM Lee
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong talks with US President Donald Trump during the G20 leaders summit in Hamburg, Germany. Photo: Ministry of Communications and Information
The Trump administration has focused on putting America first and less on global issues
Published: 5:00 PM, July 11, 2017
Updated: 9:52 PM, July 11, 2017

MUNICH — While the Trump administration has put less weight on the United States’ responsibilities in being the world’s policeman and upholding free trade, whether another country can step in to perform that role is unclear, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Mr Lee was speaking to reporters on Monday (July 10) as he wrapped up a six-day working visit to Germany that included his first face-to-face meeting with US President Donald Trump on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Hamburg.

The summit saw the US standing apart from the remaining members of the Group of 20 of the world’s major economies on issues such as climate change. The other leaders noted the US’ decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement aimed at limiting the effects of climate change, but stated the pact was “irreversible”. 

On the implications of the US ceding world leadership and countries such as China or Russia possibly stepping in to fill the vacuum, Mr Lee said: “It’s not so clear that if the US decides to play a different role, somebody else can step into what the US’ role used to be, so we’ll have to see how things develop.”

The US’ role in the world, as interpreted by successive administrations over many years, is “something unique”, Mr Lee said. 

“They see themselves not just as upholding US interests, but as having a responsibility to keep the system going. Because within a stable system, the US has maximum opportunity for influence and prosperity.”

Such a role is partly because of events after World War II and partly due to the US’ political and social values, seeing themselves as a “city upon a hill and a light unto nations”, said Mr Lee. “City upon a hill” is a phrase that has been used by various US leaders to talk about American exceptionalism.  

“Other countries don’t have that history, I don’t think they have that self-image, certainly they don’t have that tradition of statecraft,” said Mr Lee, who said different countries play different roles.

Mr Trump’s administration is different from its predecessors, in putting America first and putting less weight on what is termed as “global public goods”, with benefits or costs that extend worldwide.

Mr Trump has also pulled his country out of the 12-nation Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal, negotiated under the Obama administration, that Singapore is part of. The controversial leader had blamed international trade deals for job losses in the US. 

Singapore will see how it can make the best of the situation, said Mr Lee. “They had their considerations, we understood that, and we have to move on from here and see how ... we can continue to broaden and deepen the relationship within the framework and philosophical approach of the new administration.”

Asked about his meeting with Mr Trump, Mr Lee said he went in with an open mind.

“We had a good discussion,” he said. Mr Trump’s key officials including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin were also present, and Mr Lee said he focused on broad issues instead of specific items.

“I think they understand — and we certainly understand — that our relationship with America is a very broad and substantial one. We have defence cooperation, we have economic cooperation, we talked about security issues. We’re engaged in many, many different fields,” he said. 

“And whichever is the administration, whoever is the president, these are interests which we would like to push ahead (with). And I think they’d like to push ahead too.”

Both leaders have held telephone conversations previously, on Dec 2 last year and on April 30. At the meeting on Saturday, Mr Trump looked forward to receiving Mr Lee in Washington DC later this year, the Singapore Prime Minister’s Office had said. 

In a statement after the bilateral meeting, the White House had said Singapore serves as an important hub for US exports to the fast-growing South-east Asian region. 

Mr Trump and Mr Lee discussed regional security issues and their shared resolve to press North Korea to abandon its nuclear programme and “cease its provocations”, said the White House. Both sides also affirmed close cooperation in preventing the rise of terrorism and extremism in South-east Asia.

During the meeting, Mr Lee said he also asked Mr Trump when he was last in Singapore. The president had replied that it was about a decade ago, according to Mr Lee.

“I said, ‘That’s a long time, I hope you’ll come again’.”