The Asean summit showed starkly that we live in an age of uncertainty

Wise leadership has rarely been more badly needed but few possess the standing or the ideas to suggest a way of navigating while the tectonic plates shift, writes Sholto Byrnes

FILE PHOTO - U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo shakes hands with North Korea's Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho at the Asean Regional Forum Retreat in Singapore August 4, 2018. REUTERS/Edgar Su/File Photo

High level representatives from America, Russia, China and the Koreas were among the participants at a series of meetings held by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) summit in Singapore over the weekend. Considered together, they represented a suitable summit for this age of uncertainty.

What, for instance, after these discussions is the status of the prospective nuclear deal with North Korea? US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was all grins when he shook hands with the North's Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho on Saturday and their brief exchange was cordial, according to the State Department.

Mr Pompeo said to Mr Ri: “We should talk again soon” and the latter agreed there were "many productive conversations to be had”. Donald Trump’s letter responding to Kim Jong-un’s missive was also passed on. All appeared to be positive.

After Mr Pompeo left, however, Mr Ri took the occasion to lambast the US for behaving in an “alarming” and hostile manner and not appreciating gestures of goodwill on the part of his country, such as implementing a moratorium on nuclear testing and missile launches.

Even if Mr Ri's scolding was meant more for domestic political consumption, there is the small matter of the report submitted to the UN Security Council last Friday, which claims that North Korea has done no such thing – the tests and launches are continuing and the regime is evading fuel sanctions in a variety of ingenious ways.

On the same day, Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah warned that trade wars were a “real threat” that was becoming “more complex”.

Simultaneously, there was hopeful talk about swiftly concluding talks for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which would bring together the 10 Asean nations with China, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand to create the world’s largest economic bloc, with the potential to cover half the global GDP.

Trade wars and new free trading agreements are not mutually exclusive, of course, but the forces of protectionism and liberalisation they represent are.

The spectre of Russia as an irresponsible actor on the international stage was raised again when Mr Pompeo accused the country of violating sanctions by issuing permits for North Korean guest workers and allowing joint ventures.

But only days before, a French political scientist warned that far from being united and strong, Vladimir Putin’s Russia was a “creaking ship” suffering a brain and talent drain while others point to its GDP, which is now smaller than that of Italy, as the true representation of its diminished status.

Confusion reigns. The direction of travel is unclear, the truth is contested and clarity is rare, just as it is missing in a European Union deeply divided about the values its members do or should share and in a UK whose leaders appear delusional about what kind of Brexit they can secure and the consequences of a no-deal departure from the union.

Wise leadership has rarely been more badly needed but few possess the standing or the ideas to suggest a way of navigating while the tectonic plates shift. Insistence on the old rules-based order will not do as it was formulated during a period of western hegemony. Those who were excluded from its making rightly chafe at its strictures.

Where to turn to? Bear with me when I bring up the speech given by Mr Trump at the Arab Islamic American Summit in Riyadh in May last year. Ignore, if you wish, that he delivered it. If it helps, remember that the doctrine of "principled realism" that it partly outlined was almost certainly more the work of HR McMaster and Gary Cohn, then the National Security Adviser and chief economic adviser respectively and both men of standing and sanity. Forget, too, that the Trump administration's actions might not always have conformed to the sentiments expressed.

Concentrate instead on the words: “Our partnerships will advance security through stability, not through radical disruption. We will make decisions based on real-world outcomes – not inflexible ideology. We will be guided by the lessons of experience, not the confines of rigid thinking. And, wherever possible, we will seek gradual reforms – not sudden intervention. We must seek partners, not perfection."


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Less intervention. Pragmatism. Discarding strategies that have not worked. Compromise. And crucially, no imposition of values. He went on: "We are not here to lecture – we are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be or how to worship."

Those are sentences that ought to be welcome not just in Beijing, Moscow, New Delhi and Pyongyang but throughout the developing world as well as in those parts of the West where minds are not still clouded by fading dreams of liberal universalism or neo-conservatism.

They ought to be adopted, discussed and considered to see how they could be built upon to try to clear away the shrouds of uncertainty that hang over meetings such as the ones in Singapore over the last few days.

Could they bring an easy solution to the question of North Korea’s nuclear capability, to disputes on trade that could worsen the lives of millions or to suspicions about the rise of new powers? Not immediately, no.

But they could certainly help by increasing trust and placing it on a new foundation of common principle. It is appropriate given the context that they are also a good fit for the Asean tradition of “agreeing to disagree without being disagreeable”.

Does all that sound too small a philosophy? If it lacks the lofty grandeur of a Kennedy or an Obama in full flight, I think its humility, respect for local cultures and histories and stark acknowledgment of practical realities has a powerful force and principle of its own.

And in a bewildering world, in which what once may have appeared to be satire turns out to be the real news, it could provide more certainty, less conflict and a more risk-free transition to a new world order. And that, for sure, would be no “small” thing.

Sholto Byrnes is a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia

Sholto Byrnes

Sholto Byrnes

Sholto Byrnes is an East Asian affairs columnist for The National