Lee Kuan Yew, the first prime minister of Singapore, in 2009 described the Afghan situation by saying: “I think trying to make a country out of Afghanistan is a distraction. There was no country for the last 30, 40 years. There’s just fighting each other since the last king was chased out.” As the interviewer pushed, he responded: “How on earth are you going to put these pieces together?”
Lee, who passed away in 2015, is known as modern Singapore’s founding father. He was supportive of a federation with Malaysia and other Asian countries, which was validated by a referendum. Yet, in 1965, only two years after declaring independence from the British, Singapore was expelled from the federation due to race riots between Malays and Chinese. He then became prime minister of a small, isolated country with limited natural resources amid an extremely unstable geopolitical environment in Asia and around the world. Despite the challenges, within three decades he had transformed Singapore, boosting its economy and turning it into the successful financial hub we all know today.
Lee, also known as LKY, understood the importance of demography and the need for racial harmony within any country if it is to become successful. He ensured this through many measures, which gave recognition to all but kept the state as a respected and even loved authority. Educating and enhancing the competitiveness of his people was another key to Singapore’s success. Meritocracy and transparency were also founding principles. Decades of hard work and sacrifice made Singapore “suddenly” appear to be the success it is today.
In the 2009 interview, Lee was also questioned on the point of governance in Afghanistan and he queried why the US would want to make it their problem. He concluded by stating that no country can undertake nation-building on behalf of another. Looking at Lee’s achievements with Singapore, one might feel like this is true. Is nation-building a failed concept or, even worse, a selfish Western fantasy? Are there successful examples? And, if yes, what are the elements that make such an initiative successful?
I truly believe the EU has proven to be a successful model for nation-building. There is a common denominator between European citizens and Singaporeans, which is the will to belong. This was clear for the former in the aftermath of the horrors of the Yugoslav Wars following the breakup of that country in 1991. A Croatian friend once said that, as Yugoslavia dissolved and with all the pain and suffering of the various communities, they all looked to belong to the EU. Hence, the process of candidacy for EU membership was, for the most part, a positive and strong nation-building exercise.
The EU often describes its members as good or bad students on various topics and is often viewed as over-regulated, but generally Brussels, with all its processes and guidelines, has proven to be a positive model. It can, nevertheless, only work if the people are willing; it can never be imposed. I would therefore humbly change LKY’s message to: No country can impose nation-building on another without the will of its people.
When it comes to Afghanistan, and as LKY stated, it is difficult to see this determination within the population. Hence, nation-building efforts might not be adopted. Supporting local initiatives might be a better formula. Therefore, the US exit is, in essence, a good decision.
In a way, the US has been caught in a promise to the world to replicate what it achieved after the Second World War; it has been trying to repeat this miracle achievement with every intervention. After defeating Nazi Germany, it transformed the world for the better, supporting the rehabilitation of Germany and Japan into leading economies that are today strong allies for a stable world order. For all the critics of its role in Afghanistan, the US and its army have brought improved stability and prosperity in recent decades: Less poverty, fewer wars and better health for all.
It is difficult to make a good speech in the middle of a catastrophic humanitarian situation, and both speeches by President Joe Biden about the pullout from Afghanistan have been heavily criticized on social media — although more about the execution than the decision itself. However, there was an important truth in his first speech, which was to say that the US was not in Afghanistan for nation-building and that this was never the goal. This is an important point and admission. This tells us that the US did not put the resources or focus into this issue in Afghanistan; rather they were concentrating on counterinsurgency activities. Despite this, it seems that life for most Afghans did get better during the period of stability the US military created, even with limited numbers of troops and cost in the final years.
Today, as LKY suggested, the people of Afghanistan and their regional leaders or warlords will have to sort things out for themselves and create the future they want for their country. It will not be an easy or peaceful task. The resurgence of attacks by Daesh-Khorasan seems like a first warning. However, the real question is how the transatlantic alliance will move forward and how it will face the coming global geopolitical challenges, especially as it seems these will be military challenges before they are related to climate change.
Biden hinted in his second speech that America’s international role will be scaled down. It was also an honest admission that America cannot solve all the problems in the world — at least not alone. This means that there is an absolute need for the EU to step up and start pulling its weight in preserving stability by reinforcing its members’ common military and security capacity. The US and EU should also work together closely to present this path for nation-building to other countries where and when possible.
The EU has brought prosperity and thus stability to its members and its candidates. The world still needs somebody to play this role.
- Khaled Abou Zahr is CEO of Eurabia, a media and tech company. He is also the editor of Al-Watan Al-Arabi.
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