With China accelerating its military modernization, Russia continuing its slow-drip incursion into Ukraine, and an expanding section of the Middle East devolving into chaos, it has once again become fashionable to argue that the United States is in decline. Strangely, Americans are often far quicker to accept this diagnosis than their counterparts abroad.
One of the most vigorous dissenters from this pessimism was the founding father of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, who died on Sunday at age 91.
Although Mr. Lee will be most remembered for his achievements at home — transforming a poor, corrupt, fledging city-state into a first-world commercial and diplomatic hub — he was also an astute observer of world order, widely regarded as the Henry A. Kissinger of the East.
Mr. Lee was uniquely situated to assess the governance and foreign policies of the United States and China. He advised every American president since Richard M. Nixon and every Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping, who, incidentally, sought Mr. Lee’s counsel when he was about to embark on the economic reforms of the 1980s that have propelled China’s rapid growth.
So what might Mr. Lee’s assessment of the United States look like today?
He would most likely note America’s economic recovery and the far-reaching economic and strategic benefits it stands to gain from trends in the global energy market. The United States Energy Information Administration forecast this month that American crude oil production would average 9.5 million barrels per day next year, just shy of the record high set in 1970.
Mr. Lee would also point to America’s demographic advantages. Three years ago he wrote that the United States could well emerge as “the slowly aging leader of a rapidly aging world,” a reality that owes much to the country’s growing Hispanic population; while America’s overall median age is 38, the median age of American-born Hispanics is just 18.
Moreover, English is now the world’s lingua franca, and the American system of higher education attracted over 886,000 students in the 2013-14 academic year, nearly a fifth of all globally mobile college and university students. America’s corporate culture still assimilates the world’s talent more creatively and productively than that of any other nation, despite residual and increasingly imprudent visa restrictions on talented immigrants.
As forcefully as Mr. Lee rejected the declinist narrative, however, he didn’t have a blinkered view of the United States. After the global economic collapse of 2008, he became increasingly outspoken in arguing that America’s ability to sustain its pre-eminence in world affairs would depend on the resilience of its footing in the Asia-Pacific.
While the United States has largely focused on strengthening its military and diplomatic ties there, China is primarily using its economic heft and a roster of geo-economic initiatives — ranging from its Silk Road infrastructure fund to its proposal for a Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific — to draw neighbors into its orbit.
These countries may be wary of a China-led regional order, but they cannot risk losing the Chinese trade and investment upon which their economies increasingly depend. Unless the United States can compete with China economically over the long term, its position in the Pacific is likely to weaken. The more that position weakens, in turn, the more compelled America will feel to take pre-emptive measures to exclude China from its regional efforts, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership; partner with its democratic allies to isolate China diplomatically; or, worst, attempt to constrict China’s rise through naval deployments.
Mr. Lee warned that the United States would have to contend with a resurgent China, not only according it a growing role in shaping the norms and arrangements of world order but also, in time, accepting it as an equal player on the global stage.
He would most likely offer at least two other pieces of advice. First, the United States will be unable to sustain its reorientation to the Asia-Pacific if it continually allows crises outside that theater — whether a grisly war of attrition in Syria or atrocities by the Islamic State — to command comparable priority.
In December 2011, a month before the Obama administration formally unveiled its “rebalancing” policy, I was present at a meeting with Mr. Lee. “Americans seem to think that Asia is like a movie and that you can freeze developments out here whenever the United States becomes intensely involved elsewhere in the word,” he explained. “If the United States wants to substantially affect the strategic evolution of Asia, it cannot come and go.”
Second, Mr. Lee would urge Republicans and Democrats to overcome their toxic ideological divides and adopt economic policies that rein in America’s debt, which he believed could “strike at the heart of America’s global leadership” if left unchecked.
While Mr. Lee was certainly no proponent of Western-style democracy, it is too facile to describe him simply as a champion of “Asian values” — generally understood as putting the community before the individual and privileging order over freedom.
In leading Singapore, he was, above all, a pragmatist. And as it confronts turmoil abroad and gridlock at home, the United States could use a dose of Mr. Lee’s coolheaded analysis and wisdom.
Ali Wyne is a co-author of Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World and a contributing analyst at Wikistrat, a consultancy.