For a relatively new British Foreign Secretary there are few better sources of wisdom than the late, great Mr Lee Kuan Yew, who served as prime minister of Singapore for three decades and influenced a generation of leaders, including Henry Kissinger and Margaret Thatcher.
“Friendship in international relations is not a function of goodwill or personal affection,” he said in 2009. “We must make ourselves relevant so that other countries have an interest in our continued survival and prosperity.”
Words we in Britain should heed in this momentous year in our history. Thanks to that history, the UK probably has better connections across the globe than nearly any other country. But we cannot depend on sentiment or affection to be relevant to others. Nor should we assume that because of past achievements others will have an interest in our future success.
Like Britain on March 29 this year, Singapore too faced an extraordinary challenge back on August 9, 1965 when it separated from its larger neighbour. In Lee Kuan Yew’s famous words: “Some countries are born independent. Some achieve independence. Singapore had independence thrust upon it.”
Yet investors swiftly decided independence was good for the economy. Today, Singapore has risen to become the eighth richest country in the world per capita, surpassing Germany, France, Sweden and – though I whisper it softly – the United Kingdom. As we leave the European Union, Britain can draw encouragement from how Singapore’s separation from the Peninsula did not make it more insular but more open.
Britain and its allies were instrumental in setting up the international order that has broadly existed since 1945. This assembly of rules and institutions – including multilateral bodies like the United Nations, the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation – has combined with an American-led security umbrella to create the conditions for peace, stability and trade.
Yet as we look around at the start of 2019, all is not well. The rules-based international system is under greater strain than for many decades – and the evidence is all around us. In Europe, Russia has annexed 10,000 square miles of Ukraine, seizing the territory of another member of the United Nations by force of arms, in breach of the first principle of international law.
Then, last March, the Kremlin deployed a Novichok nerve agent in Salisbury, the first time a chemical weapon has ever been used on British soil. In the Middle East, the Assad regime has used chemical weapons against its own people in Syria, defying a global ban that dates back to 1925. At the same time, Iran has continued its highly destabilising interference in Yemen, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. We saw the expulsion of more than 700,000 Rohingya refugees from their homes in Myanmar, alongside horrific mass killings and rape by its army in a brutal act of ethnic cleansing.
And across the world, we can see that far from advancing – as it did when the Berlin Wall fell – democracy is now in retreat.
So where does post-Brexit Britain fit into this picture? We need to begin with a realistic assessment of our global position. That means not overestimating our strength but not underestimating it either. We are not a superpower and we don’t have an empire.
But we do have the fifth biggest economy in the world, the second biggest military budget in NATO, the third biggest overseas aid budget, one of the two largest financial centres, the global language, highly effective intelligence services and a world class diplomatic network, including permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council.
We also have immense reserves of soft power, with three of the world’s top 10 universities, 450,000 students from overseas in higher education, 39 million visits by tourists in 2017, and a global audience for our media, especially the BBC, measured in the hundreds of millions.
Most importantly, in a world where it is rarely possible for one country to achieve its ambitions alone, we have some of the best connections of any country – whether through the Commonwealth, our alliance with the United States or our friendship with our neighbours in Europe.
Those connections are why Britain’s post-Brexit role should be to act as an invisible chain linking together the democracies of the world, those countries which share our values and support our belief in free trade, the rule of law and open societies.
That doesn’t mean being dogmatic or forcing our values on others. But it does mean speaking out for those fundamental principles to our friends, as well as those who set themselves up in opposition to them. Those nations who share values are going to need to stand together to defend them.
Jeremy Hunt is the Foreign Secretary. This is an edited version of a speech he gave in Singapore.