International Relations – Lessons Learnt From the Past

By Benjamin Mok

In 1509, the Venetian Republic found itself under partial occupation, having suffered a disastrous defeat at the hands of France and the Holy Roman Empire. Yet, through the efforts of Venetian diplomats, it managed to pull itself out of a worsening situation through a Papal alliance – buying them enough time to eventually turn erstwhile allies against each other.

In an interview with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong by the Financial Times, a comparison was drawn between Singapore and the other small states of the world, which historically did not “have great longevity”. Yet, his one exception made was “Venice, which lasted 900 years in one form or another”.

Therein lies an interesting comparison, for Singapore does share many similarities with the Venetian Republic – economic relevance, a disciplined internal military, and an excellent foreign service. Of course, the Republic existed as a much larger entity compared to the tiny red dot that is Singapore, but the principles behind its existence remains similar to ours – a small nation-state surrounded by larger, potentially-dangerous, yet also potentially-helpful nations. It is apparent that the greatest shield both Singapore and the Republic possessed was not their military, but rather their wielding of alliances and treaties. The Venetian Republic wielded them well – sustaining them for over 900 years, an indication that there is something Singapore can learn from them.

In a recent statement on the World Policy Blog, a former head of Singapore’s Foreign Ministry, Bilahari Kausikan, stated that, “International Relations…is the worst possible training for a career in the foreign service.” His belief is that a degree focused on the Western history would not be relevant in a modern world. Yet, the aforementioned example of the Venetian Republic is one of many that shared similar circumstances with Singapore, and provides an excellent platform from which to model our future decisions regarding foreign relations. Singapore represents a unique case amongst countries, but that does not mean we should not take lessons from the past, Western or otherwise – and no other course provides as comprehensive an education in that area as International Relations.

In our modern day and age, it is simple to wave away the established conventions of society – an admirable act when done responsibly, but a potentially disastrous one when insufficient thought is put into it. The purpose of a degree in International Relations is to show that one has been educated in the actions, triumphs and mistakes of diplomats in the past – an education that the diplomats of the Venetian Republic undoubtedly possessed. Without such knowledge, our foreign service could very well be walking into situations blind, without precedent to guide them.

Ultimately then, with the rise of aggressive nations imposing their influence on smaller countries (such as the Ukraine Crisis, or the South China Sea situation), it is vital that we look back to the past. Forging our own way – but with the wisdom of those who walked before us.