Jun 13, 2014

    In a crisis, don't bank on groupthink for a way out

    ARE global diplomatic crises resolved more effectively by interventions of powerful political personalities, or by interventions of bureaucracies? In other words, is presidential or prime ministerial decision-making more influential than bureaucratic groupthink?

    Two Cold War crises show both approaches at work: the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 and the role of Singapore in resolving the Cambodian conflict in 1978-1991.

    The Cuban Missile Crisis, a 13-day confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union, began when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev secretly placed nuclear missiles in Cuba, which the US quickly detected.

    Then US president John F. Kennedy employed bureaucratic groupthink in the early stages of the escalating crisis. The Executive Committee of the National Security Council (Ex Comm, consisting of secretary of state Dean Rusk, secretary of defence Robert McNamara, attorney-general and the president's brother Robert F. Kennedy, and others) met regularly to advise the president.

    Some Ex Comm members urged JFK to launch air strikes against the Soviets in Cuba, and others urged a diplomatic response. If JFK had used military force, the Soviets would have responded with force, leading to global nuclear disaster.

    JFK chose diplomacy with Mr Khrushchev, offering to remove US missiles in Turkey in exchange for Soviet removal of missiles from Cuba.

    The Cold War later resurfaced in South-east Asia. A newly published book shows that Singapore's diplomacy during the Cambodian conflict was shaped both by then prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, who had a strong personal relationship with King Norodom Sihanouk, and by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA).

    Singaporean academic Ang Cheng Guan's book, Singapore, Asean, And The Cambodian Conflict 1978-1991, is a remarkable, first comprehensive account of Singapore/Asean diplomacy to resolve the Cambodian crisis.

    The Cambodia issue was important to Singapore because, in the words of the then permanent secretary of the MFA, S R Nathan, "the principle involved was that no foreign military intervention should be allowed to overthrow a legally constituted regime".

    On this basis, Singapore and Asean challenged the Vietnamese "invasion" of Cambodia in 1979 to overthrow the Khmer Rouge, though many non-aligned nations viewed it not as an invasion but an act of liberation of the Cambodian people from genocide.

    Professor Ang properly traces the early initiatives of Singapore diplomacy: Singapore foreign minister S. Rajaratnam's initiation of a special Asean foreign ministers' meeting in Bangkok in January 1979, soon after Vietnam ousted the Khmer Rouge.

    Acting fair-mindedly, Singapore also criticised the Chinese attack on Vietnam in February 1979 to "teach Vietnam a lesson" for its overthrow of the Khmer Rouge, because Singapore opposed outside powers intervening in South-east Asia.

    Prof Ang's narrative makes clear that Mr Lee scripted Singapore policy on the Cambodian crisis. Concerned about the terrible image of the Khmer Rouge, he told the Thais in September 1980 that Khmer Rouge leader "Khieu Samphan must eventually be replaced as he was too closely identified with Pol Pot (the Khmer Rouge chief), and both Sihanouk and Son Sann must get to centre stage within a year", and when that happened Hanoi would be forced to change its policy.

    Mr Lee, on a visit to Beijing in November 1980, told Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping that in order for Asean diplomacy at the UN to be credible, Asean must not be seen to be restoring Pol Pot to Cambodia.

    Mr Deng responded that China was unwilling to withdraw support for the Khmer Rouge, which was the only Cambodian faction capable of fighting the Vietnamese.

    Prof Ang demonstrates that Mr Lee had initially refused to have anything to do with King Sihanouk after the latter allied himself to the Khmer Rouge, following his ouster from power in the 1970 coup d'etat. But in December 1979, Mr Lee once again placed the highest hopes on King Sihanouk as the one personality in Cambodia that could unify the squabbling Cambodian factions, and he extended an invitation to King Sihanouk to visit Singapore.

    Mr Lee then promoted King Sihanouk to other Asean countries, none of which were keen to host him. Mr Lee advised the king to visit other Asean countries as well.

    It was Mr Lee "who convinced" the Thais and Indonesians to accept King Sihanouk as the potential head of a third Cambodian force, the Non-Communist Resistance, consisting of the factions of King Sihanouk and former prime minister Son Sann.

    Mr Lee's overarching Cambodia policy demonstrate that decisions made by a single leader are often the correct ones.

    The provocative advice the Ex Comm gave JFK during the Cuban Missile Crisis shows the limitations of groupthink, leaving it to JFK to sift dangerous military options from safer diplomatic ones.


    The writer, a former BT senior correspondent, is a historian who has taught at Canadian universities, and has written books on Indochina. This is an excerpt of an article that first appeared in The Business Times.