Reversal in NY and our foreign policy challenges

The road to Geneva lay through New York. Sri Lanka’s unsuccessful attempt at the UN General Assembly in New York, despite a tireless effort by Ambassador Prasad Kariyawasam and his team, to gain re-election to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in the face of a ferocious INGO campaign, has given rise to much commentary. While my own view on that outcome in New York and other related subjects will have to await the end of my ambassadorial experience and the publication of my reminiscences, it is more pressing an intellectual obligation to combat the claim that our failure was due to a foreign policy which was insufficiently oriented or friendly towards the West.

The facts are simple enough: the Group of 77 (developing countries) has 132 members and the Non Aligned Movement (NAM) has 115 in the UN General Assembly, and victory for Sri Lanka and defense against anti-Lankan campaigns in the UN or any global forum requires the winning over of the preponderant, overwhelming majority of these groupings to which we naturally, organically, belong, rather than chase the chimera of votes of those whose inclinations are hostile to our interests.

Contrary to the Sri Lankan cognitive map, the world does not consist only of Asia and the West! A successful foreign policy requires a purposive reaching out at a high political level, to all three continents of the global South, and an eschewal of deviations from our traditional Non Aligned foreign policy stance (which can tarnish our NAM credentials and prevent the full harvesting of NAM support), such as the voting for country specific resolutions against fellow NAM members.

Foreign Policy Fundamentals

Foreign policy derives from the effort to best represent the national interest in the world, and reconcile those national interests with existing yet changing international realities.

The pioneer of Sri Lanka’s independent foreign policy, SWRD Bandaranaike, identified the global and historical context of that policy: a changing world, a time of transition. I would argue that the challenge before Sri Lanka’s current foreign policy is also to correctly identify and defend the state’s fundamental interests in a changing world which is possibly, probably, on the verge of even more dramatic change - in the main metropolitan centre, the USA.

What are Sri Lanka’s fundamental national interests? The defense of independence and national sovereignty and the restoration of territorial integrity and unity, which in concrete and contemporary terms translates itself into the eradication of the LTTE as a military enemy, and the obtaining of maximum external support for as well as the blocking of external intervention and interference against, that objective.

The LTTE’s objective of a separate state on the soil of the small island of Sri Lanka, its demonstrated unwillingness over decades (from the Indo-Lanka accord of 1987) to settle for anything less, and the protracted war (including a campaign of assassination and terror) it has waged against the Sri Lankan state, make a peaceful negotiated settlement of the conflict impossible. The stakes are of the highest sort: victory or the death of Sri Lanka as a single country.

This is where the line of differentiation has to be drawn. As the breakup of Yugoslavia, commencing with the recognition of a breakaway republic and culminating in the recognition of Kosovo following a period of UN stewardship demonstrates, the West is no longer averse to the splitting up of existing states and the proliferation of new ones.

Other powerful phenomena, such as transnational capital, neo-liberal economic policy and international NGOs ("global civil society", which is actually Western "civil society"), give the West both incentives and instruments for the undermining of state sovereignty, not only in the Third World but also in Russia and the former Soviet Union.

Sitting atop these structural phenomena is the Tamil Diaspora, replicating the colonial compact, the power bloc that prevailed historically: the West and the comprador bourgeoisie, Sinhala (mainly represented by the UNP) and Tamil "federalist".

Stemming from these three sets of reasons, the West, in the main, considers a military victory of the Sri Lankan state over the LTTE an undesirable outcome and would prefer a negotiated settlement. The West does not recognize a pre-eminent bonding of democratic states fighting terrorism.

We Sri Lankans know from our bitter, bloody experience that negotiations with the LTTE cannot lead to a settlement within a united Sri Lanka, and that entering negotiations would only give the Tigers a respite while debilitating the morale of our soldiery. Therefore, as long as the LTTE remains possessed of a hostile military intention and capability, there is a conflict between Western perception and policy on the one hand and the fundamental strategic and security interests of the Sri Lankan state on the other.

Blind-spots & Concentric Circles

The answer does NOT reside in a foreign policy that is isolationist or even purely Asiatic (which is but a regional version of that isolationism). The answer resides rather in the broadest possible network of those who privilege state sovereignty and oppose any attempts to weaken the state through external (interventionist) or internal (secessionist) means. This means a policy that is firmly anchored in Asia but not restricted to our home continent; is constantly renewing its Non Aligned credentials and character (reaching out to Latin America and Africa); and strengthening its strategic ties with those states (chiefly but not exclusively Russia and China) that privilege state sovereignty while acting as emergent counterweights against those forces who would weaken sovereignty and the state.

Our foreign policy must constitute a set of concentric circles, at the innermost of which is our South Asian identity, enveloped by our Asian identity, surrounded at the next layer by our developing country ( G 77) and Non aligned identity, then, by our Euro-Asian identification and finally by our character as a (legitimate, democratic) state fighting terrorism. I list this last precisely because it cannot be pursued unilaterally, and for the moment, the West refuses to treat us on the basis of this identification. Sri Lanka has to operate within, and maximize, the political space objectively available to it while striving to prevail over the LTTE.

A foreign policy is only as good as those who represent and implement it, and if we are to secure the external strategic environment that will enable us to win the war- indeed to continue waging it - the principle of merit has to be rigorously observed or re-instituted.

Time of Transition

Constructing this architecture is not the main challenge to Sri Lanka’s foreign policy. That challenge springs from the factor that SWRD Bandaranaike identified, namely the changing, transitional nature of the world order. Today that world order is living through the effects of recent changes and current ones, while being on the cusp of extraordinary new ones. We live in a period of history that is post

Cold War, and post 9/11, but also in the throes of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars; the end of uni-polar hegemony but not of uni-polarity since the US will remain the sole superpower; of the resurgence of Russia, the rise of Asia led by the explosive economic rise of India and China. All this is known, if insufficiently digested, but it is not all, and the most dramatic may be yet to come.

With the end of the Cold War, there were two macro interpretations of the world that was emerging. Unfortunately these interpretations were seen as opposing rather than potentially complementary. I refer to Francis Fukuyama’s view that in a Hegelian sense, the end of History had arrived, by which he meant that with the demise of Fascism and Communism there were no more rivals to liberal democracy and the market economy as fundamental organizing principles of society; that liberal democracy thus had no universal competitors any more, as Communism had been. He did not preclude wars driven by other ideas and identities but none would be universalist and therefore none would have the heroic character of the clash of ideologies that marked the twentieth century. Samuel P Huntington’s idea of a possible Clash of Civilizations and resultant "fault line wars" (including that of Sri Lanka) was seen as an alternative, a grimmer, truer, neo-Hobbesian one, to Fukuyama’s grand scheme, yet the two can be comfortably accommodated with each other.

True there are wars, but while a whole generation worldwide, from New York to Nawalapitiya, from Caracas to Colombo, from Paris to Pretoria, wanted to "be like Che", it is difficult to envisage anyone outside of an identifiable cultural context wanting to "be like Bin Laden", or for that matter, Prabhakaran. Eighty years after his birth and twenty after the events of May ’68, Che, in the form of Benicio Del Toro, is incarnated this Spring in Cannes.

Fukuyama’s meta-theory had one huge flaw: the long march of liberal democracy had the most ambivalent encounter in the most important location, the centre of the world system, Washington DC, the modern Athens or Rome, depending on your preference and reference. On the one hand, the weight of evidence seems to indicate that the triptych of the American Revolution of 1776, its resultant Constitution and the Civil War of the 1860s have comprised the most influential and durable revolution the world has experienced. On the other hand, and to put it plainly, "liberal" was an epithet in the USA. How can liberal democracy be globally triumphant when it has not completed its revolution in the metropolis, the US?

Back to Barack

Barack Obama looks like he is resolving that contradiction. He is bringing the American Revolution home. He is also renewing it. If he succeeds he may not only legitimize and complete the liberal democratic revolution in its metropolis and thereby hasten its globalization, affirming Fukuyama’s prognosis, he may also and at the same time, pave the way for addressing the Huntingtonian Clash of Civilizations, because he is himself a synthesis of civilizations. A new, positive cycle of world history may commence, just as the existing polarizations will protract indefinitely if the outcome is different.

The Sam Cooke song penned in 1964 during the Civil Rights Movement, featured in the movie Malcom X, and now part of the campaign music of the Obama camp, assures us hauntingly that someday "A Change is Gonna Come". That change is already underway in the USA. Is Sri Lanka ready for Barack Obama? Is Sri Lanka ready for the change, the transition that he will represent in himself and generate in the world? Is the Sri Lankan (and Sinhala) mindset ready for the paradigm shift represented by Obama, the Multicultural Man, epitomizing antidiscrimination, equality, multiculturalism and meritocracy? Defending our vital interests in such an era of dramatic change will require nothing less than a change within our collective consciousness and identity. Our policy profile and we ourselves shall have to change. We shall have to evolve.

That is the main challenge before our decision makers and policy makers, and none more so than those responsible for conceptualizing and managing our relations with our external environment, a changing world.

(The views expressed in this article are strictly the writer’s own.)

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