The increasing irrelevance of Non-alignment


The prominent emergence of foreign policy issues in political discussion currently in Sri Lanka, against the backdrop of an upcoming presidential election in the country, needs to be seen as a highly positive development. This is because foreign policy questions rarely come to the fore as 'hot talking points' within the Sri Lankan polity.

This culture of relative silence enveloping Sri Lanka's foreign policy questions is traceable in the main to a tendency on the part of Sri Lankan governments, foreign affairs officials and the political class to steer clear of robustly discussing them in public. Consequently, foreign policy issues have come to be seen as comparatively unimportant and having little bearing on their main interests by the Lankan public, whose principal preoccupation has been local politics.

However, the indications now are that foreign policy matters would be 'coming out of the cold' in the run-up to the presidential poll in Sri Lanka and this is a happy development, considering the vital relevance of foreign policy to any country's national interests. For example, a prominent presidential contender Gotabhaya Rajapaksa of the Sri Lanka Podujana Pramuna is on record as having declared that he favours a Non-aligned foreign policy. Likewise, his closest rival Sajith Premadasa of the United National Front-led coalition told foreign diplomats recently that he is for a policy of friendship to all countries, which is among the traditional interpretations of Non-alignment.

Thanks to a heated public debate on two or more accords with strong military overtones successive Sri Lankan governments entered into or deliberated strongly on with the US in recent years, foreign policy has thus emerged as a focal point of note in current local discussion. Two of these agreements are 'The Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement' (ACSA) and 'The States of Forces Agreement' (SOFA). There is also the US 'Millennium Challenge Corporation' agreement of a highly economic nature which is yet to be entered into fully by the sides, although it has been discussed between them over the past few months.

These agreements, either already signed or under discussion, are seen by the critics of the present government as 'selling out' to the West. However, at least two of the above accords were entered into or deliberated on by previous regimes, which were by no means on the happiest of terms with the West. The question, therefore, arises as to whether the case against the present regime has a sound basis to it. The campaign could very well be pre-election politicking.

It does not follow from the foregoing that it is irrelevant to debate the merits and demerits of these accords. Broad public participation in discussions of this kind is very necessary and the discussions need to be welcomed as helping to qualitatively upgrade public discourse, although coming somewhat 'late in the day'.

We say that such debate and discussion is coming 'late' because it is no secret that Sri Lanka, like many other Southern countries, has been in a dependent relationship with the prime powers of the West and their major financial institutions over the decades since political 'independence' in 1948. Sri Lanka has been a neo-colony of the West these many decades but this has not been a major topic of public discussion. If at all the subject has been discussed, it has transpired in highly specialized bodies, such as, sensitive agencies of the state and high brow think tanks that have little or no connection with the public. Such factors too have contributed to the relative unimportance attached to foreign policy issues by the public.

Non-alignment has been considered a major strand in Sri Lanka's foreign policy but this issue too did not engross the public to the desired degree for the above reasons. In the decades of the sixties and seventies Non-alignment was given prime position as a basic parameter of the country's foreign policy but the governments of those times took it on entirely themselves to implement this policy to the extent possible within the relevant international power constraints and configurations, but there was minimal public debate and discussion on the relevant issues.

Ironically, although Non-alignment seems to be coming to its own to a degree locally, the independent observer is likely to perceive that such a policy is becoming increasingly irrelevant to most Southern states. This is because, on the one hand, the bipolar international power structure of decades back has given way to a multi-polar power system, with the collapse of the Cold War. In the latter system, Non-alignment has no meaning.

Besides, the nature of the current international economy, defined and driven mainly by the free market, compels countries anywhere to follow a policy of economic pragmatism. There is, strictly speaking, no capitalism-socialism cleavage. All countries are going down the free market road, to a greater or lesser degree, and the states of the South have no choice but to make best use of the opportunities that are opening-up on a pragmatic and practical considerations basis. Economic ideologies proclaiming inwardness are no longer valid.

Given these developments, the chances are that the weaker economies of the South would prove increasingly vulnerable to international economic forces that obey only the dictates of the market. Needless to say, the major economies of the world, such as the US, would dictate terms in this open economy situation.

All in all, the days of Non-alignment or anything approaching it are over. The major economies of the South would need to take the lead in moulding the world economy in the interests of the weaker members of their grouping. But would this happen? This is the big question. If this does not transpire it would be a question of every Southern state fending for itself to the extent possible.

There are issues aplenty in this situation for Southern states and their publics. A broad, wide-ranging public discussion of these question is necessary in the global South to hit on the best way to survive in these unpredictable times. People's robust participation in formulating foreign policy would emerge as a necessity. This would ensure the linking of foreign policy with public needs.

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