Bosom buddies, Libya’s Qadaffi and Sri Lanka’s President, courtesy Sunday Times

Of late there have been several critical comments levied against the manner in which Sri Lanka has conducted her diplomatic relations.  Traditional alliances with the Western world have become somewhat stilted, new alliances have been forged, while fortunately the tempo of our relations with the SAARC countries, our regional neighbours, have remained stable.  The shifts in the balance of power relations have created a certain amount of suspicion and hostility among the Western Powers.  The entry of China, the bête noir of India, has also introduced heightened alertness, but not disharmony into the Indo- Lanka relations.  Sri Lanka needs to fine tune her diplomatic skills as we are dependent on the West for much of our trade, financial aid and investments as much as we are on India, especially with the need to keep the regional balance.

Some of the charged atmosphere in Sri Lanka’s international relations, have not always been the   consequence of our actions, although a significant number of them certainly are.  However it must be reckoned that small countries like Sri Lanka with no significant clout in size, economic power or strength in weapons technology, military arsenal or nuclear capability have to consciously steer diplomacy with an eye to win friends and influence them to keep our strengths and weakness in balance.  For  Sri Lanka, a small country, diplomacy remains the only tool to manoeuvre her international positioning; successes and failures in the international market places have to be measured by the way diplomacy is used to establish and nurture alliances, to secure political, economic and security advantage in today’s complex environment .  Diplomacy is a fine art; it has to be constantly fine tuned to face the challenges in the globalised world.  No country can behave as if it is an island (even if it is one) that can shut itself from outside influences and intrusions. International relations thus become a live performance, the rules of conduct to be strictly adhered to.

The Foreign Ministry is traditionally responsible for the nation’s international relations based on the policy statement and directives of the government. Today following the end of the cold war and the fast engulfing globalised world the nomenclature of diplomacy has changed dramatically.  While the traditional role of diplomacy remains important the area of concerns for the nation and the international community has grown in scope.  Consequently new players have entered the field and are producing an ever enlarging canvas for the formulation of foreign policy. Foreign poilcy is no longer viewed from a prism of only diplomacy but is viewed through a multi pronged focus both in terms of agenda and action, each player  paying attention  to  one or more issues.  This new approach needs to be wrapped for in the study and fusion of all the salient factors raised by the different players to formulate and gain a comprehensive view of the whole

Impact of intra conflicts on international relations
Sri Lanka has undergone great stress over the past three decades.  The nation state has been under continuous armed challenge from dissidents both in the South as well as in the North and East of the island.  The southern contest was based on the rich poor divide, on antagonisms built around elitist control of the economic and social base, with English used as the instrument of discrimination and deprivation to those largely educated in the vernacular.  The Northern and Eastern conflict grew around ethnic identity and the discriminations that resulted in restricted public service recruitments, admissions to universities, and to the private sector.  The southern rebels were vanquished and they have come into the democratic process and now, ironically, produce the biggest sound bites for the protection of human rights and human security.

The ethnic conflict has ended with the elimination of Prabhakaran and the destruction of the LTTE forces. These two challenges to State authority installed the culture of violence as a ‘resource’ for disgruntled elements to use at will and for the state to respond with state violence, used with impunity to restore law and order.  Dismantling the violent forces from these two areas, was accomplished over different periods in time, one towards the end of late 80’s and the beginning of the 90’s and the other, in 2009.  South has settled down and relative order prevails in the North East.  The cessation of war in the latter has not restored the equanimity of the peace dividend essential for a country to function unhindered. This background is necessary to understand the multifaceted context within which foreign policy has to be crafted for Sri Lanka.

In today’s complex environment a couple of divisive forces with agendas peculiar to their own particular narrow needs tend to create fissures in the process of peace building and reconciliation that puts additional demands on the government’s diplomatic skills.  The opposition is permanently on an adversarial mode looking to raise controversy wherever possible, within and externally, to gain electoral advantage with no concern for nation building and cohabitation.  The southern rebels who have now formed themselves into a political party are still on agitation politics (Since some of the causes for which they rebelled have still not been addressed) focussed on destabilising the government, any government in place.  The Ethnic war has thrown up new forces with financial resources and/or potential to make wealth, to contend with.  One the Diaspora, an amorphous entity spread in various parts of the world but mostly in the West have at their command access to financial, intellectual, engineering and communication skills.  They have also through their financial and electoral presence become a powerful entity to be reckoned, exerting influence far in excess of their numbers in the developed countries where they are in residence.  Their whole focus is on destabilising Sri Lanka by maligning the country with critical accusations not always substantiated with proof, but since such accusations are often unquestioningly accepted it makes Sri Lanka vulnerable.  Their aim is to secure international support for the two nation agenda of the Diaspora.

Two, the war has also brought about a whole host of unsavoury elements to the forefront: those who profited from the war economy and therefore would like the war to continue; the war environment under which breaches of the law is possible which unfortunately has created a culture of impunity whereby lawlessness has become the norm; the law enforcement has become increasingly ineffective while governance practices are falling short of the ideal.  These individuals and groups have created untold damage to the image of the country, no doubt in some instances the outcry has a backing of truth but most of the time they are laced with half truth and lies.

Three, there are any number of individuals and organizations in the West ready and anxious to be the torchbearers for causes they believe to be built around human rights and human security, freedoms, particularly that of personal freedoms and the media.  Mired in the host of problems facing a post war period the government continues to grapple on many different areas and it is here that informed leadership is essential to guide the institutions of public policy and its implementation on a focussed manner.  Fresh look at diplomacy has to be taken to review new and more effective techniques in keeping with modern trends.

Inclusion of new players and agenda
Sri Lanka must realize that in the globalised world territorial borders have lost its rigidity and weight since there is a convergence of concerns by the entire international community on the political, military, economic and social contours of all countries in a more intrusive manner.  The tentacles that reach out preclude the nation state from making claims of sovereignty to exclude the international community from its ‘surveillance” mode.  There are no longer agendas that are exclusively nation state bound; they have emerged as a focus for common interest and are interdependent or linked to national and international welfare.  This calls for not only transparency and accountability from the national governments in all their activities within the country but also provides space for dialogue within the country and abroad.  Diplomacy is no longer confined to political matters conducted on the bilateral and multilateral platforms.  The new areas of international concern are directed at nation’s security as well as human security within the nations as essential categories of commitment to the countries and people.  As referred to by  Milan Jazbec, the UN High Panel Report of 2004 has listed ‘economic and social issues as threats’: poverty, health hazards, human and food security, climate change, migration, interstate and internal conflict, nuclear, radiological, chemical and biological weapons as well as terrorism, transnational organized crime as matters of concern to the international community.  These issues vie for primacy along with the traditional diplomatic agenda, to be tackled by national governments in complicity with one another.  The new players on the field of international relations are the non governmental organizations like the civil society, media, NGOs, and the private sector working in concurrence with the traditional sources of diplomacy.  No country can wish these new players away without incurring the suspicion and wrath of the international world.  These grass roots organizations have opened up a ‘listening route’ which in turn has brought to attention the urgency to feed the public with information, an omission missing in the conceptualisation of public policy in the past and at present as well.  The new players have the advantage of expertise and resources often unavailable to the state particularly in the small countries.  The nation state shares sovereignty with the regional powers and the international agencies in the public interest of all the people.

This is the context in which Sri Lanka has to function.  There is a failure to fully comprehend that after the ‘global and structural changes’ in the late 1990’s the  “state is squeezed by the global and regional processes of international integration”(Jazbec 2001,35) and has been compelled to find a balance between the needs of internal governance and the requirements of an ever more interdependent world.  The nation state’s reliance on ‘ absolute and exclusive sovereignty has passed; “its theory was never matched by reality”.  Had Sri Lanka been more conscious of these parameters many a pitfall of the recent years and even today could have been avoided.

Having generalised thus far it is time to look at the Sri Lankan profile vis a vis the international community. The accepted formula for any crisis a country faces is to make effective use of the three f’s : “to focus, to be flexible and to act fast.”  Sri Lanka did not always make timely use of this dictum.  We have in the last decade or more lost the close ties we have had with a number of friendly states within the international community.  Our long standing friends of many years standing in the developed countries, in the developing countries (facilitated by our leadership and effective participation in the non- aligned movement since its inception), within the Commonwealth countries and in the regional associations of SAARC and even of ASEAN (where we were invited to join, which offer was not taken up by Sri Lanka).  Of late there has been an adventurous attitude of taking on the West and posing challenges that could not be sustained, while making tactical moves to diversify the nations’ international relations base.  This could not be faulted had soft diplomacy been used to send some of the punches which indeed were more often than not richly deserved.  It is not what you say but how you say is what maters and we failed in the way we gave voice to our dissent.

In the field of communication technology particularly with the media we failed to make use of this important medium to be our spokesperson and provide ‘precise information’.  Sections of the media with serious security concerns, became estranged and therefore magnified out of proportion some of the controversial issues within the country that the international community subsequently picked on.  Sections of the media that owed unreserved commitment to the government presented exaggerated versions of the ‘truth’, so much so that their cases were laid to rest even before one perused their presentations.  The country unfortunately has to deal with groups of people and organizations who have their own agendas which constantly portray negative issues that are best left within the country to be sorted out and agitated over for remedial action.  While this forms only a part of the picture, it is vital that the state also restrains itself from the temptation to see everything in black and white permitting no grey areas or any overlap.  Either one is a friend or an enemy is a nursery concept played out by children in their early formative years.  Listening to criticism, reviewing and responding on the basis of facts that the review process brings out on such criticism is the only way for movement forward to strengthen foreign policy perspectives.

Post conflict factors
It is essential now to turn to the power play of realpolitik in the practice of international relations which has affected Sri Lanka adversely and placed us in many difficult situations.  It is an unspoken admission that often countries act in their own interests regardless of the much touted statements that the conduct of international affairs is based on the objective assessment of international concerns.  The relative and perhaps the temporary success of the politics of the Sri Lankan Diaspora should be scrutinised on the platform of the many fragmented concerns of the local political interests in the countries where the Diaspora is domiciled.    By exploiting their unique strengths in finance and the block vote bank they have in the western countries, they have successfully gained support from influential persons and organizations to highlight their anti- Sri Lankan posturing of the infringement of freedoms and security for the minorities within Sri Lanka.  The western powers have not given much credence to the lack of sufficient evidence to support some of the claims made by the Diaspora.  It is however, to the credit of the Diaspora that they have used the three F’s effectively to secure timely and favourable responses, unlike the state channels that have failed to use them in any convincing manner.  Unfortunately Sri Lanka does not see critical evaluations of policy from an objective standpoint.  The foreign policy lead players would be well advised to view opposing points of view as a point of departure from which controversial issues can be assessed with relative level of detachment and alternative positions sought, acceptable to all or to many, to put the contentious matters to rest. Had this been done, a more realistic approach to the post conflict peace building program could have been worked out with greater focus, flexibility and speed.  International disapproval for government inaction in critical areas under question will be a thing of the past and the country could have moved on, perhaps without the intrusion of the UN probe too. Instead of resentment in the face of a lack of substantial international support Sri Lanka should have remained friendly and proceeded with the peace building measures introducing effective constitutional changes to satisfy the long standing demands of the minorities.  This is perhaps the only reasonable way by which Sri Lanka could have put an end to the negative propaganda of the Diaspora and placed the country at a vantage point to strengthen relations with the Western powers.  It must also be said that remedial steps towards reconciliation and remedial action should be pursued because it is the right thing to do and not because we need to win the West over. Perhaps some of the criticism will still remain but at least the tenacity with which the international community is pursuing issues of human rights, freedoms particularly that of the media and reconciliation with the minorities on a permanent basis would have lost its steam in the event of constructive action being taken.

It is vital to bear in mind that “that the basic tenor of diplomacy have not been learnt” by politicians, foreign policy experts, sections of the media and the opposition.  It is vital that “those who know better must not speak in the undiplomatic language of the novice, estranging international opinion against us.” Sri Lanka has obviously quite unintentionally estranged many of our former allies by having the phobia that all the Western Powers are antagonistic to us and are intent on destroying our credibility in the international platform.  Such fears were given wide publicity not thorough diplomatic channels, but in the public domain, at political meetings, through the media and in the course of interviews to public organs for wide dissemination regardless o f the adverse consequences to the country.

Joseph Nye’s soft approach
Some options however are still open to Sri Lanka which we should seriously consider adopting.  Joseph Nye’s formulation of soft power is one such method that can be used to make friends among the international states and influence them.  Nye refers to the “…. ability to get others to do what they would otherwise not do, to act the way  you want them to act without coercion, payments, carrots or sticks”.  This could be the tactic for the government to pursue.   According to Nye soft power has three sources- a country’s culture, its values and its policies.  Unfortunately what appears to be the positive factors in Nye’s construction, has turned out to be negative features in the Sri Lankan context, because of the aggressive and partisan way in which what is good and noble in the religious and cultural values and policies have been used and continue to be used.

But where India is concerned Sri Lanka has taken the right steps.  Our relations with India have been strengthened; there is mutual trust and respect and healthy interaction in several important areas.  This is a unique example of the effective way in which we have consciously and constructively used the three f’s to focus, to be flexible and to act fast, while public diplomacy has been used to reap a significant measure of success.  In dealing with India a clear goal and a message of friendship has been relayed in the words of the President “we have many friends but only one relation” cannot fail to resonate in the south Block. India was always kept informed of important moves made by the government through special envoys, closely connected to the President which in itself was expected to convey a message of friendship.   Frequent visits are made to keep the dialogue alive, Indian dignitaries are welcomed as well as much publicity is given to the development assistance given by India and the lead role India plays in rehabilitation and reconstruction.  The unprecedented request of the Indian government to establish consulates in Jaffna and in Hambantota were accommodated.  These were some of the confidence building measures built to strengthen  Sri Lanka’s ties with India, the regional power.  This message of friendship gave confidence to India that friendship with other nations sometimes perceived as hostile to her were not part of a realpolitik move by Sri Lanka, but one of grave necessity for the country. Consequently India never turned her back on us throughout this period, before the end of the war or after.  Even the massive protests staged periodically in Tamil Nadu were contained with conciliatory moves to appease the very important southern constituency of India while giving Sri Lanka substantive confidence that India is a friendly ally on whom she could depend.  Matters could have got complicated had the situation been different.  The effectiveness of soft and public diplomacy had paid off. If we make the effort to use these techniques and win our friends in the developed world it will usher in a more productive period for the country.  If similar focussed measures are taken we can still repair our relations with the West.

Institution Building
Since the Foreign Service institution needs to be strengthened on acceptable credible international standards it is not out of place to quote once again ( I have used this excerpt in another article some time back) to quote from Sir Harold Nicolson’s classic treatise Diplomacy where he lists the qualities of a modern diplomat:  he has to be truthful and by this he means “not merely abstention from conscious misstatements but a scrupulous care to avoid the suggestion of the failure or the suppression of the true”; he has to have qualities of intellectual integrity, knowledge, discernment, prudence, hospitality, ….courage and tact.  Above all the diplomat “must have a special loyalty to his country, a loyalty that will prompt him to tell his government what it ought to know rather than what it wants to hear”.    In the selection of diplomats and experts to guide foreign policy intellectual competence cannot be short changed to accommodate favourites to plum positions in the service.  There should be no compromise in this as officials have to work with the best in the international world.  We have evidence in the past how our competent Officers pulled the country out of many pitfalls during the height of grilling process over human rights violations.  To successfully steer the country’s affairs in the international arena the qualities mentioned above are vital to the players both as individuals and in the collective.  It is time to realise that foreign service is not the prize for loyalty, for ridding the system of individuals who have passed the period of peak service but need to be recognized for their past contributions nor is it an employment pool for sons and daughters of individuals who have to be subsidized for their political support.  Foreign service by definition should come to mean as the ‘experts terrain’ of those who have to deal with their counterparts in the developed world, in the developing world, with the multi lateral organizations from whom we need to gain every ounce of advantage we can extract.  This is therefore no play centre for babes in the woods to be used for experimental learning experience. It is also not a cushy job to entertain and be entertained.  The diplomats have to come as streetwise as possible- comes from years of experience in the service-, intellectually equipped to grapple with the most complex issues and  use skills of negotiation to secure the best for the country. This certainly is not a public sector corporation to be filled with those brought in through the mismatch in the educational system. The leadership needs no tutoring on this, they should have arrived at the peak point in leadership with this lesson well ingrained. Then there is always hope for calm in our international relations.

National Interest a dominant factor
While portraying the ideal scenario for skilled diplomacy it is of immense importance to give expression to the other side of the coin, that is, that international players do not always adopt altruistic standards of measurement to assess country reviews. There were some pointers in the Economist of December 11, 2010 to justify the above statement.  The reference to the write up on “Dealing with Russia – Be critical not hypocritical”.   Issues raised in this article, is based on the writer’s evaluation of the ‘State’ of the Russian State.  He states that “the political system itself has fostered the growth of organized crime and corruption which even endangers lives…as an American diplomatic cables released on Wikileak note, the Kremlin is at the centre of a virtual mafia state.  This means that reforms in Russia cannot happen without a shake – up of the country’s system”.

Writing further on the human Rights abuses the columnist writes that the reluctance of the Western powers to condemn Russia is regrettable.  “There are countless examples of such pusillamiunity over the years;  a refusal to speak out against the war in Chechenya, a silence over the jailing of Mr. Khodorkovsky and theft of Youko’s assets;  France’s decision even after the Georgia war to sell Russia Mistral –class assault ships; most recently the failure of British Ministers to complain about the suspicious death in jail of Sergei Magnitskym a lawyer representing a London – based investor, who had uncovered  a massive fraud by Russia’s officials”.

This article is not about Russia or the acceptance or the rejection of validity of the critique on Russia but it is about the fact that in diplomatic relations narrow self – interest colour judgement of the ‘truth’.   There is a moral decadence in judgement with different measurements used for different countries.  The explanation the news item gives for such moral rectitude is that the West’s  “fear of upsetting the Russians whose help they wanted over Iran, led Western political leaders to bite their tongues this year”.

It is clear that relatively less powerful nations have no status in the conduct of diplomatic relations.  In this light Sri Lanka has no weight in the calculations of the West.  It would seem therefore that the country gets no credit for vanquishing a rebel group that challenged the nation using violence as its technique; that the President was slighted by the withdrawal of the invitation to address the Oxford Union because of protests staged in and around London and the possible threat of such protests in Oxford itself.  The respect due to Heads of Nations was appallingly overlooked; and so was the over indulgence for the protest staged by the Diaspora that brought about the denial of protocol to a visiting Head of State.

Equally pathetic was the cancellation of the Memorial lecture for the late Mr. Lakshman Kadirgamar, who was felled down by the terrorists, to be given by the Defence Secretary Liam fox, who has longstanding ties of friendship with Sri Lanka.  This period in time in which so much money and effort is put into demolishing the forces of terrorism, it is a sad record that the lecture had to be cancelled for a flimsy reason offered by the British foreign ministry.  This is the fate of small counties that have no bargaining value that could be traded in the international arena profitably to service other nations.

Wikileaks raises questions of “principle, practice and priority”.  But it does expose some of the contradictions in the perception and actual application processes; in integrity and realpolitick; the differentiation in the open and concealed face of diplomacy.  What is proclaimed as the principled policy stance to the world is frequently disclaimed in application through the machinations in state craft. “the big danger is that America is provoked into bending or breaking its own rules, straining alliances, eroding credibility and – it will not be able to muzzle Wikileaks- ultimately seeming impotent” (Economist Dec.11,2010  The Right reaction.)

Post war liberalism
But small nations can garner power if they begin within their own environment to reinforce “ humanity’s  belief in justice, strengthen its confidence in the nobility of the human soul and sustain all our hopes for a glorious life for all”.  Sri Lanka has faced the natural disaster as well as the uprisings in the north and the South.  Having introduced relative peace Sri Lanka can speak the words of Mandela “that the spiritual and physical oneness we all have with this common homeland explains the depth of the pain we all carried in our hearts when we saw our country tear itself apart in a terrible conflict …precisely because it has become the universal base of pernicious ideology and practice of racism and racial oppression.”  Sri Lankans must ensure that our victory over forces of destabilisation brings us just not the end of conflict but with it justice and the much desired human dignity.   It is vital that we do not continue to divide for there will be many occasions when transgressions are made which will tempt those subjected to injustice to want to divide. However having known the ravages of war and the toll it had taken in human suffering it would be foolhardy to whip up feelings to stage opposition stance; it will be wiser counsel to project the shortcomings and bring about an end to inequalities; efforts must be made to open up opportunities for development of the individual and the community and the emphasis must be on pacification rather than the arousal of anger in a charged atmosphere.  We could also in this period of transition learn many lessons from Mahatma Gandhi’s approach to non violence.  It is vital that we use the best skills in diplomacy to international relations as well as in the domestic sphere if permanent progress is what we have in mind. An understanding of these realities will give us a chance to forge ahead and be counted in the comity of nations. “A great nation cannot long be governed by wishful and simplistic thinking, denial, obfuscation, and deceit.  Cost mount, grievances accumulate, and there comes a reckoning”. (Paul Starr, Freedom’s Power)The country has to move on, emancipated  and forward looking strengthened by value based leadership to use diplomacy as the sharpened tool to toss away all the cobwebs in the system.

Long Reads

[Editors note: The author is the editor of Challenges for Nation Building: Priorities for Sustainability and Inclusivity. Nation building post war was written by the Editor of Groundviews for this publication.