Foreign Policy: Sri Lanka and South Asia and the Conundrum to Resolve

  • October 1, 2021
  • IDN

Photo: NAM process in South Asia and in the Middle East. NAM summit in Iran. CC BY 4.0.

By A. L. A. Azeez*     1 October 2021

COLOMBO (IDN) — Whenever the foreign policy of the government of Sri Lanka is explained, the familiar refrains that are bandied around are ‘non-alignment’ and ‘neutrality’. No other South Asian country today has the burden of clarifying its foreign policy in terms of such ideals or any other as much as Sri Lanka seems to have demonstrated as of late.

Of all foreign policy materials publicly accessible as concerns Bangladesh and Nepal recently, there is very little that is found flaunting such ideals other than by way of a general reference to a statement of policy. Such a policy, however, acts on the background as an overarching principle. It leaves foreign policy actors enough scope, though, to take pragmatic decisions in their national interests.

For all practical purposes, Pakistan asserts ‘non-alignment’ often in advancing its multilateral positions, but it also plays an active role within, and makes particular use of, the Non-Aligned Movement to advance its causes, proving that the principle it professes and the forum it uses are in sync. Even then, it doesn’t go so far as to assert neutrality as a virtue. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is not just economic but geo-strategic and geopolitical even as they were not so proclaimed by those who design and implement the project.

Foreign policymaking in the Maldives is a different ball game altogether. The country stuck with Saudi Arabia (and UAE) as against Iran (and Qatar) during the cold war of the Persian Gulf. It still remains, however, a vibrant participant in the NAM processes although, following the election of the new President in 2018, it has aligned itself closely to India and the US.

For India, whose principles of foreign policy were once based on Panchsheel, feeding into the joint statement adopted by the Afro-Asian Conference in Bandung in April 1955, and thereafter into the Non-Aligned Movement in 1961, neither ‘non-alignment’ nor ‘neutrality’ appears to be in vogue today. ‘Non-aligned’ has been effectively replaced by ‘multi-aligned’ in what it considers to be a pragmatic approach to external relations. This is so even as some Indian foreign policy wonks take pains to explain it away by citing certain ‘region first’ thrusts in the Indian foreign policy spectrum.

But what took the cake in recent times in Sri Lanka’s foreign policy domain was the fast-minted jargon and articulation of ‘India First’ policy.

Sri Lanka’s foreign policy appears to have made considerable headway in its terminological inventiveness in recent times. At one level it may pass off as Sri Lanka’s positive energy. At another, like the statement issued on Afghanistan for instance, it shows how seriously the country lags behind the rest of the world in grasping global and regional realities.

While the South Block may have its own aspersions or a sense of joy over such an upfront assertion, it was ironically left to the Chinese Ambassador in Colombo to correct the course or the tutorial, so to say.

He spoke perhaps drawing upon Chinese wisdom. Sri Lanka should first think of ‘Sri Lanka First’, he reminded in an interview with a Sri Lankan newspaper not many months ago.

So, the question that begs for answer in the case of Sri Lanka is why there is an over-reliance on the principles of non-alignment and neutrality to a point where it becomes devoid of actual content, and hence out of touch with reality, both current and evolving.

There is nothing inherently wrong talking of neutrality and non-alignment in the conduct of foreign policy of a country. There are times when both or either can be used as circumstances may demand. The problem, however, lies in the manner and tenor of using it. The context matters. The purpose even more so. The global and regional strategic milieu matters the most. In sum you need to have a policy landscape which actually warrants their conceptual deployment as a matter of conscious choice.

An incisive analysis of the contextual uses of these ideals by Sri Lanka in recent times make it clear as to when and where they are actually asserted. lt doesn’t seem as though they were strongly in articulation for instance when China is the elephant in the foreign policy room. Peppering of any other discussion where other significant states are involved, of these ideals may have only recently become a trait.

There are two conceivable ways in which this conundrum could be explained. It is either a problem of ‘seeing’ or a threat of ‘overseeing’: seeing by Sri Lanka herself or overseeing Sri Lanka by another.

The extent of overseeing one country by another depends on the extent to which that country may appear to have ‘ceded’ sovereignty, or to have otherwise become overly dependent in relation to that another. But one does not need to labour the point hard here. It is something that may perhaps dawn on Sri Lankans when the Rip Van Winkle in them wakes up to eventual reality.

The problem of seeing, nonetheless, is real. For emphasis, I would say ‘real’ real since that word itself is losing its real meaning in Sri Lankan context. It needs to be discerned against what is emerging to be Sri Lanka’s post-truth summer, driven by a couple of TV channels bent on dividing country which the LTTE once attempted at and failed—but this time by media moguls through the diffusion of untruths and hate-mongering.

The post-truth streak in Sri Lankan polity is traceable to 2010 whereas the actual post-truth world which was brought up to speed with the emergence of Trump in 2017 arose in a different context, linked to the financial meltdown of 2008 in the United States.

Amidst the Covid-19 pandemic that the country continues to experience and in the post-Covid era that still eludes but is hopefully on the horizon, and given especially what they tend to consider as their take on ‘new normal’ provided there is indeed a new normal, much of Sri Lanka’s challenge appears to consist in ‘seeing’ and ‘not seeing’ and in the interpretation that is made of what is seen and what is not seen.

What follows therefore is a toolkit for self-test, with a couple of questions and a theoretical frame. The latter in my view remains only hypothetical for the present.

The primary question that needs to be raised is: ‘Do you see how you see?’

Credit: The Asian Age online, Bangladesh

The German philosopher and social theorist Niklas Luhmann asks this question from persons who do not see how they ‘see’. The same could be asked from persons who have got used to seeing things as how they appear to them in the first instance.

When this question is thrust into another equally important question of how individuals interpret things as they appear to ‘see’, a basic aspect of the conundrum would seem to emerge: The challenge of ‘seeing’ and the interpretation given to what is ‘seen’ or what is not ‘seen’.

Now, bring in the phenomenon known as familiarity-bias, generally an investment decision-making factor, to bear upon the said two questions. Does it explain what prompts individuals to make the judgements they make, through ‘seeing’ or ‘not seeing’ and/or through interpretation?

To recap, Luhmann’s theory is about blind spots, and about how one is guided to see what one ‘sees.’ Such guidance, in his postulation, aims to assist individuals so that they are better able to ‘see’, without being constrained by factors that usually make them see in a particular way, or prevent them from ‘seeing’ at all.

Add to this, the familiarity-bias, and the likelihood is that the ‘particular way of seeing’ is not just influenced by likes, dislikes and prejudices one may have. But it also results in inferences or assumptions that one’s mind is subconsciously disposed to, often leading to contrary takes or projections.

The theory that Luhmann developed relates specifically to individuals, and the guidance comes from one individual to another in what is called ‘second-order observation’. In my view, this could even apply to institutions as well as persons operating such institutions, and guidance in such contexts could be drawn from within.

Most commentators emphatically make the point that Covid-19 is bringing in its wake new possibilities that could be of benefit to countries if prudently harnessed. But the fact remains that new possibilities could be harnessed to advantage only when one ‘sees’ things without being constrained by inhibitive factors.

The public domain in recent times is saturated with numerous articles and viewpoints including by foreign ministers and foreign secretaries on post-Covid challenges. Most of them invariably focus on how foreign policy and foreign relations should evolve and be conducted post-Covid-19.

For many of them, it presents a new opportunity or a new threat. Some prefer to emphasize more on what seemingly has worked well thus far: the importance of Information and Communication Technology. Everything else, it would appear, is also built around ICT services. Among exceptions remain issues at the intersections of health and security as well as of basic needs and social stability.

There is always a likelihood of policymakers tending to rely on what they apparently ‘see’ as substantive input for serious policy. However, it has the risk of degenerating into strategic errors, irreversible in the future when policy decisions are made based on the ‘appearance’ of things.

The main thrust of the articles and viewpoints I have referred to is the specific point made to ‘new normal’ as well as to the challenges and opportunities the commentators think the new phenomenon entails for their countries. It makes one wonder if the Trojan Horse of ‘old wine issues’ is gaining an intravenous entry into what should primarily be the policy domain for serious discussion of futuristic perspectives. It is evident that the kind of strategic, critical and innovative thoughts that ought to inform, drive, and define or refine foreign policy- and its scope in particular- have yet to find their way seriously into policy calculi. Sri Lanka is evidently a case in point.

It is a truism that an individual ordinarily does not see beyond what he/she ‘sees’ especially when he/she looks at or has got used to looking at things in a particular way over a long period of time. A conceivable explanation for this is that mental fixation creates mindsets, which hardly allows for flexibility. It is so even as new and emerging challenges demand urgent attention and response. I believe Luhmaan would suggest ‘second-order observation’ as a possible way out of this dilemma.

I have mentioned earlier about familiarity-bias, a term common in the investment lexicon. Perhaps one would not be amiss to assume that the term may have got into the investment lexicon, overflowing from the language of political behavior. It goes thus: You invest in particular stocks (groups), because you feel unfamiliar with other investment choices.

Likewise, you gravitate towards the ‘familiar’ because persons who are known to you have told you their investments were safe.

Extrapolated into the policy-making process, leaving aside its relationship to behavioral science, this approach would suggest that it is safer to deal with the same set of issues in the same manner that one is used to over a considerable period of time. Such an approach in the investment arena may yield dividends. In the specific realms of foreign policy and foreign relations, however, the risk is that it could prove to be rather unproductive if not necessarily counterproductive.

Sri Lanka President addressing 76th UNGA

It is in this context that the statement attributed to the President of Sri Lanka in New York, that he would engage with the diaspora, has become significant. The fact remains, however, that the concept of “Overseas Sri Lankans’ touted as a cornerstone of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy in late 2019 and early 2020 leaves much to be desired, lacking in inclusibity except in rhetoric.

It is widely acknowledged today that the Covid-19 phenomenon or the so-called new normal has brought in its wake some new norms for human behaviour. It has undoubtedly made some of the existing norms redundant or obsolete. Nevertheless, it is still obvious that the normative frameworks of broader human relations and international conduct remain by and large intact.

An exponential increase in the use of ICT tools in bridging the hiatus and thrusting human relations and international interactions to a domain, previously dominated by social media actors, was not an entirely unexpected development. It was in the making for a long time since the social media platforms became more popular and accessible. What Covid-19 has done at this ‘unexpected’ moment is that it has microscoped what was to happen in years, into one of an immediate term.

This notwithstanding, it appears to me that reading too much into the ongoing phase of Covid-19 or the so-called new normal could only be too simplistic or premature. To assume that post-Covid dynamics are in fact changing or will be changing drastically the fundamental nature and scope of issues already extant in countries will be a bit of an overstretch of reality. Those issues are hardly to change save to the extent that there may be other overwhelming reasons for such change. Shifts in the balance of power, however, are an entirely different matter even as the multi-dimensionality of the pandemic might have a bearing upon it.

It is timely that Sri Lanka and other South Asian countries should have a deeper reflection on this aspect of continued persistence of already extant issues as they attune their foreign policies to the urgency of new and emerging challenges.

It is pretty much certain that wanting such a compulsive change, the challenge of ‘seeing’ and the need for resolving or responding to what is ‘seen’ and/or ‘unseen’ would revolve around all policy-related and political concerns and are likely to continue into the post-Covid world. Sri Lanka stands at a crossroads on this crucial issue.

Concerns and issues often are of an intersecting nature in development and policy settings. Arriving at a judicious mix of both the ‘conscious’ and the ‘unseen’ is in order if a high-impact response or outcome is to be sought. The former, traditionally, has a place in foreign policymaking and in the conduct of foreign relations, but the latter, in most cases, is a missing piece in the puzzle. It is important to avoid such gaping holes in Sri Lanka’s policy-making processes if they were to be meaningful and effective.

Many a lapse in the making and projection of key foreign policy priorities, including economic diplomacy, is attributable to this missing piece. Further, an absence of the reflection of the latter in policy-making processes has the risk of debasing the former in the long run, thus rendering the policy thus made, devoid of scope and direction.

Understanding, through a reasoned approach, the ‘conscious’ and the ‘unseen’ and bringing to bear upon the policy discourses on the former, the essential elements of the latter, is thus a crucial challenge for judicious policymaking. It is more so for foreign policy. Any remarkable success in foreign relations lies to a great extent in getting this linkage right.

In professional services, a conscious, and continuously cultivated mind can both ‘see’, as well as see-through, providing second-order observation within systems. It can help overcome familiarity-bias without the services of one from the outside. For that to happen, the essential condition remains the sustainment of professional culture and a conducive environment for professionalism. It is here that Sri Lanka will be at a particular disadvantage compared to all other South Asian countries that continue to nurture and actively promote professionalism in their foreign services.

So until then, or until Rip Van Winkle wakes up to eventual reality, the paragons of neutrality and non-alignment in Sri Lanka would hopefully have their heyday, and I grudge not. [IDN-InDepthNews — 29 September 2021]

*The author last served as Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations and International Organisations in Geneva, and previously as Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka in Vienna.

Photo: NAM process in South Asia and in the Middle East. NAM summit in Iran. CC BY 4.0.

IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.

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