Diplomacy Challenges: Sri Lanka at 75-Parts 1 and 2


Diplomacy Challenges: Sri Lanka at 75 (Part 1)

By H.M.G.S. Palihakkara    16 February 2023

The writer is a former Foreign Secretary during Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar’s tenure in office, and one-time Ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva and New York.

COLOMBO (IDN) — Sri Lanka at 75 is hopefully on course to a stable transition to recovery from a crippling crisis, and then to a sustainable growth path. Whether this is a mere hope or a realistic expectation is still too early to tell.

What is real, however, is that Sri Lanka’s diplomacy has got its work cut out. A recovery seamlessly leading to growth will, of necessity, require complex negotiations abroad on external inputs in tandem with a spirited local effort towards stability and consensus.

These negotiations involve a multiplicity of players and interests in the realms of our creditor and investment constituencies — state, non-state, multilateral and bilateral. Obviously, diplomacy of this effort needs to factor in geopolitical forces at play in these domains while negotiators endeavour to calibrate our recovery and growth needs accordingly. Also, there is the bothersome reality that we are not negotiating from a position of strength or equality but out of dire need.

The country is obliged to promote, negotiate and secure these external inputs in the face of a couple of countervailing factors as well. Its ability to negotiate as a Sovereign with proven competence in governance stands impaired by the crisis.

Meanwhile, politics here remains mired, as usual one might add, in parochial stuff including regime change schemes rather than focusing on a crisis-exit agenda based on a consensual reform project.

Secondly, Sri Lankan diplomacy has to do all this at a time when the world itself is navigating an array of downturns and fractures, both economic and political, entailing disruption and even destruction in some cases.

Intermestic factors

All this is sobering. However, it also suggests that the challenge is “intermestic”, as the pundits call it. Jargon apart, this notion captures a simple home truth about a fundamental ‘domestic-foreign affairs nexus’ our diplomacy has to reckon with in the context of the current crisis.  Our local actions and inactions impact what we can do abroad to secure our interests and vice versa.

Following the conception of this idea in 1979 by Bayless Manning, the first President of the Council on Foreign Relations, a US think tank, theorists and practitioners alike have used and expanded it to describe and understand this coupling between domestic and foreign affairs in diverse situations ranging from the Vietnam war then to the Ukraine war now, and how leaders made choices, recklessly at times, to wage war or make peace in problem-solving.

Researchers have given further examples, on a broader front, of this interface between domestic-foreign relations matters touching upon war and peace, tariffs and debt, governance, human rights, accountability, reconciliation and so on.

Sri Lanka has not been unfamiliar with the intermestic nature of its public policy and governance deficits as well as its leadership failures.

Our leaders’ inability or unwillingness to forge a political consensus for an independent and credible domestic process of post-conflict peace-building in general and accountability and reconciliation in particular, and their failure to implement the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) and follow-up commissions, let these essentially domestic issues migrate abroad and morph into foreign relations (FR) issues.

Human rights issues have thus become diplomatic challenges culminating in a plethora of Human Rights Council (HRC) Resolutions of escalating intrusiveness not only in the realm of civil and political rights but now touching on other areas of governance, like the economy, corruption, etc.

The HRC Resolution of last year is considered the epitome of this escalation.  The upshot of all this is the creation of a UN funded office in Geneva to do ‘prosecutorial’ work on alleged offenders in Sri Lanka — a virtual outsourcing of the Sri Lankan Attorney General’s warrant to a bureaucracy abroad.

This is an intrusiveness quite unprecedented for any country, let alone Sri Lanka which has had a reputation as a progressive third-world democracy espousing egalitarian ethos, at least for over a quarter of a century since Independence.

So, the Governments spend time and effort defending its human rights record rather than defending the human rights of its citizens as required by our constitutional and treaty obligations.

Over the years, our political and policy establishments have obviously failed to guide the economy away from a culture of ‘dependency and entitlement’ towards a self-reliant and sustainable path addressing the deep-rooted and long-standing problem of the paucity of enlightened reform, including what the Aragalaya (the Sinhalese word for “struggle” used widely to describe the daily gathering of people at Colombo’s Galle Face Green) signified.

We thus took this intermesticity to a new level in the ongoing economic crisis – a crisis that entailed existential issues for the entire population perhaps for the first time in post-independence history.

Naturally, external inputs needed to recover from this necessitate building common ground among competing and even rival geopolitical players like China, India, Japan and the US-led West as well as collaborative multilateral entities of the Bretton Woods system such as the IMF, World Bank, etc. To this list of bilaterals and multilaterals, one needs to add the non-state creditors who hold the lion’s share of what we owe.

This task demands harmonising diplomacy, on the one hand, and hard-nosed negotiations, on the other. The need is to produce what must ‘appear’ as win-win solutions for all stakeholders, local and foreign.

Consequently, these outcomes must represent a reasonable distribution of ‘managed dissatisfaction’-sans perfect happiness to any particular party-among the interlocutors concerned.

During his recent visit to Colombo, Indian External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar confirmed ‘strong’ Indian support for IMF’s Extended Fund Facility and debt sustainability for Sri Lanka while reports about China’s support sounded more nuanced and a bit ambivalent.

Despite qualifications, this is good news but conclusive negotiations on debt sustainability plus medium and long-term measures must continue and can be bumpy. The Indian Minister’s reaffirmation during his visit, of the principle that ‘all creditors must be treated equally’; China’s persistent ambiguity on the debt sustainability issue, while appearing to be very ‘humanitarian’ towards Sri Lanka’s troubles and terse polemical between the highly vocal US and Chinese envoys in Colombo on the same subject, even testing the resilience of the ‘Third country refrain’ of conventional diplomacy, are testimony to these challenges.

Does Sri Lanka have the leverage to sort all these out? Enfeebled by the crisis and its precursor failures, it may not have a compelling clout.

But it can offer something else — a template for recovery and subsequent growth viz. a domestic political consensus on commitment to a reform programme and its continuity over the long haul. That is how other countries in similar predicaments recovered and grew – e.g., Italy and Greece to name two.

We, of course, do not have to follow everything the two countries did. After all, the Italians lost a world war and the Greeks an empire! But we can learn from their more recent recovery experience that brought about a reasonably apolitical and consensual governance framework geared for reform and recovery (R&R).

Why should the President and his domestic rivals be interested in a consensual template? Simply put, the crux of the matter is that we are once again asking Governments of other countries to persuade their taxpayers and the Board Members of foreign entities to foot the bill of public policy blunders and political mischief we have repeatedly made over the past decades in this country.

We are doing this, having defaulted on many reform promises made before. So, our interlocutors including the much-needed FDI sources must know that this vicious cycle (of crisis-promise of reform-predictable non-compliance) will not be replayed this time around.

The only way to do that is to strive for a general understanding on R&R so that the promised reforms will not be unravelled by the next government that comes along or decimated in the blood sport called election politics in this country.

The much-quoted Singaporean statesman, the late Lee Kuan Yew, probably had this in mind when he made reference to the slew of elections here: “…in Sri Lanka, elections are an auction of non-existent resources.”

The current President continuously exhorts (including in Parliament just about a week ago) about ‘working together’ to overcome the crisis. The Opposition, too, has affirmed that although it does not want to join what it calls a franchise-less government, it will nonetheless support a programme for recovery.

So, the consensus ingredients are there. Now they must walk the talk and bring it to fruition while reserving the right and opportunity to fight elections on other issues. This will be good confidence building all around — among the people, negotiators and other stakeholders, foreign and local.

Secondly, the plain truth is that both the crisis as well as reforms aimed at its resolution will obviously cause a great deal of pain. Paradoxically, reforms that are so essential for recovery can be equally, if not more, destabilising than the problem itself since people are faced with the brunt of double jeopardy in quick succession viz. crisis pain dovetailing into reform pain. [IDN-InDepthNews – 09 February 2023]

To be continued…


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

Image: Protests in Sri Lanka for political change

Diplomacy Challenges: Sri Lanka at 75 (Part 2)

By H.M.G.S. Palihakkara

The writer is a former Foreign Secretary during Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar’s tenure in office and one-time Sri Lankan Ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva and New York.

COLOMBO (IDN) — The proposed reforms in Sri Lanka cannot be ‘unleashed’ on a crisis-ridden people in a rapid-fire single burst like what seems to be happening now. They need to be introduced in a calibrated way along with necessary safety measures in parallel.

Above all, they need a bipartisan marketing strategy that will have traction with people so as to ensure that adverse effects are mitigated to the maximum and recovery paves the way to eventual relief and well-being.

That cannot be done in an unmanageable cauldron of election polemics, union activism and assorted street manifestations of different partisan hues that could outgrow from an ‘onslaught’ of intimidating reforms in one go.

Nor can it be managed by repression of dissent through a widely loathed PTA or a clumsy bureaucracy which seems to be the line of thinking and action at the moment.

Prudence demands that the above bipartisan project be brought to a successful conclusion. While the opposition must play its role, the President must be the prime mover of the process of negotiating this understanding.

Public posturing alone would not suffice. And the President must stop chasing dissenters and the residue of the Aragalaya (the Sinhalese word for “struggle” used widely to describe the daily gathering of people at Colombo’s Galle Face Green) but start chasing consensus through good faith negotiations.  Public polemics will only aggravate polarisation.

One thing should be clear to any impartial observer, though.  While criticising the President as they must, the Opposition needs to acknowledge that despite the debate about the Kautilyan politics of his ascent to the job, the President has undertaken the unenviable burden of the essential but hugely unpopular reforms project.

This he has done possibly incurring a heavy political cost. The least the opposition parties can do for themselves and the country is to use that space to pave a bipartisan way out of this crisis. This way, the President has an opportunity to leave his legacy behind and the opposing parties can have their electoral bonuses because the President has shouldered an otherwise ‘untouchable’ liability possibly becoming the whipping boy for reform in the process.

Last but not the least, almost every crisis embeds opportunities as well. The current crisis we suffer from is no exception. In its broadest sense, it is a crisis about the lack of system-wide accountability along with attendant gaps in reconciliation. Many unimplemented but doable recommendations exist on both.

The urgently felt and widely shared need to reach a common understanding for recovery is a rare platform available to explore and firm up a credible and viable domestic machinery for accountability and reconciliation which remains a growing diplomatic challenge as well.

A proposal by the executive branch of the State alone won’t do. It needs a general understanding across party lines for it to have national and international traction it needs to succeed.

Thus, Sri Lanka at this juncture appears to be confronted with three principal diplomatic burdens of which most, if not all, are intermestic in nature as they emanate largely from a domestic-foreign affairs nexus: managing the inventory of external inputs necessary for the country to recover from the crisis and grow;

In handling the trilemma of deepening and widening our vital relations with China, India and the United States/West—the hegemonic candidacies of the Indo-Pacific theatre—without ruffling their respective geopolitical feathers;

In Internalising the (now externalised) accountability and reconciliation process of Sri Lanka by developing a political consensus for credible, independent and robust mechanisms and procedures on the subject on a system-wide basis.

The challenge for Sri Lanka’s diplomacy will be to show that we are after economic benefits, not strategic or geopolitical mischief and that Sri Lanka will aggressively exploit the full investment and trading potential of all FDI and credit sources including China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

However, this is easily said than done, given the clear and present trends of emerging ‘Indo-Pacific alliances’ seeking to contain China. The history of ‘containment strategies’ dating back to the Cold War tells us that it is a matter of time before ‘containment’ gets militarised and eventually nuclearised, e.g., the latter may already be happening in the Indo-Pacific—our home waters—e.g. the progression of the Quad to AUKUS.

Alliance neutrality

In this context, alliance neutrality, not alliance partnership, is the sensible bet for the likes of Sri Lanka, to maximise and possibly leverage its strategic location value. In doing so, rather than having demarcated ‘zones’ for different investor States thus ‘parcelling out’ our sovereign assets including land to contending powers (e.g. quasi-vasal state projects in Trinco, Hambantota etc.), the whole of Sri Lanka can become a venue supporting multinational investment and multilateral cooperation for growth and development.

This averts geopolitical binds for us involving regional or extra-regional powers and the country will not be the ground zero for a ‘zero sum’ strategic power play by anyone. And we steer clear of the doomsday scenarios of the kind popular in the ‘Indo-Pacific’ analytics literature viz. Sri Lanka can be an unsinkable ‘aircraft carrier parked just off the coast of India’.

We as Sri Lankans may dislike or even despise this particular characterisation. However, for a number of well-founded or ill-founded reasons, it may well be a troubling fear to the Indian security establishment and a spot of bother to the Western Alliance.

Since security is hardly an objective math calculation but a subjective perception, we have no option but to allay that fear through a credible policy of ‘alliance neutrality’ and verifiable assurances of compliance.

This is the best way, perhaps the only way, to craft a prudent foreign policy posture which can ensure that the much-vaunted strategic location of our homeland will be an economic asset and not a geopolitical liability for us.

A good start will be to consider the desirability of public articulation of an enlightened port calls regime—a policy that will, inter alia, invite, subject to safeguards, all vessels plying the Indo-Pacific waters to visit us and boost our port incomes consistent with the ‘innocent passage’ norm, barring those ships on overt or covert conflict related missions.

These considerations take us to the kernel of an overall foreign policy that can be anchored in three elements as below (not necessarily brand new in and of themselves but a refurbishing of what exists in order to try to cope with the current flux): a neutral policy—without any military alignments while shunning power rivalries and related doctrines (neutrality or neo-non-aligned principle)

  1. Friendship and engagement with all expecting reciprocal respect for Sri Lanka’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence. (Mutuality principle)
  2. Support international cooperation including with the UN for achieving Sustainable Development Goals, Peace and Security in accordance with international law including the UN Charter (Policy of cooperation).

Some tend to confuse or conflate the ‘institution’ of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) with the ‘idea’ of non-alignment. This is too simplistic an attitude towards a dynamic conception.

While the Movement or the institution of NAM suffered internal inertia and faded away with the ending of the Cold War, the idea of non-alignment lived on, dynamically creating space for emerging nations to pursue human/territorial security and economic prosperity.

Singapore, an iconic success of the emerging world which was only lukewarm at best towards the NAM even as the Cold War was peaking, shifted gears somewhat a few weeks ago to flag the relevance of this reality. Singaporean Foreign Minister Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan called for a ‘new’ non-aligned foreign policy approach as an enabler, especially for those countries in Asia looking forward to capitalising on their comparative advantages in science, technology, digital space, artificial intel etc. (Next Step Global Conference, Nov. 10, 2022, Singapore.)

He argued cogently that such countries cannot and need not suffer disadvantages or sanctions arising from perceptions about their being on the ‘wrong side’ of a given power rivalry, as they want to derive economic benefits from ‘all sides’.

Non-alignment is not about distancing and meek diplomacy. It is about engagement and robust diplomacy. The utility of this thinking comes into sharper focus in the context of the already ongoing power rivalry and looming confrontation in the ‘Indo-Pacific’ that can lead to conflict potentially reversing the abundance of prosperity Asia has registered and aggravating the paucity of security the continent has begun to perceive.

There were times when Sri Lanka was observed as punching above its GDP weight thereby creating for itself an international diplomatic profile quite in excess of its demographic and economic attributes. Some noteworthy bilateral and multilateral achievements in diverse domains marked this phenomenon.

The late Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar was a great advocate of such a bipartisan culture on foreign policy through which it was possible to do things like peacemaking nationally while combating terrorism internationally including the ban on the LTTE. Under this bipartisan watch, the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry developed the brief that fighting terrorism and fighting for human rights are not mutually exclusive.

What was unique and common to all this was good bipartisan political support for these diplomatic endeavours. The determinant was the national interest, not partisan posturing.

A notable exception was the 2015 HRC Resolution on Sri Lanka. The Yahapalana government unwisely decided to co-sponsor this Resolution pursuing a ‘nouvelle diplomacy’ of owning the undeliverable rather than negotiating a deliverable.

In so doing, the then government sought to build an international consensus on an intrusive and externally driven accountability process in the country, having been unable or unwilling to build a domestic consensus on this same vital issue.

These are contrasting cases of intermestic factors impacting diplomacy and foreign relations positively and negatively. Domestic consensus on critical public policy matters is an enabler of diplomatic and foreign relations success.

When governance and public policy making are in deficit or bereft of broad-based support, diplomacy by itself cannot make miracles. This is true of both routine FR activity and crisis-diplomacy.

Unfortunately, Sri Lanka has been a painful test bed for both. A good faith bipartisan effort aimed at liberating these intermestic interests from parochial regime change enterprises can shed light on a more comfortable consensual way forward.

Paradoxically, the crisis and the widespread demand for a ‘system change’ provided an opportunity to do that. But that has yet to be grasped by the ‘leaders’ on all sides. At 75, some in Jurassic Park may say it is too little too late but most of the next generation will likely say better late than never. [IDN-InDepthNews – 10 February 2023]

Read Part 1: https://www.indepthnews.net/index.php/opinion/5936-diplomacy-challenges-sri-lanka-at-75-part-1

Image: Protests in Sri Lanka for political change

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