Trump’s Sri Lanka?


Trump’s Sri Lanka?

Sathiya Moorthy The Sunday Leader, Colombo, 19 Febriuary 2017

  • Rather than fighting American wars elsewhere, if only to secure the ‘homeland’ from military/militant attacks, and/or its economy, he seems keen to protect and strengthen that protection from within
  • Sooner than later, Trump would come to understand that trust of nations is not built on shouting the other one down, and try to out-smart the one afterward, too
  • Trump is no Obama – he does not seem to care for a Nobel Peace Prize even when he quits White House, leave alone having one even as he entered office

Come March, and the ritualistic bi-annual UNHRC meeting in Geneva could give the world a peep into the mint-class US President Donald Trump’s Sri Lanka policy in particular, and his Administration’s South Asia policy otherwise. Rather, it could clarify the new US definition, if any, for terrorism, going beyond its limited application to those that target ‘American homeland’ and the ‘all-American supreme national self-interests’ elsewhere, too, as was the case under predecessor President Barack Obama and others before him.

Going beyond what’s visible on Trump’s seven-nation visa ban, identified with as many Islamic nations, and also the H1B restrictive visa order that impacts on emigrant professionals from South Asia, among others, there seems to be a method to his purported madness. Either he is taking America back to the ‘isolationist’ era before First World War, or is aping the likes of ‘Cold War’ era China to re-invent and rejuvenate the US on all fronts before (a) future President(s) in his place could return the nation to where the rest of the free world still believes it belonged – but not Trump, any more.

That’s to say, Trump is withdrawing America to the physical reality of the American borders – both geo-strategic and economic terms. Rather than fighting American wars elsewhere, if only to secure the ‘homeland’ from military/militant attacks, and/or its economy, he seems keen to protect and strengthen that protection from within.

That’s to say, if China, for instance, were to emerge as a military threat to American interests, hopefully only elsewhere in the world, Trump would not tire of taking up the challenge. If it’s ‘global terrorism’ instead, the work has to begin and be strengthened closer to the border.

Cutting losses

The visa-ban on the citizens of seven nations, all Islamic, with all its dimensions is a case in point, with the American courts being seized of it just now. The Trump initiative now could trigger an American national discourse on terrorism-related policies, which have either been fanciful (as their thoughtless post-9/11 military expeditions in Afghanistan and Iraq have proved, once again).

The message is clear. You cannot equate terrorism with Vietnam, or a ‘red world’ of communists, and go about the destruction of the latter in the same mould as succeeded in the case of the former. Where America succeeded against communists, it was against ‘State actors’. Where it was a non-State player, as in Vietnam in the end, it had not thought of the ‘Day After’ and did not even know how to get out and cut losses.

On the economic front, likewise, as a shrewd businessman he seems to be seeing through the impossibility of continuing with the Breton Wood arrangement far too long than already. Without accepting it in the open (which anyway is not his style), he seems to acknowledge that the days of America printing dollars by the trillion to keeps its economy afloat has not taken it too far, either.

Likewise, the US-induced instrumentalities of the IMF and the World Bank may have delayed the arrival of nations such as China and India, which the West could not but co-opt. But a time would, according to the predictions and postulates of the West itself, when the ‘other world’ would begin dictating terms, but in a saner and less of a manipulative mode than since the conclusion of the Second World War. Hence, possibly the Trump policy on H1B visa, which also saves American jobs for Americans, and makes America less of a nation of immigrants than over the past three-plus centuries. That it meant catering to a domestic constituency, mostly of blue-collar workers and their families, and continually so even after winning the elections, need not deflect from an underlying economic concern, which however America needs to discuss, debate and decide upon, if Trump has to ensure continuity beyond his term and time.

It’s now proved that America is unable to keep service-sector jobs of whatever kind but has been able to retain much of the manufacturing jobs – especially in the armament sector. It would thus be interesting to see how Trump retains the investments, markets – and jobs – in the latter even while creating more jobs and generating family incomes in the H1B visa sector where more jobs are available to Indians and others, and beyond the American borders.

In a way, it would mean retaining and improving the inflow of dollars in their trillions and stalling and stopping the outflow of dollar-jobs outside the US. In this, Trump seems to have targeted allies more than the adversaries, both of whom he has inherited. By ticking off European friends of the US, Australia and Japan, he seems to be practising a typical trader mentality of seeking to negotiating from a position of relative strength, and compelling/forcing the other to do so.

Trust of nations 

Sooner than later, Trump would come to understand that trust of nations, unlike those of individuals and industries, is not built on shouting the other one down, and try to out-smart the one afterward, too. Instead, bilateral dependability between nations, independent of individuals and institutions at the helm, are based on decades and centuries of mutual dependence and dependability.

The alternative could be for the world, starting with the American domestic polity and institutions, to eat out of Trump’s hands. The voters have already done it, as his prescription(s) tasted good for them before testing the same. Whether it’s really so or not is for Trump to prove, to the entire satisfaction of his American customer for starters.

If he is successful, Trump would have left behind a legacy for Americans to relish and cherish. If not, he would have destroyed whatever had been built over decades and centuries. America might never be able to rise again, given especially the economic predictions that have been doing the rounds for the past two or three decades.

War-crime probe

It’s in this background that Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans need to look at Trump, his policy for Indian Ocean in general and South Asia in particular. That should of course exclude Afghanistan and Pakistan where the US is engaged. Until and unless Trump or any other American President or any other world leader or leaders is able to ‘humanise’ these two nations, they would remain a geo-political entity in South Asia but would remain outside of it in geo-strategic terms, especially.

It’s thus that Trump’s American perception of terrorism could influence the UNHRC discourse and debate in March. As the presiding member of the UNHRC that had moved for an ‘international probe’ on war-time accountability issues in Sri Lanka, and moderating its position, if only vaguely since ‘regime-change’ in January 2015, the US and the US alone has the potential to date in changing the dynamics of the Geneva proceedings in March.

Unfamiliar with the ways of Sri Lankan politicians and policy-makers, as with most other leaders elsewhere in the world, Trump and his advisors are more likely to draw from their own policy-formulations, if any, than on personality-linked politics from Sri Lanka’s immediate past. Their position in the UNHRC, while being not much different from that of Obama’s in the last two years, might be influenced by their hawkish, neo-con perceptions over terrorism as a concept than on personality-driven preferences that contributed to ‘regime-change’, as former President Mahinda Rajapaksa is not tired of calling.

That way, if Trump’s America has had reservations about Sri Lanka’s increasing tilt towards China despite the regime-change, then it might not be linked to the US position on terrorism, and hence human rights issues of the UNHRC kind. It might try to distinguish between the two, and target Sri Lanka more directly on the China front, in ways that hurts Sri Lanka more than in euphemistic ways of the Human Rights Council and international probes.


Crying ‘foul’

This, if it were to be so, could hurt Sri Lanka more substantially than in ways UNHRC is supposed to interfere with the nation’s internal affairs, post-war. This can however have consequences, especially on the ethnic front.

Hurt and angered already by the increasing indifference of the international community on the one hand, and the nation’s mainline Sinhala polity, which has been busy fighting itself on the political front at present, as always, the Tamil community and polity, could shout ‘Foul’ all over again. This time, going beyond the Indian neighbour, they would also tie up the West this time round, to the ‘majoritarian Sinhala regimes’ from the past and the present, well into the future.

As the co-chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, President Obama’s Secretary of State, John Kerry, had authored a report that highlighted the ‘strategic importance’ of Sri Lanka in American geo-strategic scheme. President Mahinda and his team misread the same to think that Sri Lanka was indispensable to the US viz China, as was to the Indian neighbour, and would bent backward to accommodate his regime at UNHRC and elsewhere. The US reacted differently, and the result(s), according to Mahinda R, is there for all to see.

On American terms

Trump is no Obama – he does not seem to care for a Nobel Peace Prize even when he quits White House, leave alone having one even as he entered office. Nor does he pretends wanting to be one. If he chooses Sri Lanka as an ally, it would be on American terms, and he would leave no one in any doubt about it.

It would not however stop with the Sri Lankan State, or the Sinhala polity. Tamil leaders nearer home in the US, like TNGTE’s self-appointed ‘prime minister’ Viswanathan Rudrakumaran is camped closer to home in the US itself, seeking and promoting the cause of a ‘separate nation’, sliced out of a united Sri Lanka. So could the likes of more moderate hard-liners like Northern Province Chief Minister C. V. Wigneswaran and his kind of arguments suffer at the hands of a Trump leadership.

The question is not about what is right or wrong in their perception, or that of the UNHRC. It’s not about the traditional American way of arm-twisting the Sri Lankan State and leadership on human rights, to send out a message on China, or even a ‘united nation’, if only to ensure that the likes of China did not seek to exploit one way or the other. They could all be departmentalised and compartmentalised.

UNHRC-March could show where it all would begin. The end may not be in sight soon enough, as American status quo at Geneva too could address Trump’s idea(s) of continuity with change. Maybe, he would settle down to business by the September session, and then possibly (if at all), Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans would get to know more about Trump and his approach and attitude to geo-politics and geo-strategic policies of a ‘new America’.

Read with the acceptance that if a Trump was not born, 21st century America would have made one such an approach would make more sense. And this Trump starts on the home-front, and may keep it there itself – with the promise to do more, nearer home and overseas, too, if and if only given a second term! That however is for America and Americans to decide. Sri Lankans especially can do nothing about it, now or ever!

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: [email protected])


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N Sathiya Moorthy is Senior Fellow and Director, ORF Chennai A double-graduate in Physics and Law, and with a journalism background, N. Sathiya Moorthy is at present Senior Fellow & Director of the Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation. Starting his journalism career in the Indian Express – now, the New Indian Express – at Thiruvananthapuram as a Staff Reporter in the late Seventies, Sathiya Moorthy worked as a Subeditor at the newspaper’s then sole publication centre in Kerala at Kochi. Sathiya Moorthy later worked in the Times of Deccan, Bangalore, and the Indian Express, Ahmedabad. Later, he worked as a Senior/Chief Sub at The Hindu, Chennai, and as News Editor, The Sunday Mail (Chennai edition). He has thus worked for most major English language national newspapers in the country, particularly with the advent of Tamil Nadu as the key decision maker in national politics demanding that all newspaper had a reporter in Chennai that they could not afford to have full-time. This period also saw Sathiya Moorthy working as Editor of Aside magazine, Chennai, and as Chief News Editor, Raj TV. In the new media of the day, he was contributing news-breaks and analyses to since its inception. Later, he worked as the Editorial Consultant/Chief News Editor of the trilingual Sri Lankan television group MTV, Shakti TV and Sirasa. Since 2002, Sathiya Moorthy has been the Honorary/full-time Director of the Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation. In the course of his job and out of personal interest, he has been studying India’s southern, Indian Ocean neighbours, namely Maldives and Sri Lanka, as well as the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC). He regularly writes on these subjects in traditional and web journals. He has also authored/edited books on Sri Lanka, and contributed chapters on India’s two immediate southern neighbours. His book on Maldives is waiting to happen. As part of his continuing efforts to update his knowledge and gain greater insights into the politics and the society in these two countries in particular, Sathiya Moorthy visits them frequently. Among other analytical work, he has been writing a weekly column for over 10 years in the Colombo-based Daily Mirror, first, and The Sunday Leader, since, for nearly 10 years, focusing mainly on Sri Lankan politics and internal dynamics, and at times on bilateral and multilateral relations of that nation. Expertise • Indian Politics, Elections, Public Affairs • Maldives • Sri Lanka • South Asia • Journalism and Mass Media Current Position(s) • Senior Fellow and Director, ORF Chennai Education • BGL, Madras University • BSc, Madurai University