I read in a newspaper an account of a recent meeting on the Government’s foreign policy, in which several ex-Ambassadors and others had participated. The outcome was apparently unfavorable to the Government, since it was seen as making foreign policy mistakes which have placed Sri Lanka in a very disadvantageous position. In any case there seems to be a very widespread public perception that the Government has been seriously blundering in the sphere of foreign relations, as a result of which Sri Lanka is getting isolated and could even face punitive sanctions. I have already seen one article in which facts and figures are cited to show that sanctions won’t bite all that much. If sanctions become a realistic prospect, we can expect many more articles in which brilliant statistical casuistry will be expended to show that sanctions won’t matter at all, and may even be beneficial for the economy.
There are two stark hard facts that we must recognize. One is that we could get virtually isolated, and that could be very dangerous in several ways for a country as vulnerable as Sri Lanka is. For the same reason – that is, vulnerability which I won’t detail here – sanctions could be crippling. It is imperative therefore that we correct foreign policy mistakes as quickly as possible. The case I want to argue is that the Government’s foreign policy is right, essentially right, as far as can be judged on the basis of material available to members the public such as myself without insider connections. What have been going wrong, horrendously wrong, are our internal relations which are impacting very adversely on our external relations. I have in mind specifically the Government’s sickening record on human rights and inter-ethnic relations.
I will begin with some observations on how our inter-ethnic relations impact on our relations with India. I don’t believe that India cares two hoots about human rights violations in Sri Lanka. It is concerned only with the violation of Tamil rights and that too only because of the negative fall-out in Tamil Nadu. Its main concern I believe is about a political solution for our Tamil problem, while all the rest does not amount to much more than camouflage. Its main concern therefore is with 13A, and it is on this that our Government has been relentlessly wrecking our relations with India for almost four years. We have had two honorable options. One is to proceed to implement 13A. The other is to negotiate with India to modify it or jettison it altogether. The Government did neither, and instead it chose to temporize and prevaricate, and apparently it has even engaged in downright lying. Reportedly the President told the Indian Foreign Minister that 13A would be implemented and that was denied even before the FM left our shores.
I suspect that a cultural factor is involved here. In the diplomacy that I was taught when I joined the Foreign Service the basic principle was the seeking of common ground in order to work out mutual accommodation. The basic principle was not lying and tricking the other side. I recall that in the lecture given to me and other Commonwealth trainees at Chatham House in London way back in 1954 Sir Harold Nicholson was most emphatic on that point. His second book on diplomacy, The Evolution of Diplomatic Method, which was published just then, had a whole chapter deploring Byzantine diplomacy as it was based on lying and trickery. Of course lying is involved in diplomacy, but I suppose diplomatic lies have to be regarded as white lies meant to serve the purpose of mutual accommodation. How the cultural factor comes in is this: we are accustomed in our domestic politics to temporizing and prevarication and downright lying and we have chosen to believe that that sort of behavior is acceptable in the world of diplomacy as well, whereas in fact it causes outrage. The iconic figure of the last century for Westernized Sri Lankans was Sir Oliver Goonetilleke, and he was that because he was seen as a consummate liar, cunning and deceitful, though essentially a decent person who never harmed anyone. I suspect that it is that mind-set that has led our Government to believe that blatantly dishonorable behavior over 13A – the innumerable promises to give not just 13A but 13A+ – would not matter. It is that that has wrecked our relations with India, and not any wrong policy.
Likewise in our relations with the West, it is an internal problem – our sorry human rights record – that has impacted very adversely on our external relations. There is nothing to show that our Government is unmindful of the West’s enormous economic and other power and of our vulnerability to the West. Nor is there anything to show that our Government is deliberately turning to China at the expense of good relations with the West and India, as is commonly alleged. I would doubt very much that China would willingly want to develop its relations with Sri Lanka in a way that could be seen as threatening by India. And I doubt very much that our Government would hope to find in China or any other country a factor to counter-balance India. The unalterable facts of geography are there and those facts dictate that we somehow try to get on with India. In brief, the problem is not that our Government has been blundering in its foreign policy but that it has been blundering in our internal relations.
We need some clear thinking on the charge that our cardinal blunder has been a failure to recognize who our real friends are and to cultivate close relations with them. I don’t want to deal with that charge in all its complexity. Instead I will focus on just one point: the economic one. At the time of the Colombo Non-Aligned Summit of 1976 there was only one N-A state with a per capita income of over $500, namely Cuba, and the average GNP growth rate was around 3%. Today average per capita income is far higher, and the average growth rate is between 5% and 7% and more. This is the result of a shift to neo-liberal economics. That requires among other things deficit spending on a significant scale, which means that countries get into difficulties every now and then, making them vulnerable to the IMF and the richer and powerful countries. Complex factors have to be taken into account in making foreign policy decisions. We cannot proceed on the simplistic principle that we must know who our real friends are. We have to bear in mind that friendship is temporary while interests are permanent.