Foreign policy challenges: Diplomatic honeymoons or unbridled engagements?

cartoon by W.B. Wijesoma (passed away ~ Jan 18, 2006)

By Salma Yusuf

A widely held belief among the populace is that the discourse on foreign policyremains the sole prerogative of those in the highest echelons of political power – that is, until presented with a statement by the likes of well-known American political activist, Ron Silver, who declared: ‘I can’t talk about foreign policy like anyone who’s spent their life reading and learning foreign policy. But as a citizen in a democracy, it’s very important that I participate in that.’

Such sentiments serve as both a reality-check and a wake-up call to every Sri Lankan citizen, as the country moves on from a phase of post-war to post-conflict.

It is beyond dispute that Sri Lanka’s three decade conflict was externalized due to a combination of factors – ranging from the presence of an active expatriate community abroad; the involvement of foreign facilitators in the peace process; the presence of foreign peacekeeping forces in 1987, to the greatest diplomatic challenge that Sri Lanka has faced since independence – the country being placed on the agenda of the United Nations Security Council in a bid to halt in its tracks the military campaign to defeat the LTTE.

Consequent to the above and other developments, by the end of the war, Sri Lanka was placed within significant cynosure of the international radar. Such international attention has spilled over into the country’s post-war phase as well, but this time taking on new proportions and new meaning.

That said, as my previous articles have called for a state-led national reconciliation agenda, so must the process of foreign policy formulation be state-led, inviting the public to participate in the process, and keeping the process open and transparent.

There can be no room for ‘strategic ambiguity’, a phrase used by Barack Obama in his 2008 election speeches when he asserted that the public have a right to know through election manifestos of candidates what foreign policy courses will be taken by each candidate, informing voter decisions.

Conversely, citizens have a correlated duty to participate, inform and shape the foreign policy discourse and decisions of their country. It is therefore essential that we have institutions that can help in this task. The Cabinet, the Ministry of External Affairs, Parliament especially its Consultative Committee on External Affairs, the career professional diplomats, the media, lobby groups including Chambers of Commerce, professional bodies, civil society, academics and public opinion are among the available foreign policy formulating mechanisms in Sri Lanka.

They should ideally be coordinated and used optimally to develop a bipartisan foreign policy. Institutions set up specially for diplomatic training, international studies, provision of policy support and impetus in strategic thinking , namely the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies, the Bandaranaike International Diplomatic Training Institute and the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute of International Relations and Strategic Studies, are well-placed to play a catalytic role in such an endeavour.

As the former British Prime Minister, Palmerston, speaking of 19th century British foreign policy famously said – “We have no eternal allies and no permanent enemies. Our interests are eternal, and those interests it is our duty to follow” – following our national interests will be the prudent, genuine, and not to mention, the safest course to chart in pursuing a foreign policy – diplomatic honeymoons on the one hand, and unbridled engagements on the other will not be sustainable; over reliance on allies and the defensive criticism of enemies will not take us very far: The victories may be imminent just as much as they will be temporary.


As it currently stands, Sri Lanka faces a number of challenges in its foreign relations. Six key challenges need to be addressed with priority.


Distinction needs to be drawn between, on the one hand, voluntary membership of world bodies such as the United Nations, voluntary ratification of international treaties and conventions, participation in international mechanisms, and hence being subject to its rules of procedure, obligations of implementation and reporting that come with it, and on the other hand an encroachment of a nation’s sovereignty and territorial integrity that are not as a result of a nation’s undertaking.

The true test of our sovereignty will be to follow the nation’s interest, assume strong national positions and communicate such effectively to the local and international communities – this will be the testament to the courage and strength of the nation’s belief in itself and loyalty to its people. We must understand that the opportunity to justify our plans, policies and decisions, to be transparent in our decisions, both nationally and internationally is an exercise of sovereignty, and not an encroachment of it.


We live in an age of globalization and unprecedented connectivity that is characteristic of the twenty first century, permeating all aspects of governance including foreign and international relations. The islander’s mentality unfortunately will not work in the realm of international relations and foreign policy.

In an inter-dependent world the only way of maintaining sovereignty is not through hostility but through constructive engagement. Sovereignty, in our times, is a relative concept, whether we like it or not. Accordingly, sovereignty in this era can only be maintained to the extent we learn to live in inter-dependence and not in hostility.


The impact that the members of the heterogeneous expatriate community have on the politics and electoral campaigns of host governments must be given serious consideration in our foreign policy discourse. The best way to deal with it is to address the rights of minorities locally, both systematically and genuinely.

Rights of minorities need to be coupled with assurances for the possibility of peaceful return and life in the country. This is once again illustrative of how domestic policy and foreign policy are inextricably linked.


The fostering and maintenance of credibility of national positions should be the underlying objective of the conduct of our foreign relations. This will necessarily require, in keeping with best practice, that there should be one interlocutor between the State and international community.

The internal consensus will not only prevent confusion and contradiction but also help maintain credibility and reveal the strength of the establishment – this will be the true test of exercising sovereignty in the conduct of our foreign affairs.


Currently, most of the country’s bilateral and multilateral engagements are haunted by a spectre of reconciliation and human rights concerns. We must remember that human rights and inter-communal harmony are not alien to our country, the values of which are enshrined in our shared history, cultures and legal frameworks.

We need to capitalize and draw on these strengths to forge a robust system of governance, rule of law and justice mechanisms that will be able to function with independence and credibility : hence, despite every allegation made, so will we have the availability of structures and norms to deal with such allegations domestically.

In this regard, the implementation of the outcomes of the two national processes, namely the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission and the National Human Rights Action Plan will demonstrate that home-grown mechanisms can credibly provide solutions, while improve our foreign relations and prospects. Here once again is a demonstration of the link between domestic and foreign policy.


Due to the conflict, we were largely inward looking, preoccupied with internal considerations and taking up defensive positions in human rights and other international fora.

With the end of the war, there is now a need to broaden our areas of engagement into areas – such as trade, investment, science, environment, human and arms trafficking, terrorism, regional cooperation – which will reflect, as we have in the past, a deep interest in larger issues. With a shift to the post-war phase, an identification of priorities, a policy of engagement even with those not well disposed must be pursued to find common ground.

In the final analysis, it is the consolidation of peace, freedom, democracy and the rule of law domestically that will translate into the ability for us to project our nation as sovereign and credible in the international domain – the link between the protection of our national interests and international positioning cannot be clearer.