THE COMPLEXITIES OF FOREIGN POLICY

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Divided from the Indian subcontinent, yet also deeply connected to it, Sri Lanka has never had an opportunity of forging and shaping a foreign policy of its own. The high point of its foreign relations, under the three Bandaranaike administrations over a period of 20 years, did signal an effort, and a sincere one, towards this end. Yet with the election of a staunchly pro-Western government in 1977, the emphasis on nonalignment that had been a hallmark of the island’s foreign policy ruptured, never to be regained or restored.

Of course, commentators would contend that Sri Lanka need not be nonaligned. They would also point out that nonalignment, in itself, doesn’t preclude making choices and siding with friends. The fact that the country led the Non-Aligned Movement, at its peak years in the 1960s and 1970s, did not prevent it from privileging one set of interests over another: this is why, and how, while forging a close relationship with the Indira Gandhi administration, the United Front regime (1970-1977) was able to balance its ties with Pakistan vis-à-vis the 1971 War in Bangladesh and the West vis-à-vis the Soviet Union.

In actual fact, the former colonies of Asia and Africa did not, in the wake of decolonisation, explicitly ally themselves with either side of the Cold War. Ideologically many, if not, most of them adhered to a socialist economic system, or something that could pass for one. But this didn’t always mean they ‘bandwagoned’ with the socialist bloc, or, conversely, alienated the Western front. Gamal Abdel Nasser’s attempts at obtaining American funding for the Aswan Dam, and Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s ability to enlist Western aid against the 1971 insurgency, showed that the indigenous elites in these ex-colonies did not [always] identify their foreign relations with one side of the Cold War to the exclusion of the other.

For its part, the socialist Left went along with these trends. Throughout the Third World, particularly in countries like Sri Lanka, where traditional Marxist categories did not make much sense, the [largely non-Communist] Left advocated alignments with parties which were, from a Marxist perspective, hardly radical or revolutionary. The LSSP advocated no contest pacts and later agreements and alliances with the SLFP, while Nasser carried on a troubled, ambivalent relationship with the Communist Party. It was only logical to expect a similarly ambivalent stand on foreign policy from these formations.

It wasn’t just those groups, of course; even the strongholds and heartlands of the ideologies and tendencies they stood for often deviated from the orthodox line. Thus, the Maoists in Ceylon, while holding the line against the Sirimavo Bandaranaike government, could not quite withstand China’s decision to provide that regime with military aid against the 1971 insurrection. Internationally, it could not tide over or come to terms with the shock of Deng Xiaoping’s reforms. In foreign policy as in domestic policies, discretion frequently took the better part of valour; ideological abstractions did play a part, but more often than not, they were dispensed with in the interests of better relations with other countries.

The lines that had been drawn during the Cold War sharpened considerably in the 1970s and 1980s across Asia and America, often disrupting the political divisions that had been drawn for decades in these countries. In Sri Lanka the election of a Left-wing government failed to prevent an uprising among the radical ‘Left’ university graduates. Four years later, that avowedly Left-wing government splintered, leading to the expulsion of the two oldest Left parties in the country. Neoliberal authoritarianism of the sort, which had been installed via Western support in Chile, became a fact of life after 1977. The rhetoric of nonalignment and neutrality, evoked so frequently then, became passe now.

In Sri Lanka, the first and second waves of neoliberal authoritarianism – the two UNP administrations of J. R. Jayewardene and Ranasinghe Premadasa – would be followed by the election of a Clintonian Third Way Centrist regime, led by the daughter of a lady who had been associated with the country’s dalliance with socialism. Under Chandrika Kumaratunga Sri Lanka’s non-aligned credentials were restored, yet never to the same extent as before: it was under Kumaratunga, after all, that Israel established an Embassy in Colombo, more or less, breaching Sri Lanka’s commitment to the Palestinian cause, which had been a hallmark and a motif of the Non-aligned Movement at its very inception.

It’s tempting to argue that none of these changes could have come about without the end of the Cold War. To say that, is to assume that the end of the Cold War came about because of one set of forces triumphing over all others. For a brief time in history, from 1991 to 2001, the United States enjoyed its peak years: what Charles Krauthammer called, not unfittingly, the ‘Unipolar Movement’. For some, it was the end of history, for others, it was the victory of liberal democracy. In this brave new liberal world, we were told, power, no longer had a say in international relations: hence the many calls, deplored by diplomats such as the late Gamani Corea, to do away with institutions like the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).

This argument has many pitfalls, not all of which deserve mentioning here. I would contend that the unipolar moment came to an end in 2001, when two planes rammed into the World Trade Center in New York, the capital of liberal internationalism. What began in 2001 more or less culminated in January 2022, when Vladimir Putin recognised two breakaway regions in Ukraine and kickstarted a war that continues to redefine the frontiers of geopolitics in the present century. Viewed for long as a dependable friend of the West, Putin has now turned into a symbol of the continuing relevance of power in geopolitics: a point which suggests the Cold War never ended, and the old lines and distinctions still linger.

Sri Lanka has not been fortunate enough to benefit from these developments, so far. It has been guided by a philosophy which died in 2001, a philosophy adhered to, by the most zealous advocates of liberal internationalism: those who believe that Western rhetoric on human rights and democracy is what it purports to be and nothing else. As Rajiva Wijesinha has noted in ‘Representing Sri Lanka’, a book that deserves to be read closely, these groups make up a considerable part of our foreign policy establishment: a fact which has precluded the country from making some much-needed choices in foreign relations.

Stripped of all abstractions, foreign policy is, but a manifestation of a country’s interests. Trapped in the past, Sri Lanka is yet to come to terms with this fact. In the face of an unprecedented crisis, it cannot afford to think this way any longer. It must take stock of what is happening outside and realise that what matters is, what we need. And what we need now, is a foreign policy that coheres with our interests.

The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at [email protected]

By Uditha Devapriya