By Dayan Jayatilleka –
Having been a keen student of politics, Sri Lankan and international for decades, and observed it for over a half-century, I’d name enlightened self-interest with rationality at it’s very core, as the single most important quality in politics and policy. In no domain is this more so than in international relations in general and foreign policy in particular.
Sri Lanka has just buried Nonalignment. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has abandoned Sri Lanka’s long-held framework of ideas on the world, and this country’s long-standing identity in world affairs. He has severed Sri Lanka’s moorings; discarded its (conceptual-perspectival) bearings.
For the first time in (almost) 60 years since Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, under the leadership of Madam Bandaranaike, was a founder-member of the Nonaligned Movement in Belgrade in 1961, a Sri Lankan Head of State addressed the United Nations General Assembly and omitted any reference whatsoever to Nonalignment and/or the Nonaligned Movement, the foundation of our identity and way of being in world affairs, and the global family we belong to.
It is also the first time in 64 years, since SWRD Bandaranaike addressed the UNGA in 1956, that a Sri Lankan leader addressing the UNGA, omitted any reference whatsoever to Palestine.
Addressing the virtual global summit of the UNGA to mark its 75th anniversary, President Rajapaksa completely avoided the terms Nonalignment/Nonaligned and declared instead that “Sri Lanka is committed to follow a neutral foreign policy with no affiliations to any particular country or power bloc.”
He reiterated the shift in a conversation with new Ambassadors: “…In this context, Sri Lanka has chosen neutrality as its foreign policy…”
Interviewed by PK Balachandran, Rear-Admiral Jayanath Colombage, Secretary to the Foreign Ministry defined President GR’s policy of neutrality as NOT one of Nonalignment: “This is why the President is wanting Sri Lanka to be a neutral country, not a non-aligned country, but a neutral country…”
The Nonaligned Movement was founded in the vortex of the Cold War and defined itself as opposing “bloc politics” and eschewing “affiliation with rival military blocs conceived in the Cold War context”.
‘Neutrality’ is conceptually ‘thin’, suitable for a hot war or its imminence. Non-alignment is not only built for a Cold War and superpower or great power competition, it is also a ‘thick’ concept, collectively evolved and deliberated on by leaders and foreign ministers (some legendary) and thinkers of the global South (plus Yugoslavia’s Tito) over decades, with the declarations and documents of the NAM, and published writing on it, filling a library.
For a small state like Sri Lanka, especially a small state in, and of, the global South, safety lies in numbers. It is folly to deny or downgrade its identity of belonging to a grouping of 120 countries of which we were a founder-member and (later) chairperson, and which served our national interest by affording a space, platform and collective voice of and for autonomy in a polarized world.
The 2020 GR regime’s mindset is a throwback to the 1980s JR regime’s mindset, critiqued as dangerously deluded folly and farce at the time by my father, Mervyn de Silva:
“The island’s ‘nodal position’ in the Indian Ocean and of course, Trincomalee, nourished the comforting conviction that Sri Lanka was the hub of the universe, and we ourselves a coveted prize that major external powers (external to the region) with their substantial global and regional interests, will be only too eager to pacify even at the risk of their demonstrably larger interests…”
(‘Sri Lanka’s Ethnic Problem’, Center for Society & Religion, October 1984, republished in Crisis Commentaries: Selected Political Writings of Mervyn de Silva, ICES Colombo, 2001, p 65)
Today’s abandonment of nonalignment was pioneered in the 1980s. It’s colossal fallacy was spotlighted by Mervyn de Silva, whose warnings proved prophetic in 1987.
“Cut away from its moorings, Sri Lankan foreign policy is adrift.” (Ibid, p67)
“It was not nonalignment that left us naked. It was the gradual rejection of all the basic premises of that traditional non-alignment, of which the cornerstone was the relationship with India, that left us naked to our enemies, real or fancied, internal or external.”
(Marga Institute lecture 1985, republished as ‘External Aspects of the Ethnic Issue’, Ibid, p72)
By what policy process, dialogue and debate, did the deliberation take place, which concluded that Sri Lanka is ‘neutral’, not ‘nonaligned’? Lakshman Kadirgamar would’ve been aghast. Do the PM, the Cabinet, the Foreign Minister, the SLPP and the ruling coalition concur with this abandonment of our Non-aligned identity, commitment and heritage? Perhaps, as with circulars, so also with foreign policy?
Nonalignment provides the broad, tested base, upon which policies of ‘multi-directionality’/‘omni-directionality’ which maximize flexibility, such as Charles De Gaulle’s ‘tous azimuths’ and Evgeni Primakov’s ‘multi-vector’, can be mounted. Swapping nonalignment for neutrality is beyond idiosyncratic; it is unilateral, arbitrary, neo-isolationist and solipsistic.