By Rajan Philips –
‘Westlessness’ was the theme at the annual Munich Security Conference that was held last week in Germany. The annual event is in its 57th year and for the first time a sense of desperation was semi-officially identified at the conference. The desperation is due to the widely held perception that the West is losing its influence, if not hegemony, in the non-western world, and real experience that it is turning its back on its own liberalism in different countries the western world. Although the desperation was not universally shared at the conference, its emergence provides a cynical foil to the apparent mood of restlessness taking hold of the Sri Lankan government in its dealings with the outside world, especially the outside western world.
To be fair, Sri Lanka’s restless mood is more noticeable among the voluble supporters and fellow travelers outside the government than it might be at the decision tables within the government. At the same time, it is not only Sri Lanka, but many western countries are also getting restless from being westless. The once mighty US is now mightily restless in an election year under a permanently restless incumbent President, and all the more with breaking news of another Russian meddling in the 2020 US presidential election and Democratic primaries. Russia is apparently setting up the social media in America to help Bernie Sanders win the Democratic Party nomination and Donald Trump win reelection as President.
First, what is westlessness? The term “coined by the Munich Security Report 2020, refers to a divided and in some parts increasingly illiberal West that seems to be retreating from the global stage.” The specific focus is on “the role of the Western alliance, liberal values and multilateralism in the current geopolitical landscape.” The term and concept are primarily a ‘European concern’ that was not quite shared by representatives from the US. It has now become customary for the US to send two delegations to Munich. One goes from Trump’s State Department and includes his Republican cheer leaders to assure the rest of the West, that nothing has changed in the US commitment to western alliances and institutions notwithstanding President Trump’s tweets and his words. The other is a delegation of Democratic Congress Representatives and Senators assuring Europe of permanent American solidarity in spite of the transient Trump and his Republicans.
At the conference, Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was insistent that “Western liberal values were ‘winning’ and relegated transatlantic disagreements to the level of tactics.” The Europeans thought otherwise. And while the US played up the “Chinese threat to the Western community”, its European counterparts were not as exercised about China. A case in point is the difference between the US and Europe over the handling of China’s involvement in 5G (Fifth Generation wireless) technology development. And here, Brexit Britain finds itself in solidarity with its European ex, and for that the pre-eminent Brexit Prime Minister has been severely scolded by the American President.
There was another voice in Munich. That was the voice from the non-western world giving expression to the concept of the West “not as a geographic entity but as a normative project of values;” that “the Western idea is alive when and where actors commit to individual freedoms, democracy, and the rule of law;” and that “understood in these terms, the West extends well beyond North America and Europe.” In this view, “countries beyond the traditional West become important guardians of the “Western” idea.”
The non-western Western view was advanced by the Foreign Ministers of South Korea and India, Kang Kyung-wha and Subrahmanyam Jaishankar. Their pitch was that “with more people living in non-Western than in Western democracies, Europe and the United states need to heavily invest in alliances that stretch beyond the traditional West.” This is a remarkable position for India’s Modi government, which, on the one hand, covets and craves for western alliances, especially with the United States of America, while being on a wrecking-ball agenda within India to destroy much of its liberal apparatus, save for holding periodical elections. To Modi and the BJP, Indian liberalism (and there is no liberalism without secularism) is an untouchable Nehruvian legacy that is not at all compatible with their perception of India’s Hindutva civilization, and one that should be eradicated root and branch.
Second, how is Sri Lanka restless? Although I am using the term ‘restlessness’ primarily to describe the current goings-on, their roots go farther back in time in multiple ways. The immediate roots of the current restlessness are in the differences and tensions between the foreign policy strategies of the Mahinda Rajapaksa government and those of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government. If the former government did not take an overtly anti-western approach, Rajapaksas in opposition have certainly criticized the yahapalana government for taking an allegedly slavish pro-western approach in foreign policy. The Rajapaksa entourage has also been insistent, without any transparent evidence, that their 2015 defeat was orchestrated by India and the western countries.
The fallout from these differences and tensions are the current restlessness over the UNHRC resolution, the three American (SOFA, ACSA, and MCC) agreements, the Swiss embassy teledrama, and lastly the American government’s designation of Lieutenant General Shavendra Silva for travel ban to the US. One of the symptoms of the restlessness is the tendency, mostly seen among government supporters if not within the government itself, to lump all the above developments together and see them as somehow interconnected.
For example, a widely held notion is that the State Department’s designation of Lieutenant General Silva is intended to force Sri Lanka into signing the three agreements with the US. This is an absurd notion and anyone with government or large organizational experience will know this. Put another way, even if there is some interconnectedness in different US government departments to put the squeeze on Sri Lanka, it will not be in Sri Lanka’s interest to respond to the US treating everything in a bundle. The prudent strategy would be to unbundle them and handle each matter separately – even if they are connected in Washington.
Another symptom is the tendency, which became evident in the matter of the three agreements, to start denouncing something even without bothering to know what the hell one is shouting about! As the saying (often attributed to Doric de Souza in Peradeniya) goes, even if you want to show contempt to something that is written, let it be bred by your familiarity with the text. In the case of the three agreements, it was widely but wrongly assumed that the Millennium Compact agreement on infrastructure was connected to other two agreements which had ben around in some form or other for 25 (SOFA) and 13 (ACSA) years.
If there is a connection, it is mostly in the criticisms of these agreements, which, as former Ambassador John Gooneratne pointed out, were not meant to focus on the contents of the agreements, but to use them “as a stick to beat up the government.” Ambassador Gooneratne was referring to the SOFA and the ACSA agreements and the hapless Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government. The same thing and more can be said about the MCC agreement and all its denouncers, a full nine out of ten of whom showed utmost contempt for the MCC agreement while betraying utmost ignorance of its text and its provisos.
The present government backtracked on the MCC agreement after campaigning viciously against it, and instead of rescinding it as was expected, the government appointed a panel of experts to provide cover any decision that would be short of a full rejection. As a professional Engineer, I have the fullest sympathy for the experts for the political predicament they have been pushed into. They have reportedly presented a preliminary report to the President, while still soliciting public input on the agreement. I am not sure how the public’s assent or opposition can be helpful in deciding this matter. The premise for successful professional involvement in any matter is twofold: professional competence in the subject and public trust in that competence – and not some fickle public opinion on the matter itself.
One would hope that the panel of experts has been able to question the former government officials (all of whom are identified in the MCC Annexures that are available online) who worked on the MCC undertaking and in the identification of the two (transport and land) MCC projects. That is a necessary condition for any credible decision making. Ideally, the panel of experts would have had a joint discussion with the former government officials and their current counterparts assuming there has been complete staff and advisory overhaul. Such a joint consultation would immensely enhance the credibility of the panel’s recommendations.
The three agreements, in my view, are the easiest to deal with for the government. The Swiss embassy fiasco has become a virtual non-issue even though government supporters and commentators made much hot air out of nothing. May be, taking Switzerland to task was the written test for a high posting in Geneva. A few tried but only one could win the designation. It is not Sri Lanka’s ambassadorial designation to Geneva that now seems to count, but the American designation of Sri Lanka’s army commander with travel ban to Washington or anywhere else in the US. The Sri Lankan government’s protests are natural and inevitable, but it is not clear how the government would be able to get the US to withdraw that designation. It should be clear, however, that the mere signing of any and all of the three agreements is not going to end in lifting the travel ban.
The travel ban on the Army Commander is more an affront to the country and its government than it might be an inconvenience to Mr. Shavendra Silva and his family. As visa denials go, General Silva is in great historical company. “Landed on a planet without a visa,” wrote Trotsky in his diary, as he went from country to country to escape Stalin’s assassins who eventually got him in Mexico. And there are others. If I am not mistaken, I don’t think Pieter Keuneman ever visited the US or would have been given visa to the US, because he was a (Stalinist) Communist. There are millions more, unsung and unheard of all over the world, including Sri Lankans, who are permanently on a global trek and are permanently denied visas. They are the new wretched of the earth.
And how times have changed. The Sri Lankan government is now insistent on travel rights for its citizens, at least for some of them. Governments before 1977 were enforcing travel bans on Sri Lankans who wanted to go abroad – to save foreign exchange, to prevent brain drain, or whatever political heck of a reason. In 1961, SJV Chelvanayakam was initially denied permission to travel to the UK for medical treatment. The government relented after informal medical opinion that he may not survive the trip. In the 1970s, special permits were required especially for poor government servants to travel outside. Now special permits are provided for a fee for thousands of female domestic servants to travel abroad to fetch foreign exchange.
Although they are independent outcomes, the travel ban and the UNHRC resolution share a common antecedent in the war that ended eleven years ago and the continuing controversies over the manner of its ending. The government is ambidextrously trying to get the ban lifted, while walking away from the previous government’s commitments in Geneva. Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena has announced the government’s decision to withdraw from the co-sponsored UNHRC resolution 30/1, which according to Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa is the reason why the US was able to impose the travel ban on the Sri Lankan Army Commander. But the JVP is challenging the government to show how Sri Lanka’s withdrawal in Geneva will lead to a revocation of the travel ban in Washington. The JVP is also calling on the members of the Rajapaksa families to show real protest by renouncing their US citizenships. That is an unfair ask, but it shows the paradoxical connections between global westlessness and local restlessness.