By Tissa Jayatilaka –
The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.- L.P. Hartley, from the Prologue to The Go-Between (1953)
I was pleased to read Nanda Godage’s most perceptive piece titled “Let’s be diplomatic’. It is a relief to see Ambassador Godage’s return to his true colours and best lights. Long may he continue to reside therein.
Do good sense and practical thinking mean anything these days to those of our politicians and public servants responsible for the conduct of our international relations? Judging by the little of the subject that is in the public domain, it is apparent that the above-referenced qualities are evident today only by their absence. We seem to have lost a significant part of our national self-respect of late. Official statements made by highly placed politicians and officials are contradicted by their counterparts in foreign governments and international organizations no sooner than they appear in print domestically. Press releases of our government are so doctored by those in office that there is more vicious spin to be found in them than in the sharpest deliveries of a Muralitheran, Warne or Ajmal on a turner!
The world today is a far more complex place than it was in the Cold War era. Life was a touch more predictable then as there were two clear power blocs led by the then Soviet Union and the United States. Non-alignment was a viable option for those countries who did not wish to be a camp follower of either bloc. Of course there were the usual tilts to one side or the other given the reality that there are no absolutes in life. Enlightened self-interest sometimes called for approaches in the conduct of international affairs that made us deviate from permanent friendships or enmities. The concept of ‘the balance of power’ or occasion does trump morality or ideology in the sphere of international relations. As we ought to know only too well from some of our past and recent foreign policy misadventures, the business of international relations is no ‘Morality’ play.
In the post-Cold War world of today, the international arena is murkier than it used to be. Caution and pragmatism, attributes useful in any era, are today among our most relevant needs. Countries that used to be political adversaries or enemies are today together as never before. The Indo-U.S. partnership is a good example of such change. India that blatantly interfered in our domestic affairs in the 1980s willfully misperceiving and distorting (to suit India’s convenience) our then relationship with the United States is today one of America’s key allies. President Obama describes his country’s connection to India today as an ‘indispensible partnership’. This is the reality we need to accept and adjust ourselves to, as cogently argued by Nanda Godage.
It is the same sense of reality that prods some of us to note that Sri Lanka is not getting its diplomatic act together. Time was when we had the kind of sophisticated political and diplomatic service leadership that made it possible for our ‘small state’ to hold our own against all comers. In South Asia in particular, we were known as a country that was sane and pragmatic in our approach to international affairs. Sri Lanka then had, deservedly, a reputation in the diplomatic world for unusual success in explaining and clarifying to the North the concerns, concepts and complaints of the South. We won the admiration of the states the world over on the basis of our balanced and nuanced approach to global affairs. Whenever we were critical of any power, we were constructively so. We said what we had to say with verve and finesse. By doing so, we raised the interest of outside powers, not their ire, in the various international forums. India and Pakistan, often at loggerheads, would bash each other in these same forums. Ceylon/Sri Lanka was a voice of reason, good sense, calm and moderation. This aspect of our national personality not only won us plaudits but rewards as well. These rewards could be seen in the number of top posts Ceylonese/Sri Lankans held in international organizations in the 50s, 60s and the 70s. These numbers were far in excess of those usually afforded to geographically small states like Sri Lanka. We then had a deserved reputation for sobriety, grace under pressure, wit and humour in our many performances on the international stage. There were, happily, no signs then of the ‘bull in a china shop’ mentality that today mar our incursions and excursions into domestic and foreign policy issues.
We could than seek to play honest broker between competing powers. We were taken seriously during all such endeavours. For example, we pleaded Japan’s cause against war reparations in San Francisco (1951); we mediated in the violent conflict between India and China (1962); we received material assistance from one and all during the insurrection of April 1971; later that year, during the then East Pakistan crisis we let West Pakistani war planes use our airspace without being excoriated by India who respected our middle of the road position. Our national reputation for sense and sensibility was then high.
As was evident in the post- ‘Black July’ of 1983, and during the 1990s when we were fighting the intransigent LTTE, the quiet diplomacy executed by our then Foreign Ministers and our seasoned career diplomats saved us from national disaster. There is thus no substitute for calm, rational and pragmatic diplomacy. Sabre rattling, childish posturing and duplicitous conduct might help to dupe our electorate but will not help us win friends or help us acquire the moral high ground necessary to influence our international partners.
So the choice before us, as Nanda Godage points out, is as plian as day. We need to change and return to basics for our own sake, ‘in our own interest’, if we are redeem our country from the unholy mess we have got ourselves into. We have to recognise our true strengths and weaknesses and figure out dispassionately who our true partners in progress are (i.e., who we trade with, who is likely to invest meaningfully in our country, materially and otherwise, and who will come to our assistance when the chips are down). We need to understand the fact that we are not big blokes on the block; that belligerence in reality is weakness, especially when we lack the muscle to back up such belligerence with; that prudence and pragmatism in our international relations are not to be incorrectly thought of as national subservience.
A balanced and prudent re-appraisal of our national priorities is called for ‘in our own interest’. The clock is ticking away furiously. Time and tide wait for no man or woman. The time to re-chart our foreign and domestic policy is right now. Tomorrow may prove a touch too late.