Charting a new course in our diplomatic efforts


Lamenting the fate that had befallen the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute for International Relations and Strategic Studies last Sunday’s editorial in this newspaper urged that it be returned to play the role for which it was originally established.

One of the failings of our system is that in our post-independent history there has been no such institute engaged in long term study on global and regional that fed into our foreign policy apparatus and built the kind of symbiotic relationship which would be more than useful in trying to look ahead at geopolitical, geostrategic and economic issues. During more than 45 years of writing on diplomatic affairs and foreign relations in Sri Lanka, Hong Kong and the last 10 years in London I have had the opportunity of studying how some other countries conduct their foreign policy, how they have structured their foreign policy establishments, how they have interacted +with diplomatic missions based there and how some of our own missions have functioned.

External Affairs Minister
G.L. Peiris

It was fascinating observing, for instance, the diplomatic manoeuvring and tussles between Britain and China in the last years of colonialism in Hong Kong and the first years of China’s rule over the territory after it returned to China’s sovereignty. In this diplomatic game following the signing of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration it seemed clear that long range assessments of each country’s strengths and weaknesses, the possible scenarios during and after Deng Xiaoping were carefully studied by British sinologists within and outside the British Foreign Office as they tried to create more space for western ideas and thinking in the functioning of the future Hong Kong.

So when the Sunday Times editorialist seeing the intrinsic value of such scholarly and long term studies in the fashioning of our own foreign policy in pursuit of Sri Lanka’s national interests, calls for the Kadirgamar Institute to be built for purpose, his hopes may be answered sooner than expected.

In his first words to officials on assuming office at the renamed foreign ministry, the Minister of External Affairs Gamini Lakshman Peiris said that he planned to “establish a ‘think tank’ for ‘brain storming sessions on foreign policy issues.” Apparently Minister Peiris is trying to fill the lacuna that has existed for decades and the late Kadirgamar might have filled had he lived long enough to see it reach fruition.

One shortcoming that has been noticeable over the years is that our foreign service does not have specialists but generalists, those who must do everything and perhaps nothing regarding strategizing, depending on the rotation of their postings. Admittedly Sri Lanka’s career service is too small to allow specialists in regional affairs or on specific issues, unlike in some countries that have a large service from which individuals could be drawn to undertake specified areas of study.

But specialization is becoming increasingly important in a global context where areas such as sustainable development and climate change are major issues that require detailed study in order to fashion policy approaches. The lack of sufficient personnel then requires that the foreign policy establishment relies on think tanks established for the specific purpose of providing such expertise and drawing on professionals and others qualified in specific fields to fill the gaps that exist.

For nearly 20 years now, especially following the 10 years I spent in Hong Kong, I have underlined Sri Lanka’s neglect of the Asia-Pacific region-save China, Japan and perhaps South Korea- particularly the Asean countries of Southeast Asia. While we were perhaps dazzled by Japan’s post-war economic growth and more recently China’s spectacular advancement that could soon make it the second largest economy in the world, we had neglected the relatively smaller countries of Southeast Asia.

In a column in this newspaper two years ago I said: “The vital question is whether Sri Lanka has paid sufficient attention to the Asia-Pacific region, whether we have tried to engage these countries in a serious dialogue and whether our diplomatic effort has been commensurate with the importance we now attach to the region.”

This was in the context of Sri Lanka seeking regional cooperation in its fight against terrorism. “If we expect cooperation and support from the region and the individual countries that constitute it, then Sri Lanka should take its diplomatic engagement with those countries with the seriousness that we now seem to give it in the context of terrorism.” Though the terrorist menace might have been eliminated at home (but as Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa said the other day it has now to be fought from new trenches outside our frontiers) there is the flip side of the coin.

Asean is Asia’s growth region just as Asia will be the fastest growing continent in the world this year and therefore far more attention will need to be paid to these countries for a variety of reasons. While we may now rue the day Sri Lanka turned down the 1967 offer to join Asean, it would be foolish to think that we have the remotest chance now being admitted as a member to a regional organization that has demarcated its geographical contours clearly. But that should not stop Sri Lanka from taking very definitive steps to strengthen our relations over a range of areas. They cover everything from trade to investment, tourism and exchange of expertise. Paying lip service to “sustainable development”, perhaps the cliché of the last two decades is not enough. The concept has to be understood in its totality.

During a number of workshops I conducted for journalists from Asia and the Pacific region on behalf of the Commonwealth Press Union and the Commonwealth Foundation one of the ideas we tried to pin down is what is required to make development sustainable in the context of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG).

The consensus was that if development is to continue over a period of time then governments need to engage the people. If development is to benefit the people, then the policies should be evolved with the help of the people. In that regard there is a lot to be learnt from not only the Asean countries whose socio-economic conditions are closer to ours, but also from the UN’s largest regional organization ESCAP that has been doing some excellent work on developmental and trade issues.

In addition there are prestigious institutions such as the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT) that has also produced some very worthwhile studies on various aspects of sustainable development.

These organizations with their corpus of useful and relevant studies would help enhance the work of any think tank that is now contemplated and would provide a long term perspective on foreign policy options that are available to us and how we should proceed.

The writer is a serving diplomat in a Sri Lankan mission

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