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25th April 1999

Foreign policy in a new century

By Mervyn de Silva

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The next chapter of the political history of the world's largest democracy may be written in a fine Italian hand. With a fine feminine touch, vaguely Shavian touch too - the regions parliaments will be Widows' Houses.

It all started with Sri Lanka's Sirima Bandaranaike who is still holding the same office, with her daughter as elected President, after a short spell as prime minister. The poverty-stricken Indian sub-continent "South Asia" is so dull has snatched the Western battle-cry of Women's Liberation; high fashion.

But then it was Sri Lanka's Sirima Bandaranaike who hosted the Non-Aligned Summit, and NAM still dominates the United Nations, its strategic decisions made however by the United States, the sole superpower.

Yes, the sole superpower is the commonest cliche in the global political discourse. Is it?

The White House doesn't rule the world. Unipolar? Not quite. The nature of power has changed, so has the character of change and crisis. Will the centre of gravity shift in the first decades of the 21st century - from West to East, a new Asian century? Japan is already an economic superpower. With India, and China major powers.

But we need to recognise a dual change - the character of power and the nature of conflict, violent conflict. The arms bazaar, and the arms merchants will not close shop, a multi- billion business.

The nature of power and the character of war have both changed. States do not declare war against others.

The big powers conduct proxy wars. We were the victims of a proxy war. Why? Sri Lanka's foreign policy - strict nonalignment - was changed by the regime which succeeded the Sirima Bandaranaike led coalition.

It was interpreted by Indira Gandhi as an act of defiance. The Indian ocean is the only ocean named after a country, India. And Ms. Bandaranaike had introduced a resolution in the United Nations to declare the ocean a peace zone - to counter increasing big power rivalry. She also introduced a resolution on Diego Garcia, now a major base.

But the nonaligned, and numbers notwithstanding the US went ahead with its plans. Already the Soviet Union could do nothing. The US was already emerging as the sole superpower. America's sole rival was a declining superpower.

Yes, the Cold War is over but the wars will come home. to the so-called Third World, the nonaligned nations - with wars within. On the doorstep of the 21st century, history was in a particularly ironic mood to select Yugoslavia for a curtain-raiser to the 21st century.

NAM is the obvious theatre, a large group of states where nationalities take up arms against the Nation-State.

A sound foreign policy and professional diplomacy can perhaps help to contain the chronic violence but the problem and the solution are both domestic.

Nehru was the authentic architect of NAM, not Tito, but Yugoslavia on the frontline was best equipped to lead the movement, and also undertake the basic task of nation-building in a multi-ethnic country. NATO, not the United Nations intervened. The Clinton administration has no time and less respect for the U.N or its Security Council. The US controls the United Nations one way or another.

Whither NAM? what Indian foreign policy? What international security in the new century?

As early as 1802, Prime Minister William Pitt could proudly inform, Parliament that the British had taken Trinco from the Dutch to give our "Indian Empire a security, it had not enjoyed from its first establishment." Doubtless the Cambridge-educated Indira Gandhi had read Pitt's speech.

"Nonalignment" was Nehru's idea not Tito's. Nehru realised that a new war would begin - the Cold War. Yugoslavia, communist but independent of Soviet Union, was the frontline of the new war, the Cold War, the war of ideologies. Titoism was the nearest doctrine that respected communism/ socialism AND national independence.

Today's conflicts are not inspired by the "isms", doctrine.

The source of inspiration is identity, ethnic identity - race and religion mainly.

Sonia Gandhi is now leader of the Congress Party which has been the governing party. Her foreign policy, must be particularly sensitive to the cross-border character of ethnic identity.

As leader of the Congress, India's "establishment" party, Sonia Gandhi must give special attention to friendly relations with neighbours, particularly the smaller neighbours. This country has hit rock bottom, said Deve Gowda, Prime Minister.

Will the smaller parties support Sonia Gandhi? Is India heading to a period of instability? The idea of a troubled period of transition must cause much anxiety to all neighbours.

Hulftsdorp Hill

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