By Dr. Sarala Fernando “A person or idea that transforms the accepted rules, processes, strategies and management of business functions… typically leads a movement of related businesses in the same direction.” There is a solid body of theory in management studies on the benefits of the “game changer”. Since Donald Trump’s victory in the US, [...]

Sunday Times 2

The game changer


By Dr. Sarala Fernando
“A person or idea that transforms the accepted rules, processes, strategies and management of business functions… typically leads a movement of related businesses in the same direction.”

There is a solid body of theory in management studies on the benefits of the “game changer”. Since Donald Trump’s victory in the US, analysis has abounded on how his “game changer” business outlook underpinned by the search for bottom line profit at home, would influence new directions in US foreign policy. There is some excitement in the air because “shock” tactics associated with Donald Trump since his tv series “The Apprentice”, are anathema to professional diplomacy of which the hall marks are credibility, consistency and rules- based negotiations. “The Apprentice” gave a dramatic picture of the ruthless strategies and even “crude” language employed in the pursuit of business success which involves weeding out the weak from the strong. Creating successful businesses and the opportunity to make money irrespective of one’s origin and social standing, is the hall mark of American society which has attracted immigrants to its shores from time immemorial. It must however be acknowledged that while the objective of wealth creation can be considered as a core value of American society, there are important social movements such as civil rights, environmental protection and customer protection inter alia which have arisen alongside to enrichen the American value system. Nevertheless the singular pursuit of wealth in the American way of life stands in contrast to values upheld by the majority religion in Sri Lanka for example which warns of the dangers of material craving and urges the showing of compassion to others.

US President Donald Trump signs an executive order he said would impose tighter vetting to prevent foreign terrorists from entering the United States at the Pentagon in Washington, US. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Ironically, among the first to feel the impact of the new thinking from the US are its major security partners in Europe and Asia. In Europe, the very rationale of NATO is being questioned and European partners asked to contribute more. In Asia, the US withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) has affected Japan as its leading advocate. Key trade partners like Mexico are already preparing for hard re-negotiations on NAFTA led by strong professionals. At the international level, disarmament and climate change negotiators are holding their breath over possible US withdrawal from already concluded negotiations. The latest Paris Agreement on climate change is non-binding and there is flexibility on goals to be adopted by nations, but the tactics associated with new US President has led to fears of an abrasive exit, causing a “copy cat” effect on other signatories.

In diplomacy, importance is placed on precedence and practice. Thus Shivshankar Menon in his new book Choices suggests that as foreign and security policy making becomes more institutionalised, “opportunities for radical change, individual initiative, and innovation will diminish”. This conclusion is evidently based on the Indian experience, but may not be valid in the Sri Lankan context where the Foreign Ministry is often at the mercy of political tinkering which impinges on institution- building. Lakshman Kadirgarmar as Foreign Minister was active in building lobbies for foreign affairs and welcomed innovative thinking within the Foreign Service. I recall with what delight he showed me a “think” paper on Buddhist Diplomacy written by a young Foreign Service officer which later was developed into a national initiative to declare Wesak as a UN holiday, thus raising Sri Lanka’s image abroad. Another such initiative developed at the official level and spearheaded by President Premadasa was the International Year for Shelter and Housing (IYSH) which was acclaimed at a time as raising awareness on the nexus between housing, shelter and human security.

Discussion and debate should be promoted within the Foreign Ministry if Sri Lanka is to “punch above its weight”. In the current ministry re-organization, emphasis has been placed on issues with multilateral thrust, reconciliation, diaspora, strategic security, climate change etc. The apparent reduction of input into domestic economic affairs is surprising given that key policy goals like the EU GSP campaign would have to be managed by the head of mission in Brussels. Coordination between policy makers and officials is a prerequisite to building a coherent foreign policy but this is constantly hampered today by the cacophony of voices claiming to be the authority on various issues causing greater public confusion like on ETCA. Even as climate change looms as a major emerging security threat, signaled by the impending long drought in Sri Lanka and in South India, the ongoing debate on the domestic energy crisis pays little heed to the international obligations undertaken by Sri Lanka on carbon emissions which closes the door on fuels such as coal. Now there is a fresh danger, that the Trump ascendancy will give a new lease of life to the coal lobby in Sri Lanka.

Two contemporary examples come to mind where the “game changer” approach can help to break existing impasses in the Philippines and Sri Lanka. After years of territorial disputes with China in the South China seas, the Philippines government had resorted to international arbitration which concluded by rejecting the Chinese boundary claim. However Philippines had made it a point to maintain good relations with China despite the court ruling and has in turn reaped a harvest of economic grants and loans. Recently there is speculation that President Duarte will soon issue an executive order declaring part of the disputed Scarborough Shoal as a marine reserve off limits to all fishermen. The new initiative is said to have been negotiated bilaterally with mutual agreement and will protect the marine environment, despite expected strong criticism from local fishermen.

In Sri Lanka, years of discussions and talks between the two sides have seen little progress in dealing with the hundreds of trawlers coming into Sri Lanka waters from Tamil Nadu. A foreign fisheries expert has suggested a new approach to change the terms of the discourse by calling for a complete halt to the destructive practice of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IIU) fishing in Sri Lankan waters, citing EU regulations. According to Dr. Steve Creech’s analysis, since 2009 nearly 282,842 IUU fishing trips have been made by Tamil Nadu trawlers amounting to some 40,409 trips every year, with nearly 2,500 trawlers entering Sri Lankan waters on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays. These vessels are also known to be involved in the smuggling of Kerala ganja and gold, thus posing a security threat to Sri Lanka. The new thinking has sparked an initiative going through the Sri Lanka parliament to ban bottom trawling entirely.

Sri Lanka should also follow the Philippines example and declare a marine sanctuary within its borders in the Palk Straits before all the marine resources are lost.

The conclusion is that the “game changer” approach has value when it is firmly rooted in bilateral negotiation and mutual understanding, based on scientific data and evidence and with a strong public diplomacy approach to convince local constituencies adversely affected by the new measures. A final word of caution is that the “game changer” approach should be carefully structured in consultation with all stake holders considering all consequences harmful to national interest in the long run. An example is the 2009 resolution on Sri Lanka at the Special Session of the UNHRC initiated by a political appointee which once hailed as a maverick “victory” at the local level yet is now recognized as having led to adverse consequences for Sri Lanka for refusal to cooperate with international human rights mechanisms. Worse still it has set off heated divisions in Sri Lanka between the calls for transitional justice and the national support for the war heroes who at great sacrifice, brought the long armed conflict to an end.

(The author is a retired Sri Lanka Foreign Service Ambassador)

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