Diplomacy Challenges: Sri Lanka at 75 (Part 1)

By H.M.G.S. Palihakkara

The writer is a former Foreign Secretary during Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar’s tenure in office, and one-time Ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva and New York.

COLOMBO (IDN) — Sri Lanka at 75 is hopefully on course to a stable transition to recovery from a crippling crisis, and then to a sustainable growth path. Whether this is a mere hope or a realistic expectation is still too early to tell.

What is real, however, is that Sri Lanka’s diplomacy has got its work cut out. A recovery seamlessly leading to growth will, of necessity, require complex negotiations abroad on external inputs in tandem with a spirited local effort towards stability and consensus.

These negotiations involve a multiplicity of players and interests in the realms of our creditor and investment constituencies — state, non-state, multilateral and bilateral. Obviously, diplomacy of this effort needs to factor in geopolitical forces at play in these domains while negotiators endeavour to calibrate our recovery and growth needs accordingly. Also, there is the bothersome reality that we are not negotiating from a position of strength or equality but out of dire need.

The country is obliged to promote, negotiate and secure these external inputs in the face of a couple of countervailing factors as well. Its ability to negotiate as a Sovereign with proven competence in governance stands impaired by the crisis.

Meanwhile, politics here remains mired, as usual one might add, in parochial stuff including regime change schemes rather than focusing on a crisis-exit agenda based on a consensual reform project.

Secondly, Sri Lankan diplomacy has to do all this at a time when the world itself is navigating an array of downturns and fractures, both economic and political, entailing disruption and even destruction in some cases.

Intermestic factors

All this is sobering. However, it also suggests that the challenge is “intermestic”, as the pundits call it. Jargon apart, this notion captures a simple home truth about a fundamental ‘domestic-foreign affairs nexus’ our diplomacy has to reckon with in the context of the current crisis.  Our local actions and inactions impact what we can do abroad to secure our interests and vice versa.

Following the conception of this idea in 1979 by Bayless Manning, the first President of the Council on Foreign Relations, a US think tank, theorists and practitioners alike have used and expanded it to describe and understand this coupling between domestic and foreign affairs in diverse situations ranging from the Vietnam war then to the Ukraine war now, and how leaders made choices, recklessly at times, to wage war or make peace in problem-solving.

Researchers have given further examples, on a broader front, of this interface between domestic-foreign relations matters touching upon war and peace, tariffs and debt, governance, human rights, accountability, reconciliation and so on.

Sri Lanka has not been unfamiliar with the intermestic nature of its public policy and governance deficits as well as its leadership failures.

Our leaders’ inability or unwillingness to forge a political consensus for an independent and credible domestic process of post-conflict peace-building in general and accountability and reconciliation in particular, and their failure to implement the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) and follow-up commissions, let these essentially domestic issues migrate abroad and morph into foreign relations (FR) issues.

Human rights issues have thus become diplomatic challenges culminating in a plethora of Human Rights Council (HRC) Resolutions of escalating intrusiveness not only in the realm of civil and political rights but now touching on other areas of governance, like the economy, corruption, etc.

The HRC Resolution of last year is considered the epitome of this escalation.  The upshot of all this is the creation of a UN funded office in Geneva to do ‘prosecutorial’ work on alleged offenders in Sri Lanka — a virtual outsourcing of the Sri Lankan Attorney General’s warrant to a bureaucracy abroad.

This is an intrusiveness quite unprecedented for any country, let alone Sri Lanka which has had a reputation as a progressive third-world democracy espousing egalitarian ethos, at least for over a quarter of a century since Independence.

So, the Governments spend time and effort defending its human rights record rather than defending the human rights of its citizens as required by our constitutional and treaty obligations.

Over the years, our political and policy establishments have obviously failed to guide the economy away from a culture of ‘dependency and entitlement’ towards a self-reliant and sustainable path addressing the deep-rooted and long-standing problem of the paucity of enlightened reform, including what the Aragalaya (the Sinhalese word for “struggle” used widely to describe the daily gathering of people at Colombo’s Galle Face Green) signified.

We thus took this intermesticity to a new level in the ongoing economic crisis – a crisis that entailed existential issues for the entire population perhaps for the first time in post-independence history.

Naturally, external inputs needed to recover from this necessitate building common ground among competing and even rival geopolitical players like China, India, Japan and the US-led West as well as collaborative multilateral entities of the Bretton Woods system such as the IMF, World Bank, etc. To this list of bilaterals and multilaterals, one needs to add the non-state creditors who hold the lion’s share of what we owe.

This task demands harmonising diplomacy, on the one hand, and hard-nosed negotiations, on the other. The need is to produce what must ‘appear’ as win-win solutions for all stakeholders, local and foreign.

Consequently, these outcomes must represent a reasonable distribution of ‘managed dissatisfaction’-sans perfect happiness to any particular party-among the interlocutors concerned.

During his recent visit to Colombo, Indian External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar confirmed ‘strong’ Indian support for IMF’s Extended Fund Facility and debt sustainability for Sri Lanka while reports about China’s support sounded more nuanced and a bit ambivalent.

Despite qualifications, this is good news but conclusive negotiations on debt sustainability plus medium and long-term measures must continue and can be bumpy. The Indian Minister’s reaffirmation during his visit, of the principle that ‘all creditors must be treated equally’; China’s persistent ambiguity on the debt sustainability issue, while appearing to be very ‘humanitarian’ towards Sri Lanka’s troubles and terse polemical between the highly vocal US and Chinese envoys in Colombo on the same subject, even testing the resilience of the ‘Third country refrain’ of conventional diplomacy, are testimony to these challenges.

Does Sri Lanka have the leverage to sort all these out? Enfeebled by the crisis and its precursor failures, it may not have a compelling clout.

But it can offer something else — a template for recovery and subsequent growth viz. a domestic political consensus on commitment to a reform programme and its continuity over the long haul. That is how other countries in similar predicaments recovered and grew – e.g., Italy and Greece to name two.

We, of course, do not have to follow everything the two countries did. After all, the Italians lost a world war and the Greeks an empire! But we can learn from their more recent recovery experience that brought about a reasonably apolitical and consensual governance framework geared for reform and recovery (R&R).

Why should the President and his domestic rivals be interested in a consensual template? Simply put, the crux of the matter is that we are once again asking Governments of other countries to persuade their taxpayers and the Board Members of foreign entities to foot the bill of public policy blunders and political mischief we have repeatedly made over the past decades in this country.

We are doing this, having defaulted on many reform promises made before. So, our interlocutors including the much-needed FDI sources must know that this vicious cycle (of crisis-promise of reform-predictable non-compliance) will not be replayed this time around.

The only way to do that is to strive for a general understanding on R&R so that the promised reforms will not be unravelled by the next government that comes along or decimated in the blood sport called election politics in this country.

The much-quoted Singaporean statesman, the late Lee Kuan Yew, probably had this in mind when he made reference to the slew of elections here: “…in Sri Lanka, elections are an auction of non-existent resources.”

The current President continuously exhorts (including in Parliament just about a week ago) about ‘working together’ to overcome the crisis. The Opposition, too, has affirmed that although it does not want to join what it calls a franchise-less government, it will nonetheless support a programme for recovery. 

So, the consensus ingredients are there. Now they must walk the talk and bring it to fruition while reserving the right and opportunity to fight elections on other issues. This will be good confidence building all around — among the people, negotiators and other stakeholders, foreign and local.

Secondly, the plain truth is that both the crisis as well as reforms aimed at its resolution will obviously cause a great deal of pain. Paradoxically, reforms that are so essential for recovery can be equally, if not more, destabilising than the problem itself since people are faced with the brunt of double jeopardy in quick succession viz. crisis pain dovetailing into reform pain. [IDN-InDepthNews – 09 February 2023]

To be continued…


IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.

Visit us on Facebook and Twitter.

We believe in the free flow of information. Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International, except for articles that are republished with permission.

Related Posts

Begin typing your search term above and press enter to search. Press ESC to cancel.

Back To Top