People’s participation and foreign policy

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Supporters carry placards of Sajith Premadasa, Sri Lanka’s Cabinet Minister of Housing, Construction and Cultural Affairs, deputy leader of the ruling United National Party and presidential candidate, at an election rally in Colombo on Thursday. LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI/AFP

The prominent emergence of foreign policy issues in public discussion in Sri Lanka, against the backdrop of an upcoming presidential election in the country, needs to be seen as a highly positive development.

This is because foreign policy questions rarely come to the fore as “hot talking points” within the Sri Lankan polity.

This culture of relative silence enveloping Sri Lanka’s foreign policy questions is traceable in the main to a tendency on the part of Sri Lankan governments, foreign affairs officials and the political class to steer clear of robustly discussing them in public.

Consequently, foreign policy issues have come to be seen by the public, whose main preoccupation has been local politics, as relatively unimportant and having little bearing on their main interests.

But the indications are that foreign policy matters will be “coming out of the cold” in the run-up to the presidential polls in Sri Lanka and this is a happy development, considering the strong relevance of foreign policy to any country’s national interests. For example, prominent presidential contender Gotabhaya Rajapaksa of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna is on record as having declared that he favours a non-aligned foreign policy.

Likewise, his closest rival Sajith Premadasa of the New Democratic Front told foreign diplomats recently that he is for a policy of friendship to all countries, which is what non-alignment is essentially all about.

Thanks to a heated public debate on two or more accords with strong military overtones that successive Sri Lankan governments entered into or deliberated strongly on with the US in recent years, foreign policy has emerged as a focal point of note in current local discussion.

Two of these pacts are The Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement and The States of Forces Agreement. There is also the US Millennium Challenge Corporation agreement of a highly economic nature which is yet to be entered into fully by the sides, although they have discussed it over the past few months.

These agreements – signed or under discussion – are seen by critics of the present government as “selling out” to the West. But at least two of the above accords were entered into or deliberated on by previous regimes, which were by no means on the happiest of terms with the West.

The question, therefore, arises as to whether the case against the present regime has a sound basis. The campaign could very well be pre-election politicking.

It does not follow from the foregoing that it is irrelevant to debate the merits and demerits of these accords.

Broad public participation in discussions of this kind is very necessary and the discussions need to be welcomed as helping to qualitatively upgrade public discourse, although they come somewhat “late in the day”.

We say that such debate and discussion is coming “late” because it is no secret that Sri Lanka, like many other Southern countries, has been in a dependent relationship with the prime powers of the West and their major financial institutions over the decades, since political “independence” in 1948.

If at all the subject has been discussed, it has transpired in highly specialised bodies, such as sensitive agencies of the state and high-brow think-tanks that have little or no connection with the public. Such factors too have contributed to the relative unimportance attached to foreign policy issues by the public.

Non-alignment has been considered a major strand in Sri Lanka’s foreign policy, but this issue did not engross the public to the desired degree for the above reasons. In the decades of the 1960s and 1970s, non-alignment was given prime position as a basic parameter of the country’s foreign policy, and the governments of those times took it upon themselves to implement this policy to the extent possible within the relevant international power constraints, but there was minimal public debate and discussion on the relevant issues.

Ironically, although non-alignment seems to be coming into its own, the independent observer is likely to perceive that such a policy is becoming increasingly irrelevant to Southern Hemisphere states such as Sri Lanka.

This is because, on the one hand, the bipolar international power structure of decades back has given way to a multi-polar power system, with the end of the Cold War. In the latter system, non-alignment has no meaning.

Besides, the nature of the current international economy, defined and driven mainly by the free market, compels countries anywhere to follow a policy of economic pragmatism.

There is, strictly speaking, no capitalism-socialism cleavage.

All countries are going down the free market road, to a greater or lesser degree, and the states of the South have no choice but to make best use of the opportunities that are opening up on a pragmatic and practical basis. Economic ideologies proclaiming inwardness are no longer valid.

Given these developments, the chances are that the weaker economies of the South will prove increasingly vulnerable to international economic forces that obey only the dictates of the market.

Needless to say, the major economies of the world, such as the US, will dictate the terms in this open economy situation.

All in all, the days of non-alignment or anything approaching it are over.

The major economies of the South will need to take the lead in moulding the world economy in the interests of the weaker members of the hemisphere.

But will this happen? That is the big question. If it does not transpire, it would be a question of every Southern Hemisphere state fending for itself to the extent possible. There are issues aplenty in this situation for such states and their people. A wide public discussion of these questions is necessary in the global South to hit on the best way to survive in these unpredictable times.

People’s robust participation in formulating foreign policy would emerge as a necessity.

Lynn Ockersz is a consultant associate editor and business and finance editor of The Island newspaper. This article is part of the latest series of the Asian Editors Circle, a weekly commentary by Asia News Network (ANN) editors published by members of the regional media group. The ANN is an alliance of 24 news media titles across the region.