The intricacies of being non-aligned

Non-aligned: “Being in a state of not being aligned with something else” and/or “the policy or fact of not providing support for or receiving support from any of the powerful countries”.  Being non-aligned, albeit with a vastly different interpretation, is how Sri Lanka has sought to define, articulate, and redefine its conception of the country’s foreign policy under various regimes. In the same way that “no man is an island, entire of itself” per British poet John Donne, no island is a nation-State, entire of itself.

Referring to bilateral relations, Sri Lanka’s two-time and incumbent Foreign Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris has stressed Sri Lanka’s policy of engagement at all times, to work in a spirit of partnership, with the effort directed to always ascertain areas of consensus and agreement, to collaborate to mutual advantage.

However, three wolves are baying at Sri Lanka’s door. They are the big brother India, the older cousin China, and the fatherly US. But be they big, they are not all bad wolves, and neither is Sri Lanka, a little Miss Red Riding Hood. They all want to play in the same sandbox and prefer the game of playing doctor, with a spin – i.e. where everyone wants to play doctor. For all the highfalutin vernacular of diplomacy, this analogy represents a crude distillation of what diplomacy has always been. Only the stakes are bigger.

What, then, should be the nature of Sri Lanka’s engagement?

Since times of yore, much has been made of Sri Lanka’s strategic geopolitical location, placed as it is among busy maritime routes, with its ample resources affording vistas of opportunity for brisk trade and commerce. Considering the present economic doldrums Sri Lanka has dug itself into through decades of economic mismanagement, financial profligacy, and wanton corruption, the Finance Ministry, making reference to Budget 2022, noted that it aims to utilise and exploit the country’s geopolitical location to, among others, address the ongoing foreign exchange hemorrhaging.

However, one must consider some foreign policy matters first. Co-existence should beget co-operation and vice versa. In this regard, Prof. Peiris, denying any alienation from the US owing to the human rights issue, or pivot towards China over economic dependence and infrastructure development, the latter in turn causing concern to India over what they see as China’s interventionism and expansionism, claimed: “We do not have exclusive relations with one country, shutting out all other countries. We have friendly relations with all. We do not permit one country to do anything in Sri Lanka that is detrimental to the interests of another friendly country. So, we have been able to evolve and develop ‘mutually beneficial/equally productive’ relations with all of the countries that have dealings with us”.

This is all well and good.

However, geopolitical tensions between the trinity, especially between the US and China, and China and India, abound, with Sri Lanka smack bang in the middle of this quarrelsome threesome.

Hence, pragmatism is key.

It is worth reminding that while Sri Lanka must not make the bull in a China shop error of weaponising its foreign policy through economic alliances which have a heavy security-based component, it should also not adopt a policy of taking a leaf from the book of America, of Sri Lankan exceptionalism.

At the same time, while acknowledging that the inverse of the prisoner’s dilemma is the ideal to strive for in bilateral scenarios, it must be noted that the safety of being non-aligned in complex multilateral contexts is not necessarily the same as being neutral. Being non-aligned neither precludes nor allows for being uninvolved, being unallied, being unattached, and being uncommitted. One cannot run with the hares and hunt with the hounds. Diplomacy does call for sides to be taken, on principled and value-based positions, without betraying any partisanship to any entity per se.

Advising the US during the Soviet Union era, to be very careful when exercising leadership in Asia, particularly the Far East (presently comprising East and Southeast Asia), American diplomat George F. Kennan noted that it would be akin to pulling wool over one’s own eyes and others if the US were to “pretend to have answers to the problems, which agitate many of these Asiatic peoples”. Kennan further calls on the US to cease to talk about vague and “unreal” (he specifies the Far East) objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratisation, as the day is not far off when the US is going to have to deal in straight power concepts, and therefore, the less encumbered by idealistic slogans, the better the US is. On the myth of American exceptionalism, Kennan has this to say: “This whole tendency to see ourselves as the centre of political enlightenment and as teachers to a great part of the rest of the world strikes me as un-thought-through, vainglorious, and undesirable.”

Kennan further advises the Executive to consider that, pertaining to matters on the public opinion of and public reaction to foreign policy questions, in the short term, the reaction is likely to be of an “erratic, subjective, and undependable” nature, and that, therefore, even though such may not be true in the long run, to pay heed to such in the short-term trend would be to be “easily led astray into areas of emotionalism and subjectivity which make a poor and inadequate guide for national action”.

Such an approach places a lot of power on the Executive branch of Government.

There is, however, a catch.

It may then well be that the genuine statesman, as the German philosopher Oswald Spengler reminds us in The Decline of the West, is, “incarnate history, its directedness expressed as individual will, and its organic logic as character”.

However, it also stands to be reiterated that, as former United Nations (UN) Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld would note, “no nation or group of nations can base its future on a claim of supremacy”.

Sri Lanka, too, should then take an example from Kennan’s brand of diplomacy, thus adopting a long-term policy of vigilant patience and the firm containment of any expansionist tendencies, be they geopolitical or economical, of the aforementioned triumvirate, as far as Sri Lanka’s interests are concerned. Above all, Sri Lanka should not set itself up to be the boy of William Tell lore with the apple on his head in any potential Mexican standoff, should such arise between the US, China, and India.

On the other hand, in order to develop Sri Lanka’s non-aligned foreign policy to be more effective in its quest, what is required is to extend this approach of non-alignment to, where possible, take the initiative to inculcate aspects of supranational style decision-making processes with value-based collective decision-making mechanisms with the widest national and international stakeholder representation, on areas of bilateral concern and in response to pressing needs.

Towards this end, our geopolitical standing, both in terms of stature and resources, affords an armamentarium for non-alignment.

Non-aligned: “Being aligned with the best interests of.”