U Turns Are Difficult
“Members of the foreign policy elite are rarely held to account, they were able to make the same mistakes again and again.” Stephen M.Walt on US foreign policy
USA and Sri Lanka need to recalibrate their respective foreign policies. On both ends of global power scales, I suspect the world superpower and the small southern Indian Ocean island both require a realist reframing of their foreign policy. This is also suggested by Stephen M.Walt in his 2018 publication titledThe Hell of Good Intentions.
At home, Sri Lanka requires a foreign policy to reflect national interest. A senior foreign ministry official of State recently whispered to me that, “we have become a prostitute who is ready to sleep with anyone for any price”. This erratic and impulsive style of governance will hold grave consequences to the nation. U turns are difficult, these include ones committed such as 2015 30/1 resolution at UNHRC. Neville Ladduwahetty explains this clearly in his article Government to-sponsor 2019 Geneva resolution. He rightly explains the stand taken on 30/1 by the foreign ministry reflects the degree of disconnect that exist within the ranks of Government.
On 9th March, I was onboard a US military C2 flight heading towards the Eastern Indian Ocean waters to visit the USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74) aircraft carrier, a floating metal base of 4.5 Acres of sovereign US territory. The nuclear-powered aircraft carrier named after the only US senator carrying his personal philosophy to “Look Ahead” for the sake of the country. The aircraft can hold 5000 officers onboard and carry enough firepower. It is a gigantic piece of human innovation. In my opinion, it serves to project US power in the Oceans.
Aircraft carriers which combine the Navy and Air force form methods of ensuring and insuring USA’s presence on the oceanfront. Gigantic maritime defense equipment such as USS John C. Stennis come at the costs of US 5 billion and another US 5 billion or more for research and development for technical upgrades of military hardware. The floating base can be seen as a global police officer in the 21st century. It aims to secure the rules of the ocean in a rules based order.
The shift of emphasis from land power to sea power took place during the early 19th century with the Mahanian theory of winning the oceans as the key for global dominance. This theory was absorbed and acted upon in forming the US grand strategy for the following century. During the cold war it was the Atlantic, Pacific and the Mediterranean seas that mattered more for the global geopolitics. Currently, the focus is toward the Indian Ocean. With more than half of global trade travelling through the Indian Ocean, securing trade will be paramount for US and China in this century.
To engage in securing trade and projecting power from a distant place is a challenge. Carrier strike groups with its air craft carriers gives a strategic advantage. US strength with its naval power could be seen as a capital-intensive navy with a slow return on investment. USA’s peer competitor, China, is engaged in a stealth warfare strategy of more investment on space and underwater on their submarines. The civil military nexus in Chinese ship building today has given a clear advantage of a shorter manufacturing time to build naval crafts than any other military in the world. The US fleet has been reducing in size. In 1950 it held 634 ships, in the post- Cold War period, by 1997 it had scaled down to 365 ships and today its naval fleet is reduced to 150 ships. This reduction is due to the high cost of unfruitful pointless wars. This high cost is attached to USA’s stubborn commitment to the strategy of “liberal hegemony”– since the end of cold war. USA’s efforts to use power to spread democracy, open markets and other liberal values into every nook and cranny of the planet was a strategy which was doomed to fail. A more realist strategy with a foreign policy of a more realistic view of American power is required as clearly explained by Stephen M.Walt.
The present US maritime strategy is derived from the British historian Julian S. Corbett who wrote the 1911 book titled Some Principles of Maritime Strategy. USA’s fleet decreasing poses the significant risk of limitations in fleet strength and size. The strategy to overcome this is to have more allied or likeminded nations that support American values to assist them. In Corbett’s words, it would be a ‘fleet in being’ -which is a collection of ships that can quickly coalesce into a unified fleet when necessary, and engage in limited defense.
Sri Lanka at the center of the of sea lines of communications in the Indian Ocean. It is an important post for the US Navy. Stock control division officer Lt. Bryan Ortiz from the John C. Stennis’ has said “The primary purpose of the operation is to provide mission-critical supplies and services to U.S. Navy ships transiting through and operating in the Indian Ocean, the secondary purpose is to demonstrate the U.S. Navy’s ability to establish a temporary logistics hub ashore where no enduring US Navy logistics footprint exists.” If Sri Lanka gives full logistics hub clearance then there is no guarantee another nation such as China would not demand for the same. In this future scenario Sri Lanka could end up as a multi logistics hub operations base for the US and Chinese navies. This may sometime transfer into a multi base operation depending on the domestic and foreign policy in the next 25 years.
The foreign policy of a nation should derive from its national interests and not succumb to another nation’s interests. Sri Lankan foreign policy is going in two directions, clearly shown by the foreign ministry who is endorsing and negotiating time to implement the 30/1 resolution of 2015 and another delegation sent by the President to Geneva to elucidate not to intervene, rather, that we could find a domestic mechanism to resolve our own issue. The duality of this position shows the deep political polarization within the government and barriers to agreement between the foreign ministry and President being now displayed on the international stage.
The democratic government did not take efforts to engage the public, or consult with them when co-sponsoring the resolution in 2015. If it had been done, the majority of Sinhalese Buddhists would have not supported this resolution. The nation’s interest was not captured when formulating the path in Geneva. The President’s U turn from its 2015 position shows that he was excluded or was not allowed to voice his opinion from the earlier decisions of foreign policy in Sirisena-Wickramasinghe government. Serious setbacks are clearly on the horizon to an already scarred nation owing to the mistrust and duality of views taken at the highest levels of State. Many nations have articulated a National Security Strategy, National Defense Policy and Foreign Policy through a white paper or a policy document. This basic coherence in governance and leadership is absent in Sri Lanka.
From a nonaligned foreign policy, Sri Lanka has moved towards a multi-aligned foreign policy today trying to align with the strongest triple sphere of influence to the nation forming US, China and India and the rest. The danger in multi-aligned policy is when alignment is tilted towards one power, the domestic politics will be in chaos. Shivshankar Menon, the former NSA of India, observes in his book Choices in 2016 that New Delhi had reason to want a change of government in Sri Lanka due to the then President Rajapaksa going back on his pledge in respect of Sri Lanka-China relations. The Chinese tilt of Rajapaksa was seen as a national security threat to India. Menon’s assertion that Sri Lanka is an aircraft carrier, parked 14 miles off the Indian coast, clearly underscored New Delhi’s serious concerns regarding Sri Lanka being too close to China. If Sri Lankan geography is seen as an aircraft carrier to India one could clearly understand why the extra regional powers send their aircraft carriers and submarines to visit Sri Lanka or to use the nation as a logistics hub. A vertical axis of Sri Lankan geography with India and Russia plays one geopolitical note while the horizontal axis is with US and China. Balancing the two axes will be a significant challenge with the present dual foreign policy of Sirisena and Wickramasinghe. It is time the nation invests to institutionalize the foreign and defence policy of the nation. As Senator Stennis spelled out for the US, perhaps applicable to Sri Lanka, we need to “Look Ahead” for the sake of the country to institutionalize the nations policies.
*Asanga Abeyagoonasekera is the author of Sri Lanka at Crossroads(2019), Director General of the National Security Think Tank of Sri Lanka (INSSSL) under the Sri Lanka Defence Ministry.