Over the last week I have had a plethora of conspiracy theories brought to my attention, on a great range of subjects. The first was a newspaper article, by an American of course, alleging that George Soros had a master plan to break up possible rivals to the West into small states that could then be turned into clients or else neutralized. The countries diagnosed as being subjected to this treatment were China and India and Russia and Indonesia, and the method included promotion of internal nationalisms and hence separatism, along with active involvement of NGOs asserting gross violations of human rights.
While as always with conspiracy theories there seemed much exaggeration in the analysis, as also generally with such theories there seems reason to fear some such endeavours. Certainly we in Sri Lanka have every reason to worry about the promotion now in some quarters of the separatist agenda that former LTTE supporters have still not abandoned. At the same time we should understand that, attractive though Sri Lanka is for geo-political reasons, dismembering us is not really of great advantage to anyone. Rather, any fissiparous tendencies here would be of international significance only if they extended to India. It is for that reason that we should be working even more closely with India than we have done in the past. However, typically, the consequence of the I think mistaken Indian vote in Geneva has been increasing hostility to India, with reminders of its role in the eighties, without due appreciation of the sterling support it offered us in the past decade to get rid of terrorism.
This chimes in with the conspiracy theory I have referred to earlier, with efforts on the part of those in the Ministry of External Affairs who believe we must be firmly ensconced in the Western bosom to create animosity towards India. Of course I have long learnt that, as far as the Sri Lankan administration is concerned, one should not diagnose villainy when simple folly is a possible explanation, but still, the repeated upsetting of India before the vote in Geneva, and then the criticism both of the Indian Parliamentary delegation, which almost led to the President refusing to receive them, and of Indian behavior in the sixties – with no reference to the antics of the then President in joining in Cold War hostility to India – seem to me not entirely gratuitous.
All this is sad, because it takes away from what should be our role in international relations, on the lines of that practiced by Mrs Bandaranaike, under whom our foreign policy was at its most successful. The economic mess we got into in that period has detracted from those achievements, but we should not forget how we managed to be a bridge between various rivals in the developing world. With diplomats of the stature of Shirley Amerasinghe and Neville Kanakaratne, non-career ones I should note, trusted by India and China and Pakistan and the Islamic world, we commanded attention far beyond what could be expected for a country as small as ours.
That was a role we could have returned to after our success against terrorism, but unfortunately our Foreign Ministry has instead been getting rid of diplomats who command respect on the world stage. The leadership of the Group of 17, which could have been used judiciously, was instead squandered as we floundered between obsequiousness to the West and aggressive defiance in areas in which we should actually have worked together with them, to promote pluralism as well as a better human rights regime. What we are now doing suggests that this inconsistent approach is recognized as a cock up, but the remedy seems to be worse, since it is based not on principle but on appeasement.
Because we had not developed a programme to take advantage of our success in 2009, we neglected areas which could have increased our influence. We did little for instance to develop ties with ASEAN, and this is the sadder because the President had instructed that this be done, though sadly he had not followed up to ensure for instance that we tried to get Observer status. I do not know whether this can be remedied now, but I suspect no one will try, and the recent successful visit to Thailand will remain just that, with some development in bilateral relations, no strengthening of regional ties.
Thus another opportunity will be missed, and the more significantly, given the importance of that region. This was the subject of yet another conspiracy theory I was introduced to, at a discussion on trade and related policies during the summit meeting between the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe. At what seemed a comparatively anodyne session on bilateralism and multilateralism, I was startled into keen attention by a European analyst who saw the Pacific Partnership patronized by the United States as essentially a move to shut out Europe. He was deeply upset by this, particularly given the importance of Europe in the service sector, a factor he thought the Partnership was designed to affect adversely.
It was also noted by all that the exercise was primarily a move against China, and that efforts to expand the initially limted grouping, to include Japan and Korea and Mexico, could lead to a change in what was generally assumed to be the purpose of free trade agreements. Far from blocs being designed to promote inclusivity, they were to be seen as instruments to leave potentially hostile nations out.
I was reminded then of how Bismarck had achieved German unification on Prussian terms through the use of the Zollverein, the trade agreement between German countries. And that reminded me of something a British friend had told me some time back, when the economic crisis first hit Europe. He claimed that German bankers had planned it all, as a way of ensuring that Southern Europe became politically as well as financially subordinate to the economically more successful North, ie Germany.
This may well have been a characteristic British exaggeration. But watching on television the dramas that accompanied our summit, both the economic vulnerability of Greece and Spain, and the attacks on our President which seemed so cleverly orchestrated, with the Royal Commonwealth Society weighing in at a crucial moment, I realized that events are often more complex than at first sight they seem. The thirst for power is enormous, and the use of economic power to achieve other ends is nothing new. The only saving grace is that different power centres may have to moderate their greed to avoid open confrontation with each other. But we need to understand such factors and strive towards greater freedom for all in the spaces such competition opens up, not allow ourselves to be used simply as tools in the designs of others.