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National interest of Sri Lanka requires middle path in external affairs

Dec 28, 2010 3:03:36 PM- transcurrents.com

By Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka

For a society in which the Middle Path should be a natural option, opinion making commentators seem to tread every path but that one. One set seems to think that the world is full of enemies of Sri Lanka, ranging from USA and the UN to India, and from Barack Obama through Ban Ki Moon to Rahul Gandhi. The other lot think that Sri Lanka has no external enemies or threats at all, and that the only enemy of Sri Lanka is its democratically elected leadership!

The first bunch hit out at everybody while the second bunch does not see a need to defend the country against any external threat at all, except perhaps from China! The first lot see enemies and threats everywhere, the second lot do not see any enemies at all and any threats are merely Rajapakse smokescreens and ‘special effects’.

For the first category, patriotism is the highest value and overrides all considerations of humanism, humanitarianism and internationalism. For the second category, patriotism has no value whatsoever.

For the first crowd, patriotism is defined in the narrowest of terms while for the second, anything but an infinite elasticity of definition smacks of chauvinism and is to be rejected.

Neither serves the national interest. Given that a long Cold War is being waged against Sri Lanka by non-state actors, we may use a Cold war analogy: the first perspective is rather like that of the Cold War hawks, the second that of the liberal fellow-travellers (on both Western and Russian sides at different times) who saw no threat whatsoever except that of their respective ‘military industrial complex’.

One school of thought concedes nothing to anyone, and the other, gives away the store and the family silver. What these perspectives lack is one such as that of George Kennan or Henry Kissinger—or, in Russian terms, Evgeni Primakov or Sergei Lavrov.

Both approaches have in common, an absence of Realism and the appreciation of smart power allied to the presence of an unfortunate self-righteous irresponsibility.

Consider the perspective that turns Sri Lanka into a hedgehog, spines sticking out in all directions against all comers or an alligator with a tail permanently lashing out. In using these animal analogies I am of course, being diplomatic, because in a sophisticated liberal society as on the East or West coasts of the US, commentator-ideologists such as these have long sported the nickname ‘Mad Dog’. They consider themselves somehow progressive but if shorn of the anti US, anti-western rhetoric, are far closer to the radical Right of Fox TV personality Glen Beck.

They fail to understand that the external relations perspective which best suits the interests of Sri Lanka, countries like Sri Lanka and countries facing situations like Sri Lanka, is one that rationally combines engagement, openness and cooperation with a lucid determination not to submit to or comply with anything that infringes upon, still less erodes, our national sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence.

Is the radical ultranationalist approach that lashes out at India, the US, the UN and the EU, somehow an anti-imperialist or progressive policy? What should be the perspective of a state which faces a complex challenge in the international arena?

On such issues I usually look to one of the most lucid and determined political-strategic minds, not just of the last century but of modernity, Lenin. Writing precisely about the struggle in the international arena, he said:

"...to refuse beforehand to manoeuvre, to utilize the conflict of interests (even though temporary) among one's enemies, to reject agreements and compromises with possible (even though temporary, unstable, vacillating and conditional) allies -- is not this ridiculous in the extreme? Is it not as though, when making a difficult ascent of an unexplored and hitherto inaccessible mountain, we were to refuse beforehand ever to move in zigzags, ever to retrace our steps, ever to abandon the course once selected and to try others?" (‘Leftwing Communism: An Infantile Disorder’)

The xenophobic discourse of the Sinhala ultranationalists --including the JVP --and the isolationist strategic perspective that can be deduced from it should be measured against this clear commendation of Lenin. To my mind, the attacks on India and the US at a time that Tamil émigré secessionists brandishing the Tiger flag are posing a clear and present external challenge to Sri Lanka, is an "infantile disorder", which cannot but remind one of the rhetorical query raised by the greatest radical anti-imperialist strategist the world has seen: "is this not ridiculous in the extreme?"

The opponents of the xenophobes are pacifist liberal cosmopolitans. If, in Lenin’s analogy, the radical xenophobes want Sri Lanka to reach the mountain top in a straight line if not a single bound, the civil society cosmopolitans do not see any need to climb the mountain at all, and do not in fact see the mountain itself.

For them, there is no real external threat and the only thing remotely objectionable about the flag waving Tiger émigré mobs is not that their project and influence is directly hostile to Sri Lanka and is aimed at its eventual dismemberment; the only objection is that their actions may help Mahinda Rajapakse!

These critics are so nihilistic towards patriotism, that they are allergic to any patriotic current even within the anti-government, anti-state, ‘civil society’ space they inhabit. Their argument is that the opposition cannot compete with the government on the terrain of patriotism. This betrays a purely tactical or instrumentalist attitude to patriotism.

Patriotism, even a measure of liberal ‘communitarianism’, is not seen as an intrinsically positive feature, in the defence of national independence and sovereignty. These are themselves regarded as of dubious import and worth.

Sarath Fonseka’s defeat at the Presidential election of January 2010 is taken as evidence of the need to abandon the ground of patriotism, when that election result proved no such thing and perhaps the very opposite: Douglas Macarthur could not have won against Truman, and in any event Mr Fonseka’s patriotic appeal was dented by his strange ‘white flags’ story and the deadly embrace of the TNA, remembered by the Sinhala voter for its role as Tiger proxy, did to his campaign what the Tiger suicide bomber could not do to him physically!

Even from a utilitarian viewpoint, the argument for the abandonment of patriotism is plain silly, because any viable political formation has to wield the shield of patriotism against vulnerability to attack on ground of being unpatriotic (recall the electoral fate of decorated war hero John Kerry) and can only do so by projecting its own brand of ‘smart’ patriotism (Obama’s ‘soft power’ plus Predator drones) as better serving the national interest.

In the perspective of the critics of patriotism, all that is real and recommended are ‘grass roots’ or ‘civil society’ struggles. This is eerily redolent of the old Samasamajist approach of ‘workerist’ ‘class struggle’, itself a perspective decried by Lenin as ‘Economism’ or ‘trade unionism’.

The problem with the policy recommendation of the civil society oppositionists as a political perspective, is that political reality is not purely or even mainly socioeconomic; that politics tends to not to be socioeconomic but – how to put this gently? –political. As we know from Lenin, Schmitt and Mao, ‘the political’ is defined by the distinction between friend and enemy.