Thursday, January 28, 2021
Follow Us
New age foreign policy 2020-2025: adopting a four ‘R’ strategy

Sri Lanka stands at yet another juncture in history. A new President is in office and would be keen to leave his mark in the foreign policy arena, like numerous predecessors from historic times to those in the years of independence

Charles Darwin irrefutably claimed that “it is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change”. The first half of 2020 proved that the rate of change can and does intensify, and it is entirely in the hands of individuals, communities, states, regions and the entire world to either adapt to the change, ensure relevance and thrive, or get engulfed, submerged and subsequently sink.

In the foreign policy arena, the cataclysmic changes that have been experienced owing to the pandemic, have resulted in the need to adapt, adjust and keenly strategise to respond to growing concerns, tackle hitherto unseen issues and more importantly be ready to meet the challenges that lie ahead. States and their decision makers face the daunting task of having to adjust and do so in a timely manner to ensure their responses are relevant, their actions are prudent and their decisions prove visionary.

In Sri Lanka, the election of a new President at the end of 2019 signalled the dawn of a new age, as has been the scenario since independence. The election of a new leader is an opportunity to formulate and implement policy through a new vision, which, it is expected, accounts for the domestic environment, the regional concerns and the global circumstances, in which the decisions are to be made. 2020 has revealed the daunting nature of such policy formulation and implementation, but has provided a platform from which policy relevant for a new age, could and should be the main focus.

Sri Lanka’s presence on the global stage is not of a country that is making a debut or one that is attempting to make a mark on the map. It is a country that has for centuries played varying roles, in the South Asian region and beyond, and needs to firstly rely on its ancient connectivity, relate this to the modern context and ensure relevance and significance in the long run. This rich and dynamic past, is undeniable. Whether during the times of the ancient kingdoms, or even the periods under colonisation, the island enjoyed a special and favoured position. This was also experienced for most of the second half of the last century. How was this possible? What factors contributed? Which polices were effective? Similarly, it is relevant to reflect upon instances in which the country erred, faced obstacles, and examine their origin and cause, and the measures adopted to overcome them.

Formulating and implementing an effective foreign policy is in itself a daunting task, yet one that can and must be achieved if a country is to progress and prosper. The adoption of a clear strategy, based on practical and sustainable aspects, is the key to an effective foreign policy.


In light of the aforementioned introspection, it is important for Sri Lanka to take a long hard look at the past, critically analyse that which has occurred, study the triumphs, avoid a repetition of the errors, and strategise for the future. Whilst theorising on foreign policy is often understood to be easier than the practical aspect of the subject, it is crucial to focus primarily on reviewing that which has occurred to flesh out that which is and isn’t possible, while noting that which has and hasn’t been done.

Any project requires a system of review at intervals to assess its success or failure. In the realm of foreign policy, all too often, policy is formulated and implemented but a process of reviewing does not occur systematically. This has led to situations in which countries have often failed to acknowledge weak areas, and have also ignored new developments which directly impact such policy. This has been to their detriment and resulted in the creation of deeper problems and fresh challenges. It is for this purpose that a structured process of data collection would be necessary.

The gathering of data should not be limited merely to collecting statistics from missions around the world. The gathering of material needs to be done with a ‘Sri Lanka-first’ objective, which ensures the centricity of Sri Lanka but accounts for the realistic position of the country vis-à-vis neighbours and counterparts across the globe. The input should include positions that could be adopted, new avenues that could be explored and fresh opportunities that have hitherto remained untapped. This would clearly require analysis given the need for comprehensive data.

Statistics in the form of raw data needs to be humanised to comprehend its impact and potential. This would lead to a clearer understanding of all bilateral and multilateral forms of engagement, and lay the foundation for formulating a foreign policy that is rich in terms of heritage, acknowledges the country’s strengths and weakness, and explores new areas of opportunity, which would be timely. It is at this juncture that Sri Lanka needs to explore opportunities for reigniting old connections, build on past successes and situations, commemorate long standing ties in a meaningful way, and ensure the remembrance of assistance that was given in times of need, among many other aspects, which remain crucial in this first part of the process.


Secondly, a restructuring of the entire system, process and means of delivery is essential to ensure that Sri Lanka is not left behind or even lags behind other countries, and is capable of utilising innovation at the very core of decision making. For too long the ministry-mission system has relied on particular processes and positions, some of which have worked effectively and others that have not. This has resulted in unpreparedness in facing new challenges, seen the adoption of short term, temporary measures, caused an increase in the logjam that is often experienced, and increased the tendency for bureaucratic processes to hinder growth and development.

It is through a restructuring of the system, both within the ministry and through the network of missions, that bold decisions are required to ensure that neither is ill-equipped, ill-prepared or poorly informed, and instead the decisions made and implemented are timely and not long overdue, proactive and not merely reactive measures, and intensely strategic in nature and scope. This would ensure that Sri Lanka is able to recapture most of the lost glory, but more necessarily become a country that is viewed in positive light and is acknowledged for her potential and vibrancy which are key factors in Sri Lanka’s armoury.

Within the Ministry, it would be necessary to prioritise areas of operation, taking note of sectors of importance and giving impetus to their structure. This impetus needs to come from above, whereby stronger and deeper focus is given to countries and not merely regions as is the present form. One can’t be accounted for at the expense of the other. Instead due recognition to both individual countries and those operating with regions need to be included. While, for example, a division of South Asia is relevant to relate to regional issues, it is important for emphasis to be placed on the bilateral connectivity, without allowing it to dovetail into one of regionalism. The focus on regionalism is relevant in dealing with regional entities.

Heightened emphasis on specific countries with which Sri Lanka enjoys particularly vital relations, is crucial, owing to the systems of operation found in such countries, wherein due emphasis is placed on Sri Lanka. Whilst resources might be a challenge, it is one that needs to be overcome if the full potential of bilateral connectivity is to be achieved. Until and unless Sri Lanka looks at optimising output with the given resources and explores ways of enhancing such resources, the country will not be able to ensure deeper and stronger relations, which make Sri Lanka the optimal choice and not another option.

This process of changing Sri Lanka’s position from an option to being optimal also requires immense input from the vanguard of diplomatic engagement, in the missions around the world. While it would be beneficial to look at more missions in strategic locations, it is important to start with optimising output from the current system, and in the long term explore means of opening new missions. There are many countries out there with which Sri Lanka hardly engages, even on a monthly basis.

Political engagement at the highest level, through the creation of opportunities for leaders to meet continuously is paramount. This engagement augurs well for bilateral ties, and lays a strong foundation, which was one of the strongest factors in Sri Lanka’s foreign policy establishment in the decades gone by. Despite the challenges of travel, leaders in the first half of Sri Lanka’s independence years, engaged regularly. The engagement was brought to fruition in numerous forms, wherein they met on State Visits, on the sidelines of international gatherings, wrote to each other regularly highlighting critical issues and maintained close lines of communication, especially through their choice of emissaries.

Economic engagement through missions, require an enhancement of interaction with the Department of Commerce, by allocating a team as opposed to a single officer, which would be capable of reaching out and interacting with the economic community in their respective countries of residence and accreditation. Drawing in investment needs to be undertaken in a structured manner and not on an ad-hoc basis. Often trying to grab at any form of investment, as long as it is an investment is detrimental on many fronts. For enhanced economic engagement to take place a pre-requisite is a national plan of action, in line with national interests, which clearly identifies projects of relevance and then efforts are made to garner such forms of investment. It results in Sri Lanka growing through clear initiatives which are based on nationals needs and also gives the investor great confidence to enter and engage with the country.

The process of restructuring the system in its entirety, though time consuming, would be one of the most rewarding endeavours undertaken by the political and bureaucratic leadership in conjunction with academia and professionals from the connected fields. The resulting factors wherein Sri Lanka grows, by leaps and bounds, through consistent and comprehensive measures will yield a beneficial output that generates decisive results. It is change in the form of restructuring that is required to obtain such desirable results.

Reach out

Sri Lanka has a large and extensive network of countries with which diplomatic engagement has been signed and sealed. The short fall occurs in the practical aspect of engagement. Several features have to be considered in this sphere. With numerous countries accredited to single missions, the task becomes overwhelming, resulting in a loss of mutually beneficial engagement. Similarly connectivity is sought often at times when elections or resolutions of various forms are taken up within multilateral bodies. Furthermore, a lack of knowledge of the connections that exist and ignorance of the intricacies of the bilateral relationship, either sour ties, or more often, result in the full potential not being explored, leading to missed opportunities.

When considering the degree of engagement with host countries and their communities, it is essential to consider the diversity that exists within each of these countries. This diversity spreads from the political spectrum, where it is not only the governing party and its members, in that respective country that requires connecting with. The political milieu needs to be studied and sufficient engagement sought with all across the board. When considering the sciences, or culture and the arts, academia, and the economic sphere, the actors are numerous and painstaking attention is required to spread one’s interactions with a cross section of the society in which one serves. This then needs to extend to the countries of accreditation as well, and visits by ambassadors and high commissioners to such countries shouldn’t be curtailed to credential and national day ceremonies.

On the second point, Cardinal Richelieu meticulously explained centuries ago that diplomacy should be a continuous process aimed at creating durable relations rather than a process that consists of opportunistic advances. The key take-away is the ability to sustain relations through differing times and not be seen to approach or engage only in times of need. All too often adhoc encounters, meetings sought for campaigning, or sudden attempts to garner support for or against procedures, reveal a lack of genuineness, and display opportunism, which must be avoided at all times. Sri Lanka has enjoyed long standing ties with countries, some of which predate the colonial period. It is these connections that need to be especially pursued and every attempt made to strengthen the degree of engagement, while boosting ties established post independence.

The third aspect is the need to fully comprehend the historic perspective of the connections, understand relations in the contemporary period, and deploy mechanisms to highlight both the past and present to build a sturdy future. Within the first stage of reviewing that which has been, it is possible to fully reveal all that has occurred and be able to utilise such knowledge for the betterment of the country.

In addition, in the phase of reaching out, it becomes imperative to identify key windows into regions. These are countries with which historic ties, religious congruence, or even language and cultural attributes provide a deeper degree of connectivity which could be a leveraging factor for Sri Lanka in engaging with other countries in that particular region. Considered a prudent policy and implemented by many others, this approach is ideal for countries like Sri Lanka which possess limited resources and may look to such ‘windows’ to resuscitate diplomacy. These ‘windows’ prove beneficial in multilateral organisations and in regional groupings. In multilateral organisations, such ‘windows’ would play pivotal roles to support Sri Lanka at crucial times. In regional organisations, the inability to be physically present in each and every country, would be augmented through strategic presence in key ‘windows’ which in turn act as intermediaries with countries with which Sri Lanka doesn’t enjoy long standing or strong ties.

Diplomacy today has evolved to cover a plethora of areas where all forms of engagement possess the ability to contribute to the bilateral relations of two countries. With military diplomacy extending to specified areas and including air and naval diplomacy, the role and function of peaceful military engagement deserves more indepth study and emphasis. Similarly diplomacy based on religion and philosophy is another opportunity to explore new forms of engagement. The abundance of spheres indicates the plurality of diplomacy in the 21st century. It is for countries to enhance diplomacy by harnessing such spheres.

Within this phase it is noteworthy that opportunity exists to expand, enrich, and diversify connectivity. Requiring acute strategising at the very highest level and trickling down to all levels of diplomacy, the implementation of this stage of the four ‘R’ approach widens the scope and ambit of Sri Lanka internationally and augurs well for the foreign policy of the country. By reaching out to existing partners, identifying ‘windows’ into regions, and seeking new connections and new forms of diplomatic engagement it would be possible for Sri Lanka to generate innovative opportunities, which would stand the country in good stead.


For Sri Lanka to remain on firm footing in the foreign policy arena, abreast of the latest developments, whilst being in tune with the past, it is essential that the country remains ready for all eventualities. Such readiness can only be achieved if adequate measures have been taken to make informed decisions, implement sound policies, and review that which has been implemented, while remaining in sync on all levels. Resorting to ad hoc decision making to satisfy a fresh development, is a trial and error system, which becomes a gamble. It works effectively at times, but can also be significantly disastrous.

This aspect of readiness relates to effective decision making to obtain plan A, but also having a plan B and even C if required, whilst taking into consideration all foreseeable outcomes. It might be that plan B is not as effective as plan A, yet the compilation of alternate plans and policies are paramount to avoid failure. These plans have to drawn up as short, medium and long term strategies of foreign policy and address pressing problems, and provide recourse to new challenges that may arise in the future.

Acute strategising becomes crucial at this stage, as Sri Lanka prepares for the growing challenges that the pandemic has brought, and all other forms of obstacles that would arise in the short to medium term. Such developments need to be addressed using the foreign policy mechanism, especially in responding to threats and challenges emanating from outside, or deciding on joining or distancing oneself from alliances, or even exploring new forms of revenue generation and investment for the country. Irrespective of the arena of activity, Sri Lanka must have the plans drawn up, the contingencies at the ready, and the ability to resort to these varied options in the face of challenges, instead of groping in the dark, adopting ad hoc measures or introducing temporary schemes to tide over periods of uncertainty.

Through an effective and efficient system of strategising it is possible for Sri Lanka and her decision makers to arrive at well structured, knowledge-driven, prudent decisions and to formulate policies that are Sri Lanka-centric, economically beneficial, and which prove the efficacy of the trouble taken in the first place. Furthermore through the process of implementation, the returns would highlight the suitability and efficiency of the policy, whilst raising the standard of the system, and those within it.

Within the four ‘R’ approach it is important to review that which exists, restructure the system, reach out to allies and make new contacts, and ensure readiness to face any eventuality. Until and unless decision makers start thinking of the bigger picture in which Sri Lanka as a country operates in the international system, take note of the gamut of factors that deserve due consideration prior to decision making, and strategise to acquire the fullest potential, it would be pointless deliberating on foreign policy.

Sri Lanka stands at yet another juncture in history. A new President is in office and would be keen to leave his mark in the foreign policy arena, like numerous predecessors from historic times to those in the years of independence. As the third decade of the 21st century unravels, the challenges in 2020 appear to subsume all those experienced in the first two decades and portend to increase in the years ahead. It is at this crucial stage in the international system, that Sri Lanka possesses the opportunity to not only embrace change, remain relevant and survive, but to go further and shine in the new age.