The Ministry of Defence should be congratulated not only for taking this most important initiative to hold this Seminar and for the sixth consecutive year, but also for the deciding on a topic “Soft power and its influence on global issues” which is most relevant to the world at this particular time, for Soft Power is essentially the power of Diplomacy which lays absolute emphasis on persuasion, and is the need of the hour. Soft power takes various forms, it can come in the form of economic aid or cultural engagement or military assistance; it is the ability to ‘convert’ your adversary.

To a related matter which to my mind is most relevant; I wonder as to what extent the Seminars held previously by government agencies or NGOO have had any impact on policy formulation. To me it is vital that we are able, through the work of the Think Tanks and these Seminars, to reach out to the strategic decision makers and the policy formulators to base legislation on the conclusions advised by intellectuals who participate at these seminars. We must ensure that these valuable Seminars do not become mere intellectual exercises.

Diplomacy has undergone a major change in recent times, particularly with the dawn of the information age pushing back the industrial age into bygone history. Yes the information age and social media has indeed transformed the nature and practice of Diplomacy. Today with international trade, finance, environment, international security and international conflicts coming to the forefront of international relations, the very nature and practice of Diplomacy, which is concerned with the management of relations between States, has changed; and we need to acknowledge one fundamental fact, namely that ‘Success’ of Diplomacy, namely the promotion and management of our interests is, at the end of the day, dependent on persuasion, but whatever means.

New challenges

We need to restructure our international relations establishment to meet the new challenges. A small country such as ours without strategic resources has very limited capacity to reach out and exert any form of influence to secure our needs and interests; perhaps our location is our only asset; we need therefore to depend on Soft Power to secure our country’s interests. Our foreign relations establishment needs to be overhauled.

The Foreign Ministry should be at the apex of the administration, the Minister in charge of Foreign Affairs should also be designated Deputy Prime Minister to enable him to have the power to coordinate government business. Our dependence on the external world is total –we cannot survive and develop without relating to the world outside and the many institutions including the World Bank, the IMF, the new China supported Development Bank and other such institutions.

Another stark fact is that these and many other international institutions are controlled by the US and here too, whether we like the United States or not, they have the power in many respects to influence the development of our country. We need to also recognize the fact that the Tamil Diaspora in the US, Britain, Canada and Australia have millions at their disposal and fund legislators in these countries and hence wield much influence in the governments of these countries.

The Foreign Ministry as it is structured today does not meet the needs of our times. Our world has undergone and is undergoing a huge change. The globalization of the world economy, the revolution in Information Technology and the intrusion / extension of the tentacles of the United Nations and the international community into almost very area of human activity, from the environment and climatic change to human rights, women’s rights, population; this coupled with easier international travel, and world leaders meeting at summit level on a regular basis, has made many 19th and 20th Century institutions obsolete. The general adoption of free market policies around the world has also contributed to the new situation, resulting in greater interdependence.

Old bureaucratic structures

Information, the life-blood of the Diplomat is immediately available electronically. This introduces new pressures from citizens on governments. The very nature of international business has indeed changed; new opportunities have now become available. New structures need to be put in place to meet these new challenges. Old bureaucratic structures cannot meet the new challenges. As mentioned earlier, there are also new actors on the scene. ‘Multi-Nationals’ operating without borders, some with budgets bigger than the national budgets of countries, supported by powerful governments exert tremendous influence on international relations. These ‘Multi-Nationals’ and NGOO, working in many fields, including population, environment, climatic change, human rights and women’s rights, quite often set the agenda.

The ICRC for instance plays what I would describe as a curious diplomatic role, in the conflict in Sri Lanka. There are also government agencies, which have become more important than the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Take an example from our own country, defence considerations dictated a major change in our foreign policy, when we resumed relations with Israel. In today’s world many other Government agencies, other than the Ministry of Foreign Affairs are also involved in a country’s ‘Foreign Affairs'.

It is for these reasons that I say that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Sri Lanka must transform itself into a coordinating Ministry and must be perched right at the top of the administrative pyramid or it should become the hub. It would have no other role in the emerging New World order –in which the ‘classical Foreign Ministry’ would soon become an irrelevant relic.

In conclusion may I once again state that the ‘conclusions of seminars such as this should reach the strategic decision makers and the policy formulators to base legislation on the conclusions as advised by intellectuals who participated at the seminar.

We must ensure that these valuable seminars do not become mere intellectual exercises. I do hope that the Ministry of Defence would publish the Papers that were read for the benefit of the general public. 

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