03 October 2014

Friendship and Enmity

Addressing the UN General Assembly last week, President Mahinda Rajapaksa subsequent to what can be called a pointed but relatively mild critique of the movers and shakers of the organization, reiterated the bottom-line of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy: ‘Friendship towards all and enmity towards none.’

We live in a world where it is not easy to distinguish friend from enemy or worse are required as per diplomatic courtesies to call everyone ‘friend’.  It gets more difficult if you belong to the powerful class.  The USA, for example, is at war with Syria and the ‘Islamic State’ (IS) even as Syria and IS are at each others’ throats.  The US is at loggerheads with Iran, but that country is against the IS.  The US sees friend in Saudi Arabia but that country is not exactly anti-IS. 

The edge that the USA has, though, is the ability to do as it pleases without having to explain these contradictions.  In short, the USA can say ‘Our foreign policy is simple: enmity to all and friend to none’.  It won’t stop the rest of the world from listening to Barack Obama and even cheering his double-speak, absolute disregard for history, utter lack of remorse over error and crime and indeed a celebration of both as justified and of benefit to all including victims, respectively. 

Those who are less privileged (in terms of wealth and firepower) can afford to have a friend-to-all foreign policy and demonstrate it for the most part.  It won’t elicit any cheers though.  We do not live in a happy world and that is the reason. 

Still, if sentiments have worth, the Sri Lankan position has to be applauded.  It is not too different to sentiments once expressed by the former President of Iran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, again at the UN, ‘we support the notion of nuclear power for peaceful purposes for everyone and we are against anyone having nuclear power designed for non-peaceful purposes.’ 

Let’s face it.  Sri Lanka can take the most principled positions in any forum and still go ‘unheard’ and have pernicious and destructive agenda thrust down its throat.  Articulation is easy but enforcement unfortunately is not in our hands.

But what is not possible in one forum can be possible elsewhere.  This is where President Rajapaksa has work to do, can-be-done work that is.  What guides engagement with the rest of the world can also guide all domestic engagement as well, especially since he is the all-powerful chief executive of the country. 

Again, we see the dilemmas and the privileges of the powerful.  What the USA, for example, does and does not do (regardless of slick Obamian rhetoric), the confusion of identities (enemies and friends), scant disregard for objection and celebration of bad as good (with raucous cheering) we see here in Sri Lanka as well.  

It is all done in the name of the people, in the name of development, justice, improving opportunities, buttressing political stability and the like, but there’s palpable disenfranchisement and disempowerment even as there is some truth in the claims made.  At times the regime seems people-friendly, but at times it appears extra-friendly to some people and not others.  At times it appears at odds with the constitution and with the law.   There have been occasions when the high and mighty has sided with wrongdoers and defend wrongdoing and clearly show enmity to the victims. 

President Rajapaksa, perhaps more than any national leader since Independence has shown an enormous capacity to forgive and forget, and to turn enemy into friend.  There have been times when he has not exactly acknowledged error and arrogance of his political associates but has nevertheless taken corrective measures.  This is why many want him and no one else to intervene and resolve disputes.  He has the people’s pulse, he has the constitutional powers and he has the parliamentary numbers to put the system in order, re-invent the institutional arrangement and ensure compliance of politician and official so that no one has to depend on his kindness when seeking redress for wrongs done to them.

That would be the best ‘friendship’ (to all) that he can deliver. That would be the legacy that lasts.