Retooling the Foreign Ministry to focus on commercial diplomacy - Dinesh Weerakkody

Saudi King Salman on Sunday kicked off a multi-nation month-long trip to Asia last week aimed at boosting economic ties with Asia. It is King Salman’s first visit to Asia since he took the throne in January 2015. The last Saudi monarch to visit was his predecessor, King Abdullah, who visited in 2006. The King’s visit is expected strengthen ties between the two countries.

The monarch’s tour also includes Indonesia, Brunei, Japan and China and finally to Maldives to finalise a multi-billion dollar investment including a U$ Dollar grant. Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest oil exporter, with much of its crude destined for customers in Asia. As to why the super-rich Saudi King Salman who is being accompanied by an entourage that numbers up to 1,500, 459 tons of luggage and equipment, including two luxury cars, did not plan a stopover in Sri Lanka en route to Maldives only the Foreign Ministry would know. But what a missed opportunity.


We regularly hear politicians saying diplomacy plays a direct role in addressing the root cause of insecurity and that good diplomatic 023initiatives help to build partnerships so that Sri Lanka can work together with the world to address some of our thorny bilateral and multilateral issues. To play that role effectively they also say Sri Lanka needs competent officials. But despite that we still post officials to important markets with no experience whatsoever.

Sri Lankan diaspora living in an important capital were shocked recently to see their envoy not knowing that the Ambassador/High Commissioner was the primary representative for all Sri Lankan interests in that country, and that varies from being responsible for taking care of Sri Lankan citizens and their needs to the issuance of visas, to the discussions about political and economic and trade and commerce opportunities, also the military relationships and dealing with the environment. It’s technically the whole range of things.

In addition they must also do public diplomacy, they are expected to give effective speeches at different sorts of events to make sure that people in that country are well aware of what our policies are and why we have them. But when you send people who do not know the subject, not much can be achieved.

For example, President J.R. Jayewardene in the ’70s was able to launch a massive infrastructure development project like the Accelerated Mahaweli Development scheme, which provided employment to thousands, because of the grant aid he got from the West and at the very worst, concessional aid (as opposed to foreign commercial loans) from the First World countries.

Ambassadorial appointments

There are really two ways to get appointed as an Ambassador or a High Commissioner for Sri Lanka. Either through the Foreign Service process where you join as a junior officer and you work your way up through the system and about two-third of ambassadors go through that route. For that, you begin by taking a written test and then if you pass that test and get in then you work your way up through the system.

The other way to becoming an ambassador is that the Government always chooses a number of ambassadors from its own lists without the Foreign Ministry connection, and that’s based upon people who have assisted the effort to get the President or Government elected one way or another, or competent people who are well-known to people in the Government and they figure that they would do a really good job even though they haven’t gone through the system. Or some ambassadors have the good fortune to know or be related to somebody who gets elected as president or minister, like in the previous regime when two brothers got posted to the US and Ukraine at the same time.

Economic diplomacy

As the JVP has said many times in public, diplomacy is serious business. It refers to communication or negotiations tactics that use political and legal channels to address both bilateral and multilateral issues.

Good diplomacy works at least in four ways a) to protect a nation’s security, b) to stop potential threats from becoming real, c) to secure a nation’s economic future and d) to protect the global environment. Therefore, members of the Foreign Service play a crucial role in making the kind of lucrative international connections/agreement possible to help a country to look good and in the pursuit of economic objectives.

Diplomats need to help to set up partnerships and relationships all around the world so that a country can understand the global issues, maintain global competitiveness and to capitalise on the opportunities globalisation creates. Diplomacy used to be thought of as the quiet, behind-the-scenes, government-to-government communications; it’s now so much more than that. Therefore for a country to promote the kinds of economic and trade policies they want around the region and the world, a country needs to appoint competent people to build a public case internationally for their policies, for their values and for their interests. This will then enable a nation to become a credible and a trusted partner, while remaining devoted to their national interests and also promote their economic ties at the same time.

Competent officials

Therefore the officials appointed to promote Sri Lankan interest abroad should as far as possible be people who have the skill to focus on economic and political diplomacy to secure our core national interest. The job is not for retired planters, relatives and friends of politicians and advisors, ex-cricketers or fashion models. The service must have a mix of top quality non-career and career diplomats with good academic pedigrees and technocratic mettle and with character, integrity and people with a helicopter view to drive our political and economic agenda.

Therefore, given the economic and socio political shift, the technology disruption that has occurred in the international scene and the need for active international engagement, which is basically leveraged upon the pursuit of economic objectives, promoting good diplomacy can increase our ability to play a constructive role in building a more peaceful, prosperous region, for us and others. To do that our reps need to be skilled, politically effective and trusted, enabling them to accomplish goals that the country so desires.


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