Backsliding on democracy and human rights could be a serious issue for SL – a U.S. academic

24 June 2021 02:54 am – 2      – Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka

Ronald K. McMullen, a U.S. career diplomat- turned academic, in an interview with Daily Mirror shares his views on the policy of the Biden administration on Sri Lanka. He is the University of Iowa’s Ambassador in Residence and teaches a variety of courses on comparative politics, diplomacy, and international politics.  Ron is a former career diplomat with over 30 years of experience as a U.S. Foreign Service Officer, including serving as the Ambassador to the State of Eritrea.

 He worked in Sri Lanka as the Political Officer between 1985 and 1987. At that time, he was shot at during a riot in Sri Lanka and helped train mongooses to detect heroin.  He took Hillary Clinton on a tour of South Africa’s Robben Island with Nelson Mandela.   Excerpts of the interview: 

Q How do you see the U.S. relations with the rest of the world under the new administration over there?
President Trump’s “transactional diplomacy” tended to ignore long-promoted American values (democracy, human

rights, and the rule of law) in favour of transactional relations — “I’ll do this for you, if you do that for me.”  President Biden will resume a focus on a balance of U.S. interests and values, although the interests are likely to be different, somewhat, than when he was vice president.  There will be a great emphasis on green issues and multilateralism than during the Obama administration.  During the Obama administration there were still some believers in “convergence” (i.e., that allowing China broad leeway to flaunt or break global norms would foster its growth into a prosperous, rules-based state), but nobody in Washington believes in convergence now.

Q How do you compare and contrast the approach of the new administration to the Indo-pacific policy with that of the Trump administration?
The very phrase “Indo-Pacific” has replaced “Asia-Pacific” in some quarters in Washington to focus on the Quad (Japan, India, Australia, and the U.S.) as a counterweight to China, since ASEAN has largely been ineffectual in balancing China.  The poorly run pandemic response in India I think will give pause to those who see India as a rising force in Asia, one that is a peer to China.  

Q Sri Lanka has stressed that it will follow a neutral, non-aligned policy. Is this acceptable to the   U.S.? If so, how?
Sri Lanka is only a factor in this stage of the Biden administration’s bigger foreign policy picture as it factors in the China-India tug of war in the region.  Hambantota has been the poster child of debt trap diplomacy (rightly or wrongly), and any Chinese naval activity there would draw the attention of the Biden Administration.  My view is that this is all somewhat overblown, much as the Indian paranoia about the U.S. wanting to establish a large naval base in Trincomalee during the 1970s or ‘80s.  Backsliding on democracy and/or human rights could be a serious issue, but is less at the forefront now than it 
might become.

Q The U.S. will re-join the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). Sri Lanka, under the present government, has some differences with the UNHRC on the latest resolution adopted on it. The U.S. supported it. What kind of an active role will the U.S. play as far as human rights in Sri Lanka are concerned?
Any broad-brush discrimination against the Muslim population (such as we saw in some neighbourhoods after the Easter Bombings) could be counter-productive from a human rights and security concern.  The fuller incorporation of Tamil citizens into the politico-economic fabric of the country would aid post-war reconstruction and reconciliation efforts, even on the local, unofficial level.

Q Will the U.S. be tougher on human rights because the present leaders, particularly Vice President Kamala Harris   are ardent advocates of them?
President Biden and Vice President Harris won the enthusiastic support of many groups who felt marginalised during the Trump administration, including racial and ethnic minorities.  Calling the mass slaughter of the Armenians and Chinese activity in Xinjiang “genocide” reflect this increased sensitivity to the plight of minorities that have faced discrimination in the past.

Q On the one hand, the U.S. seeks Sri Lanka’s cooperation for a free and open Indo-pacific region.  Sri Lanka also enjoys excellent trade relations with the U.S. under successive governments.  Still, there are differences in the political front.  What is the best way to normalise relations in the overall context?
Sri Lanka is well-placed (along with Bangladesh and Vietnam) to win the U.S. – China trade war.  Textiles, IT components, footwear, and electronics imported from China may face growing tariffs and nontariff barriers in the United States in the near to mid-term future.  An accidental clash in the South China Sea or across the Taiwan Strait could cause American consumers to look at askance at Chinese products, and Chinese consumers at American ones.  As corporations see to diversify their supply chains, Sri Lanka need to be competitive on a 
commercial basis.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *