Photo courtesy of PMD
President Ranil Wickremesinghe has a way with interviewers, and I don’t mean that as a compliment. Be it a local or a foreigner, his distaste or contempt for them comes out. His champions tend to see this as a sign of his intelligence. His critics, on the other hand, see it as a mark of his lack of it. President Wickremesinghe’s recent confrontation on German television was a case in point: it essentially brought out the man that he has been for the last 25 years.
To say this is not to defend Western double standards, which is what President Wickremesinghe’s champions think he attacked on television. The West’s line on its own values came out fully in the recent diplomatic spat between India and Canada. Although it reportedly shared intelligence with Canada, the US has so far not made an explicit pronouncement on the issue, no doubt because India is too valuable an ally in the region to lose over such mundane concerns as the killing of a man. President Wickremesinghe has of course given his two cents on the Indo-Canada spat, unsurprisingly in India’s favour. More regularly than ever, he is making a name for himself by taking potshots at the West, accusing them of hypocrisy.
But of course they are hypocrites and of course they need to be called out. Leaving aside the merits of demonising the West when Sri Lanka has become more dependent than ever on Western markets and financial institutions, however, one wonders what the president is aiming at with his strategy of lambasting them over issues like Ukraine and human rights. The Deutsche-Welle interview, for instance, focused on the recent Channel 4 documentary. The official government response to the documentary has been to declare it will appoint a Commission. On television, President Wickremesinghe reflected none of that, instead opting to accuse his interrogator of brandishing neo-colonialist rhetoric against his country.
Sri Lanka’s relations with the West have never really been stable. Yet by this point, the government has chosen to submit itself to the diktats of the IMF, World Bank and ADB, all of which have links with the West. Although one can consider these institutions as neutral umpires, playing a difficult game in the midst of geopolitical turmoil across Asia and Africa, one can also consider them as intermediaries and tools of Western powers. The US and the West have a direct interest in the policies these organisations advocate. In that light, one wonders how the president’s remarks will go down with Western government officials, policymakers and academics as well as interests hostile to Sri Lanka.
Again, this is not to say his stance is wrong on everything. On the Ukraine issue, for instance, he has always maintained that NATO’s enlargement pushed Russia to launch an offensive backed by militias and oligarchs. From a certain standpoint, there is nothing to dispute in this position. It may even be factually accurate. That he maintained such a line even as the sole sitting opposition MP from his party before last year’s crisis is a credit to him. The same goes for his positions on China and India, his seeming reluctance to take sides in the great geopolitical game in the Indian Ocean and his unwillingness to become the ideologue over the West that he was, as prime minister, from 2001 to 2004.
The West at least pretends to be accommodative of criticisms. This is definitely not the case with Russia and China. Yet for how long will even the West brook the sort of criticism that President Wickremesinghe has made over the last year? The West’s method of retaliation has been to withdraw economic concessions such as GSP Plus. It also curries more favour with ordinary Sri Lankans than China or India, since the scale of the crisis has made many Sri Lankans more suspicious of the latter two countries than of the US. These points are certainly not in favour of any president who has turned attacking the West into a pastime.
It is certainly ironic that a political figurehead once considered the most pro-Western in the country has turned against the West. But behind President Wickremesinghe’s defensive postures may be his need to appease his political allies, particularly in the SLPP, as well as hardliners in the opposition. The mistake political commentators make with regard to President Wickremesinghe is that they imagine him to be this or that: they try to fit him into one ideological hole or the other. But h has been trying to be president for more than a quarter century. I was barely a year old when he made his first attempt and next month I will turn 30. In that light, the president’s motives seem palpably clear. This is his one and only chance to shine in the limelight abroad and he is doing so now as an advocate of multipolarity, just as he tried his luck as an advocate of the West while serving as prime minister.
But if President Wickremesinghe thinks the way to advocate multipolarity is by demonising the West whenever and wherever he may be, he is sadly mistaken. There is no one way of skinning a cat and no one time tested way of criticising the hegemony of the Global North. From Latin America to West Asia, the trend is towards regionalisation, towards a form of globalisation that is more representative of the Global South. The likes of Lula da Silva, my candidate for Elder Statesman of the World, are not merely regurgitating anti-American diatribes but are putting such criticisms into practice by linking up with the Global South. President Wickremesinghe’s modus operandi, on the other hand, has been to parrot rhetoric, while his government does little to act on his statements. We are multipolar in speech but are we in deed? The Foreign Minister regularly speaks of multi-alignment. But that’s not the same thing.
This, I think, is the most valid criticism one can make of President Wickremesinghe’s denunciation of the West. The West, of course, may tolerate it for a while. But the government has made itself more vulnerable by submitting to the IMF and World Bank, to their policies and prescriptions. If all the president can do is demonise the West while enforcing painful neoliberal austerity at home, then we are in that proverbial right royal mess. That is less a criticism than a comment on our status quo and on where it is taking us.