US presidential polls and the Sri Lankan connection
The traffic from Washington, D.C to Colombo has increased
dramatically in 2015. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Sri Lanka in
May. The US Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power was in the
country in November. Ambassador Thomas Shannon, Counselor of the
Department of State and Assistant Secretary of State for South and
Central Asian Affairs Nisha Biswal, were in Colombo in December. For
Biswal, this was her second visit to Sri Lanka within five months. These
constant visits of high ranking officials from the United States to Sri
Lanka have raised many eyebrows. Why are so many high-ranking American
officials visiting Sri Lanka suddenly? This is a legitimate question.
The nationalist fringe of the Sri Lankan polity is obviously
threatened by these persistent visits, and some suggested that these
visits are a part of the American call for an international
investigation into human rights violations, which allegedly took place
during the last phase of the war in 2009. Some of these groups might
view and/or depict these heightened interactions between Colombo and
Washington as an indication of the present government succumbing to the
pressure from the US on the issue of an international investigation.
It is possible that these visits have less to do with the violence of
the last phase of the war and the proposed investigative mechanism. The
reason, perhaps, is some of the recent foreign policy changes introduced
in the US by the Obama administration.
Pivot to Asia
President Barack Obama, in the early days of his first term in office
wanted to make a fundamental change to the American foreign policy. The
idea is to 'pivot' to Asia.
The desire to pivoting to Asia had two integrated elements: (1)
moving away to a certain extent from the traditional policy focus which
emphasized Europe and the Middle East, and (2) providing top priority to
Asia always figured prominently in the American foreign policy
orientation, but it never received the highest priority. The decision to
provide top most prominence to Asia was the significance of the 'pivot
to Asia' policy. Accordingly, the region would receive top priority in
defence policy planning, diplomacy and investment. The end of the war in
Afghanistan and Iraq enabled the Obama administration to focus more on
The American foreign policy shift was influenced by enormous growth,
potential and some of the problems that stem from the states of Asia.
Currently, some of the major rising powers are in Asia.
For example, China and India are emerging as major international
actors. These are also nuclear powers. China could potentially challenge
the US in terms of economic power and military strength.
Also, some of the major greenhouse gas emitters are in Asia. As
Hillary Clinton stated, "the Asia-Pacific has become a key driver of
This reality obviously influenced the Obama administration's decision
to pivot to Asia. Containing and engaging China are the two cornerstones
of the pivot to Asia policy.
Pivoting to Asia however, was not easy. There was internal resistance
from the more traditional and conservative section of the American
foreign policy apparatus and analysts. This forced Obama administration
to repackage the pivot to Asia policy as 'rebalancing'.
Also, the intensified violence, especially terrorism of the ISIS,
forced the administration to return to the Middle-East centered foreign
policy. However, the significance of Asia to the present American
administration remains very high.
Sphere of influence
Pacific and South Asia are two major sub-regions of Asia. The
American position in the Pacific region has been more than satisfactory
because the US has military and non-military facilities in several
countries in this region including Japan, South Korea, Philippines,
Singapore and Australia. South Asia however was problematic, because, in
the early days of the Obama administration's policy shift, India and Sri
Lanka remained out of the American sphere of influence. The Manmohan
Singh Government in India hesitated to forge full partnership with the
US. However, Narendra Modi's ascendency to the office of the Prime
Minister has brought India and the US much closer as partnership in
several areas has strengthened.
In Sri Lanka, the Rajapaksa government was leaning drastically toward
China, which in turn weakened the American power and influence in the
country. The US-sponsored United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC)
resolution on Sri Lanka, to a certain extent, allowed the Americans to
have a say in the affairs of Sri Lanka under Rajapaksa administration.
The US in Sri Lanka could have been completely isolated without the
involvement in the Sri Lankan human rights issue.
However, one may argue that America's Sri Lanka problem was resolved
with the regime change in Sri Lanka in 2015. The new government not only
demonstrated willingness to work with the West in general and the U.S.
in particular, but also co-sponsored the UNHRC resolution. When there is
a friendly government in Colombo that could be of assistance to achieve
its regional and global strategic objectives, the U.S. does not have to
be imposing in their approach and damage the remerging cordiality
between the two states.
The constant visits of American officials to Sri Lanka are part of
the effort to strengthen the U.S-Sri Lanka relations. An important
element of the current American schemes in Sri Lanka (and India) would
be containing China in South Asia.
As a result, one may assume that: (1) the American demand for an
international investigation into the human rights violations would fade
way, and (2) the ongoing engagement and visits would intensify. This
however, is a short term prospect because there will be a new
administration in Washington, D.C, next year.
The results of the American presidential election would certainly
have implications for Sri Lanka. Therefore, ideally, Sri Lanka should be
closely watching the on-going primaries taking place to elect the
nominees for the general election, which will take place in November
2016. Who is the best option for Sri Lanka?
The field has been really crowded. The Democratic Party contest has
already been narrowed to two person race. Hillary Clinton and Bernie
Sanders are the two candidates competing for the Democratic Party
nomination. Sanders is a self-proclaimed socialist promising free public
education and healthcare in addition to a 'revolution,' which has been
attracting a large number of young voters. Hillary Clinton, a former
first lady, served as the Secretary of State in the Obama
administration. She was one of the architects of the American policy of
pivot to Asia and played a major role in the UNHRC resolution on Sri
Therefore, if Hillary is elected president, one may assume, that the
current American interest in and engagement with Sri Lanka would
continue; they may even intensify.
Sanders is a novice in international affairs and so far, has
demonstrated ignorance about developments taking place outside of the
Middle-Eastern region. He is too much into internal revolution, hence,
he may pay less attention to Asia and Sri Lanka. At this point in time,
however, it seems, even if he wins the democratic nomination, he would
find it extremely difficult to win the general election with his
The Republican Party started with seventeen candidates and has been
reduced to five, currently. All of the leading candidates are foreign
policy hardliners, who would 'carpet bomb' the ISIS and other Islamic
radical groups. Some, for example, Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon,
wants no rules in war. According to him, winning the war should be the
only rule, which should be applied to warring parties. Donald Trump, the
real-estate businessman, who probably would win the republican
nomination, has similar views about foreign policy and war.
Therefore, all Republican Party candidates would be sympathetic
toward states that have to deal with terrorist threat and would probably
understand human rights violations of state parties. Also, all
Republican Party candidates, in terms of foreign policy, are excessively
Middle-East oriented. Therefore, a Republican president in the Oval
Office in January, would pay very little attention to Sri Lanka, which
would work well for the government in power in Colombo.
(Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan is Chair of the Conflict Resolution
Department, Salisbury University, Maryland. Email: [email protected]
This article was originally published by Eurasia Review)