To the brink and back: Sri Lanka’s politics through crisis of the Liberal Order
How domestic political structures are affected when the Liberal Order is undermined in view of recent election in Sri Lanka.
This week’s title is partly borrowed from the Munich Security Report of 2018. The Munich Security Conference since its inception in 2015 has become the key focal point of convergence of global leaders, security analysts, and industry specialists across diverse power blocs.
Munich conference is one of the few forums that a truly global representation can be witnessed and hence an ideal space to make sense of the global pulse on matters of international security.
The Stratsight Column-given the array of themes it has, touched in the last thirty odd pieces tracing global political developments-was founded upon one major strand of thinking about global politics and as a response to the time we are living.
It is the fact that the global Liberal Order that made most of the 20th Century is transforming as a result of endogenous and exogenous shocks, thus the Liberal Order is under attack from its own inventors as Liberal thinker John G. Ikenberry observed, that the very power that set up the Liberal Order is now sabotaging it.
From the exterior of the Liberal Order, the geopolitical rivalries and great power rivalries are undermining the multi-lateral governance mechanism.
These global shocks and fluctuations are still unfolding hence making it merely impossible to make any sense or provide an adequate analysis, the only clear things are the fact that there are certain manifestations that are emerging as a result of these transformations.
This piece will look at how domestic political structures are affected when the liberal order is undermined in view of recent election in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka is currently undergoing a significant reconfiguration of domestic politics, political power relations as consequence of the recently held local government elections.
While crises and chaos do follow any grand coalitions in power, our current political crisis may well be affected by the global political crisis of the stalling liberal system. Sri Lankan citizenry and political elites are both engaged in an intense debate about how we should frame our polity as we are currently going through a total body political shock and our political machinery is in partial shutdown mode.
"The United States seems to be hedging to be a Transactionalist State, using its military might to be a leading hard power and secure economic benefits through hard bargains, which is essentially the idea of America First policy of the administration. "
Yet, the analysis is pretty much localised; what we are missing is the global dimension. Afro-Asian countries, from South Africa, Ethiopia and Maldives all represent societies going through significant political shocks, with the exception of South Africa, all other countries seem to be affected by the geopolitical competition that has intensified as a result of the failings of the Liberal World Order.
Sri Lanka’s current political moment reflects a reality even many Western leaders are now slowing coming to terms with, there is a consensus among some Western political elites that even politics in Europe since Brexit, are subjected to a dual competition which is reflected in how domestic and global political orders will be made in the 21st Century. Roughly this consensus translates into a global system of democratically and Autocratically Constituted State System. Both equally legitimate players in the global system.
What the Liberal Order in the past, managed was to exclude illiberal societies, states and identify them as irresponsible players in Global Order or pushing them to accept the rule-based order that the Liberal society was representing which included values of democracy, liberal institutions and open societies, it seems even the United States has lost its appetite to be the leader of a rules-based society.
The new national security strategy unveiled buy the United States does not allude to the notion of promoting rules based world order.
The United States seems to be hedging to be a Transactionalist State, using its military might to be a leading hard power and secure economic benefits through hard bargains, which is essentially the idea of America First policy of the administration.
The United States in the last four decades have done a delicate balancing of hard and soft power projections enabling the lead of the Liberal system and enabling multilateralism to optimally function. America’s interest in sustaining a multilateral global partnership seems to have come to an end with the administrations latest budget proposal for 2018 which was unveiled last year.
Analysts point that in 2018 the United States’ ambition is to project hard power globally in order to protect its domestic interests, which suits the popular nationalist voter bank that brought to power. With the Western form of multilateralism, Western Liberal norms of global governance in disarray countries like China seem to have stepped into fill in the vacuum.
What China has presented to the world is a hybrid of Chinese Communist politics and a purified form of Capitalism.
Which is labelled Socialism with Chinese characteristics and President Xi has also put in his own philosophical mix to the Chinese model by promoting China as a country with global ambition.
When this model translates into a political model it is the promotion or tolerance of autocratic political leadership, which can lead Capitalist reforms and sustain capitalist models of growth. If this equation is brought to analyze domestic political ruptures across the developing world, where there is Chinese geopolitical interest, though China maintains that it does not interfere with matters of domestic politics, the Chinese model may garner significant appeal and influence in future political designs and this may well be true to a certain degree in Sri Lankan politics.
The author is not proclaiming or prophesizing the slide of Sri Lanka democracy into an autocracy in its purest form, analysing Sri Lanka voter behaviour like in many other democracies the clear swing is voting is done not on policy matters but voting is becoming an act of protest.
Thus democratic institutions and the democratic system flourished when voters selected their representatives, who were politically mature, visionaries who had a significant policy plan, yet from 2015 and 2018 elections in Sri Lanka, the drift is stark. Even politically mature citizenry opted to overlook policy over the protest.
"We may not be at the brink, yet but when we are, how are we going to come back and what kind of system will restore normalcy, would be a good starting point for any conversation after the dust settles"
With the weakening of the Liberal Order, democratic and Liberal political values, norms and institutions are losing their X Factor. Thus, in other words, soft power properties such as culture, political values and policies are being overridden with the need for hard power both in military and political terms.
Many traditional Liberals in Sri Lanka and outside are alarmed at this domestic and global debacle of the Liberal political project as many have come of age convinced that the fall of the Soviet Union and the Communist model represented the end of history moment. The Liberal tradition errs on its belief that progress takes on a linear path, history is filled with examples of ruptures of systems, the chaos that follows and the subsequent new systems that are formed as replacements.
As German Philosopher Hegel famously said, “We learn from history that we do not learn from history.” If one revisits the last five years, taking the commencement of Obama’s second term of Presidency, rise of Russia, increasing Saudi – Iran rivalry, great transformation of Turkish Politics, Entry of Xi-Jinping in 2013 and Modi’s victory of 2014 and Brexit of 2015 and Presidency in 2016; he/she can see that these were all signs of a system of great transformation.
Most of these events were domestic political changes yet have unleashed global shockwaves.
Almost all Sri Lankans are trying hard to ascertain what form of Government and who will gain political power in the country. What we are missing in this thick fog of the political battle is, given these global transformations, who will eventually be deciding Sri Lanka’s position in the world, and its relations with others. Sadly the political battle at home is blinding us to the complex geo storm that is brewing, which some call the ‘Geopolitical Depression’.
We may not be at the brink, yet but when we are, how are we going to come back and what kind of system will restore normalcy, would be a good starting point for any conversation after the dust settles.
The writer is the Director, Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies (BCIS)