What might be in store for Sri Lanka under a Biden presidency


Election results notwithstanding, Sri Lanka’s foreign policy establishment should be contemplating the approach to a change of scenery in Washington DC.

Masked, unlike Trump, but all ‘merican beneath

Some foreign policy analysts see the upcoming US presidential election as a watershed moment for US foreign policy. In spite of the self serving hyperbolic self aggrandizement of that statement, it does carry a certain element of truth.

For starters, Donald Trump and Joe Biden have vastly different ideas about the role of the USA in the world and how the USA should go about executing that role.

Donald Trump’s foreign policy is all about promoting US interests regardless of the damage it may do to established relationships and norms of international diplomacy. As such, it has been unilateral, disruptive, abrasive and unpleasant.  

Donald Trump’s foreign policy could be coined ‘America first and who cares what comes after.’

Joe Biden on the other hand looks at foreign policy through the lenses of established traditions brought on by the post WW II international order. Biden is likely to emphasize the building of coalitions with the USA at the helm to deal with issues of global as well as regional importance.

Donald Trump’s policy towards Sri Lanka was almost exclusively filtered through the prism of US-China rivalry and India-US relations. As for country specific foreign policy initiatives,  efforts have been limited to coercing Sri Lanka away from China’s orbit by dangling a grant of approximately US $ 500 million. America has also used their clout to nudge the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank (WB) and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to intimidate a gimp of a government to undertake austerity measures and shed Sri Lanka’s reliance on China.

A Biden presidency is unlikely to veer dramatically away from this scenario unless the USA seeks to adjust the power dynamics of the region, by which a possible recommitment to Pakistan that may come at the expense of India. Donald Trump and Narendra Modi got on famously well. Modi and Trump have certain commonalities. They both have authoritarian, nationalistic and ethnocentric streaks.

Joe Biden is quite unlike Donald Trump in personality and approach to governance. Donald Trump loves to burn bridges and then build foot paths whereas Joe Biden is a traditional neoliberal company man; dedicated to the preservation of the post WWII mercantilist world order with the USA at the helm. However, Biden’s approach most likely will be far less confrontational than Trump’s when it comes to tackling Chinese expansionism. If so, then a Biden presidency may be less prickly in dealing with Sri Lanka’s close relationship with China. As long as that relationship does not pose a strategic threat to American interests in the South Asian theatre, of course.

The great unknown in a Biden presidency, in terms of US foreign policy impact on Sri Lanka is the role Kamala Harris may play in the arena. Harris, who is half Tamil, has not shown much interest in foreign policy.

However, the fact that Harris is half Tamil creates an intriguing scenario when it comes to formulating America’s South Asia strategy. Will Harris’ ethnic connection to an important group in the South Asian subcontinent allow her to have a say in the formulation of US policy for the region?  

Kamala Harris has not shown much interest in the subject so far but that may be because going into the election Harris’ blackness is more an asset than her South Asianness.

If the Biden/Harris ticket wins the election, the need to downplay her Asian roots will no longer be in play. Then, it is more than likely that the Tamil diaspora will come calling on Kamala Harris’s doorstep seeking favors to pressure India and Sri Lanka to grant Tamils living in the region more autonomy.

While all this posturing is premature since the US election is yet to be won and lost, Sri Lanka’s foreign policy establishment should be contemplating their approach to a change of scenery in Washington DC come November.

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