Commercial diplomacy needs skilled diplomats | Sunday Observer

Commercial diplomacy needs skilled diplomats

Colombo media flashed a shocking report that a Military attaché in Washington, who completed assignment was absconding and the US police was looking for him. Earlier there were reports that the former Ambassador to Moscow failed to return to Sri Lanka and was globe-trotting despite an open warrant for his arrest.

This came in the backdrop of the new Foreign Minister, Ravi Karunanayake’s comment that the selection system of diplomats must be changed as the foreign policy prioritizes commercial diplomacy, today. He urged diplomats to take a clear stand for values that are of long-term interest to the country.

The officers absconding after completing overseas assignments in rich countries is not something new. Scores of Sri Lankan diplomats, including dozens of ambassadors used their foreign assignments to seek jobs in those countries after completion of their tenure of employment. Their prime interest is not the country, but the self interest of settling down in an affluent Western country.

One ambassador to a very important country, who recently got a short term extension, plans to settle down in that country and has already managed to get citizenship in that country for his wife and son.

Speaking on foreign policy at a seminar on Emerging Issues in the Indian Ocean and Foreign Policy, at the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute of International Affairs and Strategic Studies (LKIIRSS), the Minister said, “During these changing times, we cannot afford to stand still. Let us move ahead and grasp the hand of others who, like us, want to secure continued peace and prosperity.”


Minister Karunanayake, emphasized clearly and forcefully the need for the Foreign Ministry to develop into a proactive and unified team of diplomats and missions – beyond the current situation in which we have excellent Sri Lanka Overseas Service (SLOS) officers without comprehensive and transformative team support. The Minister wants his officers to take full advantage of the shift in economic power to Asia by prioritizing commercial diplomacy.

The new Minister is not prepared to solely depend on SLOS officials for this task. “Our recruitment should target professionals from the private sector, even if only on secondment, and commercial attaches in our missions abroad need to be skilled in trade negotiations, and fluent in the local language. We will work to attract young Sri Lankans who have studied abroad in countries like China, so that we will gain officers with the required cultural fluency and language skills, without significant additional investments of time and money.”

The Minister, citing examples from several countries, explained how they achieved their commercial diplomatic goals. The New Zealand government developed its national brand as ‘New Zealand Inc.’ and it ensures that New Zealand’s private sector is deeply involved in strategizing New Zealand’s trade policy. Officers in their Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and even the media advisor, have previously worked at a senior level in the dairy sector.

This helps to ensure synergies and transfers of knowledge between New Zealand’s foreign ministry and private sector. As to how the Ministry should promote international principles like freedom of navigation, free trade, the rule of law and human rights, Sri Lanka can begin by formulating an organizational mission, which states the aims of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy.

Just like the staff of leading private sector companies being guided by a corporate mission, so too should the foreign service officers, Minister Kakrunanayake said. The Netherlands is one example of a nation that does this well, by explicitly stating that its foreign policy aims to achieve security, prosperity and freedom.

This is not the first occasion of the consensual government expressing dissatisfaction about the working methods -or lack of them- of our diplomats and the staff in the Ministry. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe blasted them and went to the extent that he would introduce a new Foreign Service in the country as he believed there was ‘no Foreign Ministry in Sri Lanka.’ Although some people were taken by surprise by the Premier’s comment, those who studied the working methods of some officials of the Foreign Ministry and some missions abroad were of the opinion that this was a factual statement. One wonders if Ravi Karunanayake was appointed to accomplish that task of setting up a new-look foreign service.


Although nobody questions the need for non-career diplomats, one should not forget the fact that SLOS has produced exceptionally good career diplomats in the past and there are quite a few brilliant career diplomats in service with high potential.

Diplomatic greats such as, Jayantha Dhanapala, Bernard Tilakaratna, S M G S Palihakkara, Bernard Gunatilleke, Vernon Mendis and Nihal Rodrigo brought much glory to Sri Lanka in the past. As a leading academic who plays politics - perhaps as a hobby, said recently, “There may be bad eggs, perhaps a lot of them in the service, but throwing away the whole basket is not the right answer”.

However, some of the best diplomats were non-career officers. To name a few, Shirley Amarasinghe, Neville Kanakaratne, Gamini Correa, R S S Gunawardena, Gunapala Malalasekera and Ernest Correa brought honours to the country and the first three diplomats served at top positions in international organizations - Shirley Amarasinghe, President, UN Law of the Sea Conference, Neville Kanakaratne, United Nations Secretary General’s Special Envoy to Congo and Gamini Correa, Secretary General, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and earned the respect of the diplomatic world.

At the same time, there are quite a few diplomats whose only interest is to enjoy a good time abroad and educate their children in top international schools at state expense. Most of them limit their work to draft periodic reports to Colombo, just to give the impression they do a great job.

Their reluctance to assist or even meet fellow Sri Lankans living in host countries is well known. They will use the entertainment allowance to entertain visiting friends from Sri Lanka. In that too they limit their hospitality to a few influential and rich Sri Lankans living in the host country.


One fault in service officers is, some of them become lethargic because they get promotions routinely, whether they perform or not. The evaluation system is not effective and some officers give priority to self-interest and not to the interest of the country.

A few years back, the name of one of the senior most SLOS officers who was Sri Lanka’s envoy to a very important neighbouring capital, was to be considered to the top post in the Ministry of External Affairs, as it was known then.

The moment he got wind of that he appealed to Colombo stating that he wanted a year’s extension in the current Mission, where he was the High Commissioner, as, ‘I have some important work to finish’.

Everybody in the mission and the Ministry knew the important work he did with the fair deputy. Two years later, when he was posted to a very important capital, he wanted to take the deputy to the new station, but by then Colombo was wise to his designs and shot down the request. One of our High Commissioners was a drunkard and embarrassed many hosts in diplomatic cocktails by shouting -not merely undiplomatic language but - four letter words as well. One has to admit however, that these types of alliances are not limited to career diplomats.

There were quite a few bad eggs among non-career political appointees too. One of our envoys, a brother-in-law of a top politician fell on a dining table in a drunken stupor at an official dinner and slept soundly.

Another political appointee, a doyen of academics and literature, ignored diplomatic work and preferred to play French table tennis games. Another was seen in 5-star hotel corridors in his sarong looking for chilli powder for his meal.


There is no question that most of the career diplomats have experience and diplomatic skills. But, it is incorrect to say that career diplomats have all the wisdom and that non-career diplomats are useless.

Furthermore, Minister Karunanayake should make efforts to utilize the professionals in the Department of Commerce to implement his concept of commercial diplomacy.

There are quite a few efficient young diplomats serving as Commercial Attaches in our missions and training facilities must be extended to the officers in the Department of Commerce before they take up duties abroad.

Minister Karunanayake rightly pointed out that Sri Lanka cannot afford to remain complacent, believing that we will automatically reap the economic rewards of a global shift from West to East. We have to develop a proactive foreign policy centered on commercial diplomacy, to maximize the benefits of growing economic power in our region. There are several strategies of commercial diplomacy that we should pursue.

It has been observed that the most important aspect of foreign policy is the people who make it, and if the Ministry is to attract the best and brightest of the millennial generation, it must be attuned to their expectations, the Minister said in his speech at the LKIIRSS.