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Strategising Sri Lanka’s foreign policy: The scope of air diplomacy

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By George I. H. Cooke

Sri Lanka has remained one of the most globally connected countries. Whilst expeditions were dispatched to the Roman Empire in some of the first international interactions, special envoys continued to traverse the world over the centuries. 

Likewise, Sri Lanka attracted many traders and conquerors owing to resources and location. Numerous calls have been made to make Sri Lanka a hub in the Indian Ocean, but often islanders fail to realise that Sri Lanka was a hub of strategic importance. Traders from China, the Arab world, as well as the Portuguese, Dutch and British all found the island to be of considered importance and sought to control it to their benefit at varied periods. Making the island a hub is therefore not a new policy but one which needs to be revived. 

A foreign policy that is strategic and effective remains the most crucial tool in the armoury of Sri Lanka’s diplomatic engagement and the means by which the island would be able to stride the global stage, manoeuvre international issues and overcome critical challenges in the 21st century. 

Amidst fresh developments regionally and internationally, Sri Lanka is often provided with opportunities that require innovative action which at times, steers away from the traditional modes of operation to exploring new avenues for building cooperation and increasing potential. More importantly, the need to strategise foreign policy becomes crucial, if the country is to move from being constantly on the defensive to adopting a more proactive stance in global affairs. 

Reflection on that which has been becomes highly relevant at this juncture. Whether in terms of research or policy planning, foreign policy formulation needs the utmost attention given the international ramifications of each and every step taken. 

Today Sri Lanka is a member, dialogue partner and observer of numerous organisations and groupings, yet the amount of leverage the country enjoys internationally, as a result of such affiliations, leaves much to be desired. For too long the island has remained static owing to developments within, but now with the conflict a near decade into history, it is time the country surges ahead, but it would only be able to do so with strategy, which it tends to lack at the most crucial of times.

Identifying national interest remains at the core of decision making. Whether in negotiations over bilateral issues, staking a claim at the United Nations or through the plethora of multilateral platforms that Sri Lanka sits at, the prospect of going in with an agenda for success, rather than merely marking attendance, needs to top the list of priorities. 

Security remains critical, from defence of the island from outside interference; cyberattacks; protecting the air and maritime boundaries and resources; preserving peace, law and order within the island; ensuring a healthy population; securing sufficient food; avoiding economic downturns; promoting investment while protecting the environment. All of these dimensions of security are paramount for a country going forward. 

Sri Lanka possesses the ability to connect with the world by air and sea. Though identified as avenues of opportunity, the high seas and air space have also been the medium through which Sri Lanka’s sovereignty has been violated and maybe argued continues to be violated, especially in reference to the seas. Yet enhancing air connectivity remains critical to propel the nation forward. 

Thus of significance is the opportunity to be accrued by adopting a policy of air diplomacy, as an integral component of foreign policy. Incorporating such a dimension into foreign policy would provide the impetus to promote Sri Lanka’s interconnectedness primarily in the region and thereafter in key strategic locations in South East Asia, East Asia, West Asia, Central Asia, Africa and Europe.

Examining the concept of air diplomacy, and the means by which it could be incorporated into Sri Lanka’s foreign policy remains crucial. Reference has been made herein to case studies in which the usage of Air Diplomacy supported the state’s ability to enhance its international interaction and accrued beneficial dividends to the state. The military component of the study examines the means by which the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) could contribute to the implementation of a policy of air diplomacy and study the role of academia in creating a neutral platform from which militaries would be able to engage.  

States need to go beyond the prescribed formula wherein large and powerful states use air power and air diplomacy to bolster their military might. Instead being examined herein is the potential of an island state to adopt an effective air diplomacy policy that would enable decision makers to strategise foreign policy, ensure greater connectivity and guarantee a higher degree of influence in regional and global affairs. It is argued that the building of a nexus between and among militaries would auger well, as levels of cooperation and confidence would be boosted. 

The contributory role of academia in the pursuit of this policy generates a triangle in which the military and academia work jointly to identify areas and mechanisms for implementation, and reach out collectively to influence foreign policy formulators.


air diplomacy

In an interview in 1927, Paul Claudel, (1927) the new French Ambassador to Washington in reference to his appointment noted that “my task will be facilitated by the air and popular diplomacy admirably initiated by the American airmen, who haven’t even realised their apostolate”. Air diplomacy was born during E. H. Carr’s ‘Twenty Years’ Crisis’, but neither Claudel nor Carr realised the manner in which air travel would revolutionise the entire spectrum of connectivity that had been hitherto known to humans. 

Nearly a century later advancements in technology enhanced air travel, which contributed to the rapid pace at which nation-states became enmeshed in the concept of, and thereby gave credence to, globalisation. Improved and safe travel propelled industry, commerce and changed the persona of diplomacy. 

The role of the diplomat was transformed. Leaders themselves engaged directly thereby forcing the diplomat into a new position of contact between states. The transformation called for the adaptation of the diplomat to the new role of strategic advisor which many countries and professionals still grapple to understand. The changing environment saw the evolution of New Diplomacy, as we identify the sphere in modern times.

The air connectivity also led to the enhancement of military contact, and it has been considered to be a highly effective form of attack or retaliation. While the First World War had seen sporadic air attacks which accounted for some 1, 400 deaths in Britain due to aerial bombardments, as opposed to the 57, 000 men who died on just the first day of battle at Somme in 1916, air attacks were not as sophisticated as they are today or have been for the past several decades. 

From the infamous blitzkrieg over London, to the attack on Pearl Harbour, the usage of planes to drop nuclear bombs over Nagasaki and Hiroshima, their role in the Vietnam war, and their usage in other countries including Cambodia, Indonesia and Bangladesh, and in the last two decades across the West Asia and stretching into Afghanistan and Pakistan, the consequences of the air power are viewed negatively in much of the world, given the ramifications of death and destruction it leaves in its wake. 

It was in the post Second World War era with the heightening of the Cold War and emphasis on building stronger militaries and enhancing military capabilities, that air power began to supersede naval power. While in earlier centuries states attached great importance to naval power as evidenced through the building of the Chinese Navy, Spanish Armada, Royal Navy and the Japanese Imperial Navy among others, it is to air power that states turned in the twentieth century. Rapid advancements enabled faster movement, flexibility and swifter attacks, especially in relation to aerial strikes. 

Conflict is not the sole aspect of air power. A century ago, as highlighted by Claudel, states were discovering the opportunities that improvements in connectivity would provide, and their Forces were exploring the potential of humanitarian operations, wherein the transportation of goods and services, assisting in rescue missions, conducting evacuations and supporting ground troops, became an integral component of air power. States thereby amass air power leading to superiority, which translates into an effective tool for diplomatic engagement.

Hitler believed that “when diplomacy ends, wars begin,” a strong view that he eventually put into practice. It is evident that diplomacy and all aspects of the sphere are used by states in the formulation and implementation of foreign policy. With a wider scope and deeper reach, the dividends are richer and greater. Foreign policy today is enriched through multifaceted approaches, and states are striving to evolve with developments in a plethora of fields. Amidst these varied approaches is that of air diplomacy. As a thematic area, and more importantly, a policy option, the study of air diplomacy, its relevance and potential reveals its use today by states to enhance engagement and display military might. 

Hence it is understood that air power has the potential to wreck havoc and generate widespread destruction through its usage in military campaigns. Yet the significance of air power and its connectivity to diplomacy becomes highly relevant in an era in which although military power is used for battle, it is also used for peace keeping missions. Similarly air power may be used for the achievement of stability, ensure security and the enhancement of relations in the international sphere. 

Air diplomacy if practiced as a concerted policy would chiefly enable the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to bolster ties with countries, particularly in the region, and also with those which similarly focus on this sphere. It would also enable the SLAF to increase connectivity with other dorces in the region, improve relations with the aforementioned strategic locations, ensure opportunities of reach into new spheres, such as regional and international search and rescue operations, and carve an identity for the force to be recognised. 

It would result in Sri Lanka harnessing location and geopolitical importance to boost the economy, augment the development drive, and strategise international engagement. The island’s location has long been touted as one of its greatest assets, but its utilisation to its fullest potential is yet to be realised. Similarly the geopolitical importance of the Indian Ocean, and its rising relevance in global trade and contact, could boost the aviation arena. 

General de Gaulle (1960) highlighted the connection between diplomacy and the use of armed forces, wherein he identified that diplomacy had three levers: “Diplomacy expresses it, armed forces support it, and the police cover it.” Lespinois (2012) derives therefrom that “Air diplomacy could be defined as the use of air assets to support foreign policy.” 

This support can have manifold repercussions as it could describe a country’s aviation policy and the means by which it would strive to exhibit its technical and economic supremacy. It would also indicate that countries with greater degrees of power would be able to enforce stronger positions in air diplomacy. De La Rochère (1997), examining the incorporation of power into diplomacy, identifies the heavy handedness of the United States in imposing its own opinion of how public international law should be enforced in civil aviation. 

Similar developments occurred at international conferences, she argues, particularly the Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation in 1944, and the Bermuda Agreement two years later. However this paper while examining the concept of Air Diplomacy, and the means by which it could be incorporated into Sri Lanka’s foreign policy, focuses on the military component of air diplomacy. 

Implementing air diplomacy: Role of the military

Seventy years ago air connectivity was to play a critical role in the first crisis of the Cold War. With the Soviet decision to block access to Berlin the eruption of the Berlin Blockade from 24 June 1948 to 11 May 1949 Cold War tensions were to reach a heightened situation as former Allied powers sought wars to avoid confrontation. It severely tested the peace that prevailed, and enabled a blockade stricken people to survive for nearly a year, but also provided a new dimension to air power and its usage. 

The United States Air Force and the British Royal Air Force flew more than 200, 000 flights into Berlin taking with them in excess of 13, 000 tonnes of food supplies on a daily basis. Creating a coalition of support for Berlin, aircrews from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa joined the effort to support the American and British forces. The success of Operation Vittles and Operation Plainfare so named by the Americans and British respectively, was evident when more good and supplies were arriving in Berlin than had been supplied earlier via the rail route. 

Commemorated annually, the success of the main airlift was bolstered by other initiatives such as Operation Little Vittles, through which chocolates attached to little parachutes were dropped promoting goodwill among the German people, towards the forces that were intervening to assist them. The cooperative measures adopted by various militaries saw Western powers realise the need to remain united and support the West German government in the face of Soviet aggression. Parallel to the airlift America led efforts along with other key western nations to establish the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Marshall Plan began to play a decisive role in European affairs. 

Two-and-a-half decades later in 1973, when Egypt and Syria attacked Israel starting the Yom Kippur War, the United States Air Force launched Operation Nickel Grass to assist their strong ally. The surprise attack resulted in loss of key ammunition ranging from tanks to aircraft in Israel but the Americans were instantly prepared to replace the losses incurred with Kissinger assuring Israeli Ambassador Dinitz that: “The President has agreed that all your aircraft and tank losses will be replaced.”

The airlifting of ammunition, including the provision of new aircrafts contributed heavily to consolidating the already strong bonds between the two countries. The intervention by the United States enabled Israel to survive the coordinated attack and restored a balance of power given the Soviet support extended to Egypt and Syria. It also came at a time when Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir was threatening to use nuclear weapons to counter the attacks from her adversaries.

Portugal’s decision to grant landing facilities in the autonomous region of Azores, when most traditional European allies refused cooperation, improved diplomatic connectivity. Connectivity originated when Portugal become the first neutral state to establish diplomatic relations with the United States following the Revolutionary War of Independence. Developments during Operation Nickel Grass also made American forces realise the need to improve staging bases overseas, which was identified as a severe deficiency. 

The Operation was yet another instance in which Air Diplomacy engaged in by the United States, Israel, and with the support of Portugal, resulted in the thwarting of attempts to generate instability. Meir acknowledged the action noting that “for generations to come, all will be told of the miracle of the immense planes from the United States bringing in material that meant life for our people.” (Boyne, 1998)

When the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina was under siege it was timely air interventions that saved lives. From July 1992 to January 1996, the UN-led humanitarian operation, named Air Bridge, ensured the supply of more than 160,000 metric tons of aid, including food, medicine, equipment and other supplies to Sarajevo. With 20 countries providing aircrafts and facilities, and the support of numerous international organisations, the operation was able to provide more than 85% of all aid reaching the capital. 

At the time of the conclusion of the operation in January 1996, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Sadako Ogata observed: “For the past three-and-a-half years, the airlift has been Sarajevo’s lifeline and a constant reminder to the hundreds of thousands of brave residents of the city that they were not forgotten. Without a doubt, the airlift saved tens of thousands of people and kept the city alive through three winters of war.” (UNHCR, 1996) The concerted effort of all these countries and organisations under the leadership of the United Nations resulted in the continued supply of essential items, which saw the people of Sarajevo through a turbulent period of their history. 

Whilst the United States has played a pivotal role in many airlifts in the course of the last century, Israel has displayed significant involvement in such operations as evidenced in Operation Moses, wherein 8, 000 Ethiopians were airlifted from Sudan to Israel over seven weeks from November 1984 to January 1985. Thereafter in 1991, Operation Solomon saw the airlifting of more than 14, 000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel in just 36 hours. 

Earlier Operation Yachin from 1961 to 1964 saw an exodus of 97, 000 Moroccan Jews by plane and ship, although Operation Ezra and Nehemiah from 1951 to 1952 had been on a larger scale with between 120, 000 and 130, 000 Iraqi Jews airlifted from Iraq in a hugely significant exodus of the Jewish community from countries in West Asia. Operation Magic Carpet between June 1949 and September 1950 resulted in the evacuation of 49, 000 Yemenite Jews to Israel and had been carried out by 380 flights by British and American transport planes. 

Irrespective of the country involved, the number of tonnes of relief supplies or even the number of people that were evacuated, such airlift operations carried out for most of the second half of the last century saw heavy reliance on air connectivity. The usage of air diplomacy supported the state’s ability to enhance its international interaction whilst accruing beneficial dividends to the states involved.

Constructing an innovative air diplomacy policy

While the case studies cited herein refer to countries with defence budgets that even exceed $600 billion, in the case of the United States, and extensive influence as with the United States and Israel, it is possible to innovate in this arena. Sri Lanka played a monumental role in the 1950’s in the build up to the establishment of the Non-Aligned Movement and went on to chair the grouping from 1976 to 1979, chaired the Security Council and General Assembly of the United Nations, chaired the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) thrice, served as Chair-in-Office of the Commonwealth and has now been handed over the chair of Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multisectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC). Opportunities abound, the usage of such openings remain the challenge the country is yet to overcome. 

The adoption of an innovative air diplomacy policy needs to be rationalised on two levels, with two categories at each level. This could be done primarily in the bilateral sphere whereby Sri Lanka utilises her strong bilateral connections with strategic countries in the region and beyond, and secondly at the international level, whereby Sri Lanka plays a vigorous role in redefining defence cooperation through air diplomacy. Both levels provide the country and the SLAF with the opportunity of branching out and generating another platform for cooperation which would augur for the state in the long run.

The bilateral level would need to be examined in two categories. Sri Lanka purchases ammunition, equipment, aircraft, vessels, etc. from particular countries. These are countries of strategic importance and it is vital to develop closer relations with them. This could be in varied forms, such as structured joint sessions between the militaries, and in particular with the Air Forces of the respective countries. Adopting a similar format as the Joint Sessions between countries at the political level, the Air Force interface would lead to deeper understanding, better cooperation and stronger connectivity, especially at times of need. It could also evolve into and include the conducting of joint drills between the Air Forces, which would result in the sharing of technology and expertise. 

The second category at the bilateral level would be with countries of strategic importance in the global arena. Whilst a similar model of structured sessions and joint drills maybe adopted, the second tier would give Sri Lanka the opportunity of reaching beyond the usual remit of connectivity and improve bilateral relations in the process. 

Multilateral engagement forms the second level whereby the bilateral connectivity could, in time, be merged with a regional conclave of Air Force Chiefs, which is absent from SAARC at present. Whilst attempting to establish a SAARC Air Force Chief’s Conference seems too early to explore, given the current stalemate in political relations among South Asian countries, Sri Lanka could instead look at playing a catalytic role of bringing Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) countries together by proposing an Air Force Chief’s Conclave amongst the 21 member states and seven dialogue partners. 

Whilst this could be examined within the framework of existing groupings, whereby Sri Lanka proposes the establishment of such fora even in groupings such as BIMSTEC and the Commonwealth, where the use of air diplomacy would greatly enhance security cooperation. Further engagement in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), wherein Sri Lanka is a dialogue partner at present, could see the country seeking deeper engagement, even actively campaigning for full membership, while articulating the contribution, especially in the area of counter terrorism that the country would be able to make, and gaining through collaboration with other member states and dialogue partners of the SCO. 

The second category at the multilateral level would see Sri Lanka explore new areas of air connectivity through the creation of a ‘Shangri-La Dialogue’ model, which could be implemented for purposes of air diplomacy. This platform would generate immense opportunities for the air chiefs of specific countries to converge each year in a bid to discuss military aviation issues, multilateral cooperation, enhance regional security as well as improve humanitarian assistance and relief efforts. The conclave would also serve as a hub for the sharing of information on suspicious air activity, response to terror threats, and measures that could be adopted to thwart such activity and threats. 

Preserving and promoting national interest: Why air diplomacy is essential

Whether at the bilateral or multilateral levels and within the specified categories of these two levels, the formulation of an effective foreign policy is at the core of national interest. The protection and promotion of national interest, while within the mandate of the state, could be implemented through innovative measures. The adoption of an air diplomacy policy, which would be implemented chiefly by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Defence, Sri Lanka Air Force and with the involvement of academia, would see Sri Lanka gain immensely through all that has been hitherto described. 

The potential of the island to adopt such an effective air diplomacy policy would enable decision makers to strategise foreign policy, ensure greater connectivity and guarantee a higher degree of influence in regional and global affairs. It is argued that the building of a nexus between and among militaries would auger well, as levels of cooperation and confidence would be boosted.

As discussed in the introduction, the chief concern of a state is its security in a multitude of areas, chief among which is defence. As stated, the usage of air space is a means by which attacks may be staged against the country, yet of importance is the emphasis on maritime aerial patrols, given that naval resources are limited and vessels cannot be deployed at regular intervals to monitor the entirety of Sri Lanka’s maritime territory. The support that could be generated by the SLAF through the aforementioned channels would see an enhancement of aerial resources which would in turn augment the naval resources of the state. 

A pivotal role would thus be played by the adoption of a policy of air diplomacy as a strategic foreign policy option. With the completion of seven decades since the granting of independence, Sri Lanka stands at a cross road of harnessing the opportunity of peace and racing into the future to compete with nations in the region and beyond, or of vacillating over indecision, corruption and crime. 

The conflict is a near decade into history. The time is ripe for challenging and critical planning, innovative and ingenious action, and most importantly succinct strategising for the future. Air diplomacy could play a significant role in strategising Sri Lanka’s foreign policy. 


Claudel P, (Euvres diplomatiques: ambassadeur aux États-Unis, 1927-1933, vol 1, ed. Luciele Gardagnati (Paris: L’Âge d’homme, 1994), 103. 

de Gaulle C, Mémoires de guerre, vol 3 (Paris: Plon, 1960), p 627.

de La Rochére J D, La politique aéronautique militaire de la France Janvier 1933 – Septembre 1939 (Paris: Editions L’Harmattan, 1997).

de Lespinois J, What is Air Diplomacy? Assessed on 30 August 2018 - http://www.airpower.au.af.mil/apjinternational/apj-af/2012/2012-4/eng/2012_4_05_DeLespinois.pdf

UNHCR Press Release REF/1130, 05 January 1996, Assessed on 15 September 2018 - https://www.un.org/press/en/1996/19960105.ref1130.html

Walter J. Boyne, Nickel Grass, Air Force Magazine, December 1998 Issue, Assessed on 15 September 2018 -  http://www.airforcemag.com/MagazineArchive/Pages/1998/December%201998/1298nickel.aspx.

White House declassified Memorandum of Conversation dated 09th October 1973 – Assessed on 15 September 2018 - https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu//NSAEBB/NSAEBB98/octwar-21b.pdf.

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