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Niche Diplomacy: the other side of the coin

“Wars begin when diplomacy ends”, the famous quote by Adolf Hitler, has always been a forceful reminder of the imperative importance of diplomacy as a strategy in the world arena. The importance of diplomacy as a war deterrent is of significant importance in the modern geopolitical arena. In the modern nuclearized world, war is not an option.  As it was stated in the Einstein-Russell manifesto, “what assurance do we have that agreements made in times of peace, would be honored during times of war”. Furthermore recent developments in the international stage have showcased the importance of diplomatic dialogue in maintaining the stability of a region, before conflict followed by ensuing turmoil erupts.

Thus, these few points alone showcase the importance of diplomacy.
Niche Diplomacy is a form of strategy which comes under the category of soft power. Soft power as opposed to the hard power of military and economic strength, moves to resolve issues through the application of tact, strategy, networking and influence. Often are the scenarios in the global setting where the strength of hard power has been mitigated by the delicate touch of soft power.  In the modern context of the world, in essence in the post-Cold War world which has moved from a bi-polar system to today’s uni-multipolar system, the need of soft powers by middle and small power nations are seen. A middle power country; is a country lacking influence in the global sphere in the aspects of military and economic strength. Furthermore, it is important to realize that these countries lack financial and human resources to have an imposing Public Diplomacy policy to drive their agenda on a macro-global stage. The uni-multipolar system, can be understood as system; ‘In which all countries have a certain level of Independent influence, yet one country holds an asymmetrical amount of influence within the sphere.’ Yet the best possible method of understanding the uni-multipolar system is by the way in which it differs from a bi-polar system; in which two major opposing powers were well defined decision-takers and decision makers. In this uni-multipolar system almost every country has the opportunity to become a decision maker and not a decision taker. Hence using soft power in order to achieve these goals for middle and small power nations is noteworthy. Yet what one must grasp, is that middle and small powers lack the ability to resource and finance a wide reaching foreign policy agenda. Hence the importance of Niche Diplomacy is seen. Three main salient features of Niche Diplomacy can be seen; (1) tactical alignment towards one specific field / topic of interest, (2) efficient and effective uses of resources, (3) influence and consensus building. Of these the efficient and effective use of resources is of importance to middle and small powers. By streamlining their resources and expertise towards one particular facet, prudent and economical use, they can achieve influence through minimum cost.

Niche Diplomacy has been a strategy that has been used by middle power nations such as Singapore, Sweden, Norway, Switzerland and South Africa in order to achieve influence and greater strategic power, in essence soft power, within the geopolitical arena. Sri Lanka too being a middle power country or in a sense transitioning towards one needs to think through the ideas of Niche Diplomacy in its foreign policy agenda. It needs to identify its ‘niche ability’ in the modern context and find strategies in order to achieve influence in the international arena by exploiting these capacities.

A good example is South Africa. South Africa faced a lot of international criticism due to its apartheid policy during the latter part of the 20th century. The isolation of South Africa was seen in the spheres of politics, international relations and sports. Following the apartheid backlash, and with regime change which resulted in the end of apartheid, post-apartheid South Africa needed to rebrand image and national conciseness. Hence a need for image change was felt in both the domestic and international aspects. The topic they took up for Niche Diplomacy is Nuclear Disarmament and Nuclear Non- Proliferation. South Africa became one of the only countries to give up its nuclear arsenal and one of the three countries to give up its nuclear program. South Africa took up an ‘Anti-Nuclear Niche Diplomacy’ approach. They became great advocates of the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the Comprehensive Treaty on Banning Nuclear Testing (CTBT) and they have worked actively with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) through time. 

In an era in which nuclear winters, war and weapons are of great discussion and in an era in which nuclear weapons have been considered as good negotiating tools and almost as a source national assurance, South Africa’s choice to remove its nuclear arsenal was commendable. Rather than sheltering themselves under the euphemistic umbrella of concepts such as ‘no first use’ or ‘mutually assured destruction,’ South Africa decided to go down the road of nuclear disarmament. This has had a great impact nationally and internationally. At the national level, it brought pride and rebranding after apartheid while internationally the country was able to regain international standing. South Africa concentrated its resources, technical and practical disarmament experience, in this specific issue area to ‘generate returns worth having’ implying that it wanted to achieve nonmaterial objectives with Niche Diplomacy which, in turn, would likely generate prestige, status, material benefits , soft power and moral authority.

Niche Diplomacy is a viable policy for Sri Lanka to gain international standing. Fields such as Marine Conservation and Trade routes, Post War Reconciliation and Multi-Ethnic Co-Operation are seen as some of the viable options. Yet it must stressed that, Sri Lanka needs to create Strong Governance and Policy Sustainability through National policies in order to achieve its Niche Diplomacy Goals.

Raveen Charukya Lekamwasam was the Vernon Mendis Memorial Prize winner 2018 ( Batch XVI)

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and not the institutional views of the BIDTI, nor do they necessarily reflect the position of any other institution or individual with which the author is affiliated.


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