Foreign Policy White Papers: Indispensable or Cosmetic?

May 28, 2019        Reading Time: 5 minutes

Reading Time: 5 min read

Image Credits: 1xpert /depositphotos

Shakthi De Silva*

Does Sri Lanka need a Foreign Policy White Paper (FPWP)? Will an FPWP provide tangible benefits for a country or is drafting one a redundant exercise? As a precursor to this discussion, the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute of International Relations and Strategic Studies (LKI) inquired into the number of states that have an FPWP and the expected benefits from it.

Foreign Policy White Papers, overarching principles or remaining ambiguous?

Forty five developing and developed countries in Asia, Africa and Europe were examined to ascertain the number of states which possessed an FPWP. Countries that were examined for this purpose were chiefly from Asia and were predominately classified as ‘developing countries.’ These were: Afghanistan, Australia, Azerbaijan, Bahamas, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Belarus, Belize, Bhutan, Botswana, Brunei, Cambodia, Cyprus, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Georgia, Greece, Honduras, Ireland, Israel, Jamaica, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kingdom of Thailand, Laos, Lebanon, Malaysia, Maldives, Micronesia, Nepal, Netherlands, New Zealand, Oman, Paraguay, Qatar, Serbia, Seychelles, Singapore, South Africa, Sudan, Taiwan, Trinidad and Tobago, United Kingdom, Zimbabwe. Among the 45 countries surveyed only six (Australia, Ireland, Kenya, New Zealand, the Seychelles, and South Africa)1 had a (publicly available) FPWP, most of which were of recent origin. Nineteen countries, in lieu of an FPWP, had explicit foreign policy goals, objectives or strategies on their Foreign Ministry websites. The other 22 countries chose to remain ambiguous by refraining from describing such criteria or composing an FPWP. As such, it is clear that many countries do not have an FPWP (See Figure 1).

                               Figure 1: Results of Foreign Policy Survey [Countries surveyed – 45]

Contents of FPWPs

In general, FPWPs provide an overview of the existing international arena and discuss key issues facing a state or a regional order. They also identify possible threats and concerns facing the country (emanating from state and/or non-state actors in the economic, security, and diplomatic domains) and how it intends to tackle them.

FPWPs surveyed by LKI had a number of similarities. Five out of the six FPWPs, for example, explicitly endorsed the need to strengthen a rules-based international order.  The FPWPs of Ireland,2 New Zealand,3 the Seychelles4 and Kenya5 were also explicitly in line with other Government policy documents and development strategies. For instance, Ireland seeks to double its global footprint, through the plans set out in its FPWP, as well as in other Government policy strategies such as its National Development Plan (2018-2027) and the White Paper on International Development. While most FPWPs outlined foreign policy goals and objectives, New Zealand’s FPWP went a step further by listing 4-year priority deliverables, a 4-year roadmap to reach its goals, and a procedure for regular progress evaluation.6

Non-Traditional Security Threats (NTST) featured heavily in the six FPWPs. Australia’s White Paper,7 for example, underscored the importance of paying adequate attention to cyber and terror threats. The potential fallout from crimes that transgress oceanic boundaries was one of the NTSTs addressed in New Zealand’s FPWP. Kenya’s FPWP accentuates their commitment to sustainably manage natural resources by demarcating ‘Environment’ as one of the five core interlinked pillars of their diplomacy.8

Pros and Cons of an FPWP

The key benefit of an FPWP is that it acts as a template for a government to ensure foreign policy decisions are in line with the national interest of the country. By codifying foreign policy in this manner, a sense of continuity in foreign policymaking can be established whilst also providing key policy guidelines and recommendations for future administrations.

However, FPWP’s may also create a rigid, inflexible foreign policy. Drafting one can be a costly and time-consuming endeavour. As conditions change, leaders might need to reoptimise (or recalibrate) their policies to adjust to new realities and find it difficult to do so owing to an established foreign policy orientation set out by an FPWP. Other states can also take issue with statements expressed in a particular FPWP. The case of China exhibiting its displeasure9over a comment in the Australian FPWP relating to the South China Sea serves as a pertinent example of this.

What can Sri Lanka do?

Some states (including South Asian states such as Nepal10 and the Royal Government of Bhutan)11 chose to articulate foreign policy goals, strategies and priorities rather than relying on a formal FPWP. For example, Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spells out a vision that aims “To be a responsible nation within the international community and to maintain friendly relations with all countries.”12 Its mission statement seeks “The promotion, projection and protection of Sri Lanka’s national interests internationally, in accordance with the foreign policy of the Government and to advise the Government on international developments which affect Sri Lanka.”13 However, the fundamental tenets of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy (including, but not limited to, an articulation of Sri Lanka’s nonaligned position which has been voiced by policymakers since independence) have not been denoted.

As a written FPWP could be a time consuming and potentially knotty task, Sri Lanka could follow an incremental approach of first, enshrining overarching principles of the island’s foreign policy and then drafting an FPWP following extensive consultation.  Given the shifts in the island’s foreign policy in recent decades, an FPWP could be a welcome solution to establish continuity and stability in Sri Lanka’s external relations. Principles from both the UN Charter (for example, enhancing cooperation with other actors that informs the foreign policies of Nepal and Bhutan)14 and the Panchsheel principles (non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries followed by the Maldives)15 could serve as vital sources if Sri Lanka chooses to adopt this course of action.


1South African Government. (2011). Building a Better World: The Diplomacy of Ubuntu. [online]. South African Government. Available at: [Accessed 25 May 2019].

2Government of Ireland. (2018). Global Ireland: Ireland’s Global Footprint to 2025. [online] Available at: [Accessed 25 May 2019].

3New Zealand Foreign Affairs and Trade. (2018). Strategic Intentions. [online] Available at: [Accessed 25 May 2019].

4Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Transport. (n.d). Strategic Plan 2020. The Republic of Seychelles. [online] Available at: [Accessed 25 May 2019].

5Republic of Kenya. (2014). Kenya Foreign Policy. [online] Republic of Kenya. Available at: [Accessed 25 May 2019].

6New Zealand Foreign Affairs and Trade. (2018). Strategic Intentions. [online] Available at: [Accessed 25 May 2019].

7Australian Government. (2017). 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper. [online] Australian Government. Available at: [Accessed 25 May 2019].

8Republic of Kenya. (2014). Kenya Foreign Policy. [online] Republic of Kenya. Available at: [Accessed 25 May 2019].

9Embassy of China in Australia. (2017). Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Lu Kang’s Remarks on the Reports of Australian Foreign Policy White Paper. [online] Available at: [Accessed 25 May 2019).

10Ministry of Foreign Affairs. (n.d). Nepal’s Foreign Policy. [online] Government of Nepal. Available at: [Accessed 25 May 2019].

11Ministry of Foreign Affairs. (2016). Bhutan’s Foreign Policy. [online] Royal Government of Bhutan. Available at: [Accessed 25 May 2019].

12Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Sri Lanka. (2017). Annual Performance Report 2017. [online] Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Available at: [Accessed at 25 May 2019].

13Ministry of Foreign Affairs. (2019). Ministry of Foreign Affairs Overview. [online]. Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Available at: [Accessed 25 may 2019].

14UN. (1945). Charter of the United Nations and Statute of the International Court of Justice. [online]. United Nations. Available at:  [Accessed 25 May 2019].

15Ministry of Foreign Affairs. (2019). Foreign Policy Principles. [online] Republic of the Maldives. Available at: [Accessed 25 May 2019].

*Shakthi De Silva was a Research Assistant at the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute of International Relations and Strategic Studies (LKI). The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and not the institutional views of LKI, nor do they necessarily reflect the position of any other institution or individual with which the author is affiliated.

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