A Builder of Bridges: Interview with Dr. Patrick Mendis

A Builder of Bridges: Interview with Dr. Patrick Mendis

. 16 min read

Dr. Patrick Mendis, a distinguished visiting professor of transatlantic relations at the University of Warsaw in Poland and a distinguished visiting professor of global affairs at the National Chengchi University in Taiwan, served as a military professor in the NATO and Indo-Pacific Commands. Educated at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota and the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, Mendis served in both Democratic and Republican administrations at the Departments of Agriculture, Defense, Energy, and State as well as the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Born in Sri Lanka, Mendis first arrived in Minnesota as an AFS exchange student to attend high school and was later adopted by Minnesotans when the civil war broke out in his native country. He now lives in Washington, DC.

To begin, let me ask that you recently won the US Lifetime Achievement Award from the Sri Lanka Foundation in Los Angeles, California for your excellence as an eminent scholar, diplomat, author, and philanthropist. Can you tell us what this award means to you, how you would describe your first days in the United States, and what you have been doing to build ties between Sri Lanka and the United States?

The award is a very important landmark to reflect on my American journey, because I left Sri Lanka in 1978 as an AFS [American Field Service] exchange student at Perham High School in Minnesota. When I arrived in Perham, I didn’t speak English, and I learned to speak “Minnesotan English” while attending the school. The following year, I returned to Sri Lanka and got my undergraduate degree at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura. When the civil war broke out in 1983, my AFS family and friends came together and sold pancakes to raise funds, which were matched by the Rotary Club, the Lions Club, and local church communities. So, I am pretty much a product of the generosity of American people.

When I was at Perham High School, I was the fastest runner, and I was known as the “black bullet.” I was also the first AFS foreign exchange student there, and I essentially grew up with Finnish, German, Scandinavian, and Polish communities in Perham and the surrounding rural areas. It was indeed a life-changing experience.

At the same time, staying connected with Sri Lanka was important to me because that’s where my roots are. I was born in a centuries-old town called Polonnaruwa, the medieval capital of Sri Lanka. It has a 2500-year recorded history; Minnesota, on the other hand, became the 32nd state admitted to the Union under President Abraham Lincoln—that was just a little over 160 years ago. More importantly, I came from an ancient culture with a very hot climate, and then I grew up in a very wintry, cold, and below-zero temperature weather in a new culture, new modern society with electricity and running water, and not at first speaking the language. So, it was challenging but transformative.

I don’t want to forget about my cultural roots; I have become a part of the American tree as a nation of immigrants that is inherently flourishing and expanding, because the United States is the world. I’ve chosen to be part of that growing culture of Americanism, honoring its founding ideas and ideals with “Minnesota Nice.”

And since those days when you first came to Minnesota, how have you worked to build ties between Sri Lanka and the United States?

I stayed in touch with my former professors at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura. In 1994, I also endowed a scholarship fund in Sri Lanka. For that scholarship, I didn’t want to put my name attached to it, but the dean of the management faculty told me, “no, no, no, we have already decided to put your name on it.” Now it is called the Dr. Patrick Mendis Prize for Leadership and Management Studies. This prize is a good way of giving back to Sri Lanka because I had received a free education through scholarships. Each year, students receive financial awards. In fact, I have been staying in touch with some of these remarkable student leaders.

In America, I am a sojourner of life, and all of my siblings are back in Sri Lanka. I’m the only one who came to America. Now I have all my deep roots in Minnesota, as I married to a former AFS exchange student from Minnesota to Japan, whom I met at the University of Minnesota, and we have two adult children: our son is a material science engineering professor at Penn State, and our daughter is a lead electrical engineer at a private firm on the West Coast.

My family and I have visited Sri Lanka many times. A few years ago, my son traveled to Sri Lanka and lectured at various universities there. I often visit my siblings and stay connected with friends, high school teachers, and professors, as I closely follow Sri Lanka’s international issues and challenges, especially now because of the Chinese involvement and the US interests in the Indo-Pacific region.

As this island nation of 22 million people is critically important to American foreign policy, I focus on Sino-American relations and the US Indo-Pacific strategy in Sri Lanka. These days, Sri Lanka is on a dangerous path, struggling with its $56 billion national debt to foreign creditors, and trying to find ways to restructure the debt with the support of the United States, China, India, Japan, and other countries and institutions.

In recent years, you've traveled extensively, teaching in universities around the world from the Yenching Academy in China to the University of Warsaw in Poland. How would you tie these teaching activities with your government and diplomatic experience? What would you say is the connection between these two areas of your work?

Like in our lives at home, everything is related to everything else beyond our national borders. When I was attending the Humphrey School and the Kennedy School, I learned that the best educators are practitioners, and vice versa.

So, after teaching at the University of Minnesota for seven years, I became a military professor in the NATO Command of the US Department of Defense through the University of Maryland’s program. After several teaching tours at major military bases in England, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Turkey, I was given military orders to teach in Japan and South Korea in the US Pacific Command, which is now called the Indo-Pacific Command.

At the end of my teaching tours in Europe and Asia, I went to teach at the Northwest University in Xi’an, the ancient capital of China. When I was teaching there, I received the science and diplomacy fellowship sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science [AAAS] to work at the US Department of State.

At State, I worked in the Clinton administration under the late Secretary Madeleine Albright. When the Bush administration came into power, the late Secretary Colin Powell asked me to stay on, and serve as the secretariat director of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs [ECA] that manages the Fulbright, Humphrey, Muskie, and other cultural exchange programs between the US and the rest of the world.

After government service, I returned to academia to serve as a visiting foreign policy scholar at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies [SAIS] and the vice president of the Osgood Center for International Studies. At SAIS, I authored two books, Trade for Peace and Commercial Providence.

Later I was appointed by the Obama Administration to serve as a commissioner to the US National Commission for UNESCO at the State Department’s Bureau of International Organizations [IO], for which I was nominated by Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and supported by the late Vice President Walter Mondale and former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. I stayed in that position until the Trump White House withdrew from UNESCO in 2018. Technically speaking, I worked for two years in the Trump administration.

During these intermittent years, I continued to travel to China. In fact, I taught at more than 25 Chinese universities and academies. Before arriving in Taiwan to teach at the National Chengchi University in Taipei, my last teaching assignment in China was at Peking University’s Yenching Academy.

Earlier this year, I taught at the University of Warsaw in Poland, and I continue to do so as a distinguished visiting professor of transatlantic relations. So, after teaching in the NATO and the Indo-Pacific Commands of the Pentagon, I finally circled back to Europe.

For me, continuing education is like a river of knowledge with many branches, as I alternated in my career between public policy and government service to academia. That kind of cross-fertilization of scholarship and diplomacy is similar to the flowing water from one location to another—just like the American culture of melting pot connecting with different cultures around the world, enriching the tapestry of America. This made me think differently and expose myself to other ideas, and appreciate the fact that everything is connected to each other.

Surely, this is the story of America; we connect the world, and the world connects us. As an American, I am constantly learning, thinking, and sharing these perspectives with others to better understand the land of freedom and why we are fighting for the liberty of others around the globe.

Photo courtesy of Lal Thilakaratna, The Sri Lanka Foundation.

Allow me to transition to the strategic and geopolitical points you've mentioned so far. You've written before for the HIR that Sri Lanka is a crown jewel of China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), having fallen into a number of debt traps through massive infrastructural projects, like the Colombo Lotus Tower that you wrote about, the Colombo Port City project and the Hambantota Port, which is now under a 99-year lease to China Merchant Ports. Can and will Sri Lanka try to realign itself with the United States as opposed to China?

This is where the global politics of power comes into play in the Indo-Pacific drama. The United States has been a maritime power for a long time in the Indian Ocean. For example, the US leased out Diego Garcia Island, which is south of Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean, as a military base from the British. From that theater, we operated the wars in the Middle East, Afghanistan, and Iraq. We launched missiles from there, so Diego Garcia is critically important to the American strategy in the region. That lease will expire in 2036, returning the island to Great Britain. When we need to return the base, Sri Lanka is the best alternative strategic location.

During the Trump administration, a National Security Council [NSC] official went to Sri Lanka to convince the Sri Lankan government to accept the Millennium Challenge Corporation [MCC] grants in order to help connect Colombo and Trincomalee. The Sri Lankan government did not like the idea because when the NSC official returned to Washington, she said Sri Lanka is a good “real estate.” She was speaking in President Trump's real estate language to convince him that Sri Lanka is a nice real estate for American foreign policy.

It was not diplomatic to describe Sri Lanka as just real estate. China, on the other hand, built the $1 billion Hambantota Port as well as the Lotus Tower and the Colombo Port City, then gave several billion dollars of developmental assistance. The MCC grant, which is roughly $400 million, is nothing compared to $10 billion or $12 billion China invested in Sri Lanka already. The United States wanted to connect the Colombo Harbor through an MCC-funded land corridor with the Trincomalee Harbor, which is a strategic natural harbor. That's where the US military ships come to refuel.

In my view, it is important for Sri Lanka to ally with the United States because of our democratic values and traditions, which have been shared since its independence in 1948. We are also very aware of Sri Lanka’s northern neighbor of India and its problems with China, especially the continuing tensions in the Himalayan Mountains surrounding the borders of the Doklam and Ladakh regions. Therefore, Sri Lanka is critically important when the two greatest democracies – the most powerful democracy of the United States and the largest democracy of India – come together in order to make democracy safe for the world. When Sri Lanka is aligned with China, it is problematic for both India and the United States, as their democratic traditions and freedoms are being challenged.

Therefore, the question of Sri Lanka is paramount, not only to China and the United States. The power projection that China is portraying through Sri Lanka makes India very nervous too. Mainly because India is surrounded by border issues with China on the Tibetan side, China’s strategic alliance with Pakistan, which is the arch-enemy of India, and China’s reaching out to Nepal, Bhutan, and Bangladesh, as well as the Maldives islands.

Furthermore, Sri Lanka is a critical component of the Beijing strategy because China would eventually use the strategic Hambantota Port to connect with the Yunnan province through Myanmar and their gas pipeline corridor and the Bay of Bengal. When you go to the western side of the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea and Karachi connect all the way to Xinjiang province through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor [CPEC]. Sri Lanka emerged as the catalyst for enabling the maritime navigational system for Beijing, carrying oil and gas to the eastern side of China through the Myanmar corridor and the western part of China through the CPEC.

Having the Hambantota Port is, therefore, vitally important in order to transfer the shipments of their oil and gas to the two regions of southeast China as well as the western part of China. American officials are beginning to be fully aware of this, and India is also very concerned about it. If there is another war or conflict to happen, beyond Ukraine and Taiwan, Sri Lanka would be the next location.

How could Sri Lanka work to escape from China's strong influence now?

There is no escape. China is already entangled with Sri Lanka for 99 years, just like how British Hong Kong became a 99-year British colony. Now, Sri Lanka is pretty much the vessel state of China. You cannot get away from it because Sri Lankans have what is a contractual agreement surrounding the Hambantota Port and the Colombo Lotus Tower, the tallest telecommunications tower in South Asia, and now they are building the Colombo Port City, which is another operation through which China wants Sri Lanka to be the next Singapore or Dubai. That would be the way in which China could have influence as the major financial center, competing with Singapore and Dubai. The Chinese government has the resources to accomplish this, especially if we look at the investment that has already been made. Not only have they built these three major infrastructures, but they also built main highways and new energy plants, and they are now supporting the building of a $60 million Kidney Hospital in Polonnaruwa, my hometown. So, the ancient Sri Lanka-China friendship collaboration is now very comprehensive. It is very difficult to escape from this engagement, the ancient engagement is being revitalized for years to come.

Is it against Sri Lanka's interest to be in this relationship with China?

Well, it is not the question of Sri Lanka’s interest, but the question of what options do the so-called corrupted leaders of the island have with the alignment with China. When the national interest is succumbed to the personal interests of a few politicians and the Rajapaksa family, the island nation as a whole has to pay a price.

Overall, I think that with the current status of national debt restructuring of $56 billion, China could easily have the upper hand with its reported nearly $20 billion high-interest loans to Sri Lanka. Surely, the American-led institutions like the IMF and the World Bank in Washington and the Japan-led Asian Development Bank in the Philippines have already come together to provide leadership. Eventually, Sri Lanka must yield to powerful nations like India, Japan, and the United States—and most importantly China.

At the end of the day, when the elephants dance, small nations like Sri Lanka must suffer. If Sri Lankan leaders are smart enough, like the Singaporeans and the emirates in the Persian Gulf, they could have devised much better strategies than Singapore and Dubai. Sri Lanka could easily be a self-sufficient island—similar to a high-tech Taiwan with comparable geographic and demographic characteristics and the relatively same high literacy rate and life expectancy. But the self-obsessed nativistic leaders and the Buddhist nationalists are still living with the British colonial mindsets and the old glory of historic Pali chronicles of Dipavamsa and Mahavamsa.

The reason why I wanted to compare Sri Lanka and Taiwan is because these two island states have a connecting tissue to China’s grand maritime strategy. As you may have seen in my recent Harvard article, I tried to illustrate the two distinctly different strategies used by Beijing to advance the Chinese national interests in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Long before Washington recognized the Chinese connection to these two oceans and restructured the American military into the newly created Indo-Pacific Command, China had had this grand plan. Taiwan in the East China Sea and Sri Lanka in China’s “West Sea” are the bookend to President Xi Jinping’s road to the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.

As I described in the article, the Indian Ocean is China’s “Western Ocean,” which is the only ocean that is historically associated with a country, that’s India. In Chinese literature and poetry, the Western Ocean has been mentioned, and was explicitly called the “Western Ocean” since the Ming “treasure voyages” to Sri Lanka, India, and East Africa led by Admiral Zheng He in the 15th century.

As the ethnic and religious nationalism have now come to India in the form of Hindutva and the Christian nationalism in the United States, China is galvanized by returning to its ancient grandeur of Han nationalism. With Beijing’s Buddhist diplomacy, both China and Sri Lanka have the shared kindred spirits to align themselves for the sake of religious nationalism and the ethnic pride of rejuvenation.

To shift toward the BRI more globally, what should our main priorities be in responding to it around the world?

This is probably a major issue for the United States because US foreign policy should start with domestic policy. It means that America needs to focus on [the] domestic rejuvenation of our own economic and infrastructural system. If you go to the airport, [passing through] bridges and roads, [all this infrastructure] is pretty much declining [especially when] compared to China. If you go to China, you can see that the Chinese airports and the roads and bridges are of a much higher quality and sophistication than most you can find in the United States. Therefore, the United States needs to think about bringing our own house in order, in order to compete globally.

Then, the United States needs to extend resources through our foreign assistance and education programs. There, we have a problem because the United States does not have a huge foreign development budget as of today. The military itself is not sufficient because you need to address the hunger issues [too], you need to deal with the stomach before you can talk about freedom and democracy. That's what China is doing; they want to talk about hunger issues and basic human needs and infrastructure.

The United States now needs to collect the resources from like-minded allies, [such as] Japan, Australia, and India. These are the largest, most active democracies in the world, at least they are aligned by their philosophy of democracy to counter China. That way, you can have the militaristic and also the economic developmental components with the European Union and NATO, working together, having some kind of financial resources to compete with the BRI to give an alternative for these countries. For instance, there is an American-led initiative, which [is what] the US is trying to do in Sri Lanka through the MCC grant. But the problem is the culturally-insensitive operational aspect of it. American officials are just talking about it and looking at other countries through the American experience. The Beijing Consensus of dictating terms of investment is different from the Washington Consensus, where democracy is nominally the buzzword. What kind of projects can the United States implement in Sri Lanka, for example, with something like the Millennium Challenge Corporation and its $400 million grant, which is nothing compared to what China is extending with a comprehensive strategy to advance Beijing’s foreign policy goals of national rejuvenation?

To transition toward the war in Ukraine, do you think that this conflict has in any way weakened the force of the Chinese-Russian Joint Statement issued earlier this year? And does it undermine the possibility of Chinese-Russian cooperation?

Absolutely. In fact, there are reports that China has single-handedly drafted this Sino-Russian document. It talks about protecting Chinese rights and the “One-China principle,” and then states that Taiwan is a province of China. That is pretty much the framework for which China essentially got Russia to do Beijing’s work. And now Russia is bogged down in this “special military operation” in Ukraine, unlike in Moscow’s previous invasions in Crimea and Georgia. The Obama administration was silent in the latter invasions and the Russian support for Syria. These signaled Russian President Vladimir Putin that the war-fatigue US began to carry white flags after the American debacles in Afghanistan and Iraq, and giving Russia the license to invade Ukraine.

When President Joe Biden came to power, Putin miscalculated the American resolve to keep Europe safe for democracy. With the Sino-Russian Pact, Beijing envisioned that the weakened America and the European Union would not get involved in Ukraine and its resolve to fight with self-determination.

For China, Russia is a test case to check the will of America and Europe. When China learned from the Russian crimes and the changing dynamics of global politics and alliances, Beijing has used these lessons of Ukraine to apply to and compare with Taiwan, and to decide whether to invade the self-governing democratic island nation or not at all.

Yet, China will surely continue its aggressive economic and military operations to diminish the willpower of the Taiwanese people. Unlike Putin’s war in Ukraine, however, I couldn’t imagine that Beijing would hardly want to own a graveyard of their Chinese brethren in Taiwan for the sake of territorial integrity and control over the island’s premier semiconductor industry.

In China’s strategic calculus of invading Taiwan, the example of low-cost operations of Russia in Crimea and Georgia was an incentive for territorial expansion. The Chinese test of betting on Russian entanglement in Ukraine has now made Beijing pause to rethink.

You can see now that the US Congress realized the Chinese gamesmanship and began to support Taiwan and protect its democratic governance and the semiconductor industry, as much as the Biden White House is committed to Ukraine to keep [the] world safe for democracy. If Ukraine and Taiwan lost their sovereignty to the authoritarian regimes in Moscow and Beijing, the world would consider the United States another United Kingdom of the past after losing the democratic Hong Kong.

Then China could claim the success of the revenge of the past; that it is finally overcoming the Century of Humiliation under the foreign powers. I would say that President Xi’s art of war has been playing out very well, as of now. Yet, the future of American democracy and its global leadership will be decided in Washington, DC.

As a final question, to circle back to the earliest part of the interview, what comes next for you? What are your goals, hopes and objectives for the next 10 years?

Well, one of my American mentors and friends, Ambassador Harlan Cleveland—the founding dean of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota and former US ambassador to NATO—told me, “Patrick, don’t plan your future career, because you are most likely to succeed by narrowing other options that might have exciting opportunities.” So, I still vividly remember his wisdom and I didn’t plan but knew I might alternate my career between academia and government service in the future like Harlan did.

In retrospect, I am no longer getting younger, and traveling to and working in over 130 countries has drained my energies at this advancing age, but I still love to visit new places and meet new people, because these place-human interactions make me humble and feel small. Sooner or later, however, I may return “home” to Minnesota, my “birthplace” in America, if I can still tolerate the below-freezing weather with “Minnesota Nice.”

Erdos spoke with Mendis on November 23, 2022. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.