The Geopolitical Justification for Caricom in the 21st Century

In the Diaspora

By Saieed Khalil

Editor’s Note: A few weeks ago, former Prime Minister of Jamaica PJ Patterson gave a feature address to the Rotary Club of Georgetown, titled, ‘Cri de Coeur – Lest we wither on the vine’, in which he outlined significant challenges to the regional integration movement and renewed calls for its intensification. A few weeks before this event, we received this essay from Saieed Khalil, an 18 year old, third year economics major at the University of Guyana. It seems fitting to carry it here, for readers at home and in the diaspora, as it represents the voice of a new generation. Disturbingly, Khalil’s assessment shows in fact how little we have moved in the decades since the founding Treaty of Chaguaramas.

20130218diasporaAmidst the dormancy that has come to characterize Caricom, arises a near constant stream of commentary bemoaning, dissecting, and correcting the myriad deficiencies underlying the Caribbean region’s longest-running integration movement. Understanding the technical issues besetting regional integration is valuable; however,as it is, the discourse on Caricom remains the vocation of a very well-informed few. The discourse needs to be broadened if popular opinion is to be marshaled towards ending the years of policy paralysis in collective regional decision making. For the idea of regional integration to resonate among Caribbean peoples, a narrative that inspires and mobilizes is needed.

The notion of regional integration has survived a multitude of travails: from the breakup of the West Indian Federation half a century ago, through various bouts of Cold War-inspired upheavals during the post-independence era to the turn of the millennium revival of the trade liberalization movement with the advent of the World Trade Organization. The forces of necessity that held the region together in the past are the same forces that will continue to bind the region together in the future. With the onset of rapidly deepening global economic integration and the wider forces of globalization, the region faces what is, arguably, its most complex task yet to retain its political and economic sovereignty. However, where there is significant challenge, therein lies the greatest opportunity.

For want of leverage

The rationale for regional integration has been as much political as economic. Political union, to whatever extent, has always been desirous for the disarmingly simple reason that political union would lend the Caribbean collective much needed clout in international forums. Fifty years after Federation, this rationale for political union is no less relevant and has gained even greater traction in this epoch of global interdependency, and the near simultaneous economic rise of multiple emerging powers. Both financial and political clout are necessary for effective international representation. Were regional countries to jointly finance common consular representation, and common regional delegations to international forums, it is more than likely that the region would project its collective presence more widely, and in a more cost-effective manner: a sort of economies of scale in diplomacy, if you may. More effective international representation takes on heightened importance as the region grapples to win world backing to counter its gravest existential threat yet: climate change.

This paucity in effective representation of developing countries’ interests at world climate change talks was outlined in a study highlighted by Reuters last year, according to which developing countries were disadvantaged in the talks by virtue of their being unable to afford fielding large delegations to participate in the lengthy, “multiple strands of negotiations”.

From geese-like formations to harried hens

To its credit, the region has demonstrated some measure of political unity in the area of trade policy coordination with the Caribbean Regional Negotiating Machinery and the Council for Trade and Economic Development (COTED) serving as testimony to the strides made in this regard. However, the Caribbean needs to broaden its foreign policy coordination beyond trade negotiations and into other areas since, economic constraints aside, the region’s limited international clout can also be attributed to a deficiency in “leadership capital”. The Caribbean has long ceased to demonstrate the sort of progressiveness which would uplift its political standing in international circles. In a keynote address at Anton de Kom University of Suriname in 2012, Sir Shridath Ramphal observed that gone are the days “when as Caribbean people we were the first to daringly bring the ‘Non-Aligned Movement’ to the Western Hemisphere, when we pioneered rejection of the ‘two China’ policy at the United Nations and recognized the People’s Republic; when, together, we broke the Western diplomatic embargo of Cuba; when we forced withdrawal of the Kissinger plan for a ‘Community of the Western Hemisphere’; when we were in the front rank (both intellectual and diplomatic) of the effort for a New International Economic Order; when from this region, bending iron wills, we gave leadership in the struggle against ‘apartheid’ in Southern Africa; when we inspired the creation of the ACP and kept the fallacy of ‘reciprocity’ in trade at bay for 25 years; when we forced grudging acceptance in the United Nations and in the Commonwealth that ‘small states’ required special and differential treatment[.] In all this, and more, for all our size we stood tall; we commanded respect, if not always endearment. We were Caribbean people being ourselves.”

These days, the foreign policy of Caricom nations, both individually and collectively, is comedic at the same time it is saddening. Unarguably, the most egregious recent foreign policy misstep occurred last November at the United Nations General Assembly during the vote on a resolution to upgrade Palestinian status to that of a non-member observer. With its own iconic history of struggles against the colonialists’ forces of dehumanization and for nationhood, Caricom nations might have been expected to act in concert and in solidarity with the Palestinian people in their quest for statehood alongside Israel. What happened instead was a conscious decision by CARICOM’s UN permanent representatives that each country be let to vote as it so chose. The disunity manifested itself in an inglorious split¸ among the Caricom bloc, in the vote, with 12 countries voting for the upgrade, and three abstaining. The complete lack of rationalization for this foreign policy incoherence was made all the more stark when John Goddard, the UN Ambassador for Barbados (which abstained along with Haiti and The Bahamas) declined to offer an explanation for Barbados’s diplomatic cop-out.

The Real Costs of Foreign Policy Incohesion

The present-day agenda of foreign policymakers appears to encompass the disarmingly simply principle, “follow the money” – not a careful courting of market spaces and capital sets, mind you. As noted earlier, the region once stood resolutely behind the notion of a Taiwan reunification with China (the so-called One-China policy). In the ’90s and the 2000s, however, Taiwan went on a shopping spree for recognition in the Caribbean, doling out gifts and development aid in return for recognition and severance of ties with China (right to self-determination, anyone?). In a case of dollar diplomacy gone wild, an immense bidding war played out in the region with China firing its most recent salvo with a US$1B round of largesse at the 2011 China-Caribbean Economic and Trade Cooperation Forum.

Though eerily amusing, this capricious economic diplomacy can and does backfire with very tangible consequences, as the Grenada experience can testify. When Grenada severed ties with Taiwan in 2005 in return for Chinese aid, it had no idea that nearly a decade later its diplomatic whimsicality would come back to haunt the Caribbean island. In 2012, it became widely known that Taiwan was granted a legal injunction in the US jurisdiction against Grenada after the latter had defaulted on a US$25 million Taiwanese loan taken to build the Maurice Bishop International Airport. By order of the court, fees due to the airport were diverted into an escrow account to repay the creditors and the prospect of a shutdown of the airport was raised. The Grenadian economy, dependent on the tourism industry, hung precariously in the balance. Why did the Taiwanese resort to the courts rather than pursue debt restructuring talks with the Grenadian gov’t? Did Taiwan still nurse a grudge over the 2005 incident? Apparently so.

“We think some of this [the legal imbroglio surrounding the default] is due to the way the switch [of diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to Beijing] was undertaken,” says Richard Simon, a press secretary to current Grenada Prime Minister Tillman Thomas, in remarks made in March 2012 to the Christian Science Monitor. “At the time it [the switch] was not done properly. It was kind of done in the dark.”

In the absence of a clear agenda of economic diplomacy, Caricom nations fall victim to the Neanderthal “grab it while you can” approach to development aid with little thought to the ramifications. In the process of quickly snapping up soft loans and grants, Caricom nations find themselves racking up huge debt burdens, spending the easy money on ill-timed (and, at times, ill-conceived) projects and entangling themselves, as in the Grenada case, in uncomfortable alliances from which the extrications can be costly.

So what’s it going to be?

Given the economic and political costs of going it alone, Caricom nations should find it immensely feasible to reenergize their foreign policy coordination. Because of a fastidious obsession with “sovereignty”, however, policymakers at the national level are not inclined to concede jurisdiction over even some aspects of foreign policy coordination to a quasi-autonomous central Caricom body that can help in harmonizing the region’s collective international relations. This reluctance on the part of individual states to invest some of their prized sovereignty in a common regional approach will only yield to the long term erosion of political and economic sovereignty of Caricom states and leave the region’s states – individually and collectively – vulnerable to very real existential threats.


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