Diplomacy: the first line of defence

In response to our editorial last Sunday on our country’s latest confrontation with Venezuela, one blogger opined that “diplomacy is nothing without the backing of a credible military option.” He or she may be right, but only up to a certain point.

The 19th century Prussian military theorist, Carl von Clausewitz, coined the famous aphorism, “war is the continuation of politics by other means,” which Zhou Enlai, the first foreign minister and premier of the People’s Republic of China, equally famously paraphrased as “diplomacy is a continuation of war by other means.” In this particular respect, no country, not even a small, developing country like Guyana, needs to be completely defenceless in the face of a more powerful aggressor.

Sonny Ramphal, Guyana’s first foreign minister, recognised all too well, from the moment that we became an independent country, with both Venezuela and Suriname claiming different parts of our territory, that the integrity of our borders “compelled an international engagement,” as he explained to a CARICOM diplomatic workshop in 2009.  It is almost legend, notwithstanding the counter-narrative of the past 21 years, that he set about building a largely professional and capable foreign service, drawing on some of the finest intellectual talent available, to allow this country to punch above its weight in the international arena. Our lack of economic and military power was practically irrelevant.

Rashleigh Jackson, foreign minister from 1978 to 1990, continued the strategy of an activist foreign policy, focusing on building international friendships, as a deterrent to our neighbours’ unfriendly designs. And even as Guyana pursued an essentially multilateral strategy, it also engaged bilaterally with Venezuela, as elucidated by Mr Jackson in his 2003 book, Guyana’s Diplomacy, “along parallel tracks, one requiring vigilance for the defence of Guyana’s territorial integrity and a search by diplomatic and political means for a resolution of the controversy by peaceful means, and the other the promotion of economic and functional cooperation between different sectors of the Guyanese and Venezuelan society. In this enterprise, diplomacy was the first line of defence as well as an important vehicle for promoting cooperation.”

It is now a matter of record that two of the most serious threats to Guyana’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and future economic development were the expulsion of the CGX oil rig by Suriname in 2000 and the recent interception of the Teknik Perdana by the Venezuelan navy, both incidents in Guyanese waters. In both cases, the country was caught by surprise and, it would appear, so was the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

In a thoughtful and prescient article in the Guyana Review, in September 2007 (Whither Guyana’s foreign policy?), former ambassador Ronald Austin, in bemoaning the “decline of the Foreign Ministry” and the “diminution of expertise and experience,” resulting from a process of “restructuring” since 1992 and the marginalisation or ‘forcing out’ of experienced foreign service officers, issued a warning that is worth quoting at length:

“[I]t seems that this administration is content to go along with the Petro-Caribe arrangement without examining the implications for the border controversy and Venezuela’s real objective in the Caribbean region. What is troubling is that even though the desire to accommodate Suriname has led to unacceptable results, the administration seems blissfully unaware that taking the same course with Venezuela can be a short route to disaster. President Chávez is engaged in a major social reengineering of his society which could lead in the long run to opposition from other social and political forces. When this happens, as seems most likely, and he finds it necessary to turn his problems outwards, the Essequibo might become the object of such a policy.

And when Guyana turns to the Caribbean for support in such circumstances, the practitioners of our foreign policy will find that Caracas has already divided and weakened the Caribbean Community. A united front by the Caribbean Community against Venezuela does not seem to be a real possibility at the present time.”

It makes no difference that it is under President Nicolás Maduro that the current crisis has developed. The situation is pretty much as was predicted six years ago and it would appear that our policy of cooperation, accommodation even, was unaccompanied by the vigilance and broad diplomatic activity necessary to protect and secure this country’s vital interests. Moreover, as highlighted in our editorial of October 13 (Venezuelan arrest), our diplomatic cupboard is bare of influential friends.

Presumably, Foreign Minister Carolyn Rodrigues-Birkett is mobilising whatever resources she can call on nationally to counter the Venezuelan threat over the short to medium term. She would also be well advised to formulate a long-term strategy premised, among other things, on investing wisely in rebuilding Guyana’s diplomatic armoury.



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