Guest editorial: The new Minister of Foreign Affairs

It would hardly be surprising if E.B John’s letter published in the Stabroek News of Saturday May 4 (`A total ingénue in important position of Foreign Minister’) were to be set upon by our increasingly assertive gender-sensitive constituency for the reason that its reference to the new Foreign Affairs Minister as a “total ingénue,” appears dismissive of her in a gender-biased sort of way. That apart, the writer raises the broader and decidedly relevant issue of Minister Cummings’ considerable foreign policy experience deficit and how this might impact her handling of the portfolio, particularly given the fact of Guyana’s impending engagement with International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the matter of the Guyana-Venezuela Territorial Controversy. 

What we can be certain of is that whatever the extent to which she is attended by experienced ‘minders’ Minister Cummings will still have to re-direct her own intellectual energies to substantive foreign policy matters since, as the subject Minister she will be expected and, one suspects, would wish to demonstrate a functional understanding of at least the key foreign policy issues, the boundary controversy clearly being one of those. In that respect all of Guyana  have a duty to wish her well.

September, incidentally, is just around the corner and assuming that she will be attending the United Nations General Assembly, the single most important forum in multilateral diplomacy, it will be necessary for her to have some awareness of at least the critical currents in contemporary global affairs as well as possess an understanding of the key issues underpinning Guyana’s foreign policy pursuits if she is to make a mark on that stage. 

E.B. John’s letter apart, the editorial published in the Stabroek News’ Sunday May 5th edition alludes to the Ministry’ of Foreign Affairs’ broader foreign policy experience deficit against the backdrop of our current demanding diplomatic duties as these relate to the unfolding political situation in Venezuela and how this might impact on relations with our western neighbour in the period immediately ahead and by extension on what might be the need to press our diplomatic resources into service at some point in time in the foreseeable future with a considerable measure of urgency. 

It is the coincidence between our experience deficit in the area of diplomacy, on the one hand and the appointment of Dr. Cummings as Minister of Foreign Affairs that appears to lie at the heart of the E.B. John letter and as well, at the heart of the thinking of many Guyanese who may be pondering Dr. Cummings’ appointment. Frankly, while there is nothing wrong with that inquiring kind of public response to the appointment it is only fair that some attempt be made to place some context on the ‘bare bones’ of the Ministry’s particular challenge now that it has been assigned a new Foreign Affairs Minister.

Perusal of the resource base at the level of our current diplomatic service will reveal that only three of our serving Heads of Mission (Ambassadors Miles, (Venezuela) Insanally, (Washington) and Hales, Brussels) can be considered career diplomats, based on the length of time that they have served in the Ministry and the experiences that they have garnered over the years. The others, all of whom, one assumes, may be capable functionaries in their own right, entered the Ministry either on account of reassignment from another state agency or else, as political appointees, that is to say, nominated from outside the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 

 Here, it is necessary to point out that experience, in the realm of the diplomacy does not, by any stretch of the imagination, apply solely or even primarily to levels of academic study in the related disciplines. It speaks much more to the range of what one might call raw experiences which a diplomat may have had in the various realms of bilateral and multilateral diplomacy including the multiplicity of highly specialized issues that fall within those realms. Frankly, it frequently takes many years (how many, varies from one person to another) to deliver a capable diplomat.

 Whomsoever else the President had chosen as his new Foreign Affairs Minister, there would have, inevitably, had to have been some measure of hand-holding’/coaching  and coming up with a name (a genuinely suitable one, that is) to fill the breach would have been a demanding task. That is the unchallengeable reality of the situation.

One might argue, of course, that President Granger himself might have been a strong candidate for the post of Foreign Minister though an already demanding presidential agenda coupled with what is likely to be his present state of physical recuperation might have caused him to rule himself out. This, one might add, is pure speculation.

Recall that the resignation of Rashleigh Jackson as Foreign Minister in 1990 would have imposed upon President Hoyte a somewhat similar set of circumstances. He was, however, fortunate to have had on hand the experienced Dr. Cedric Grant, to fill that gap. Even then, the need to maintain an experienced diplomatic presence in Washington where Dr. Grant was serving as Ambassador, meant that he was assigned the title of Special Advisor on Foreign Affairs (functionaries in the Ministry commonly referred to Dr. Grant as ‘the Safa’) whilst retaining his substantive position as Ambassador in Washington. Here, the point should be made that contrary to the insinuation in the E.B John letter that there may not have been “any review of relevant experience within the Ministry” to find someone who might have been “invited to act,” President Granger simply did not have at his disposal those options that were open to President Hoyte almost two decades ago. 

It should, as well, be borne in mind that those career diplomats serving as Heads of Mission abroad (Cedric Grant, James Matheson, Noel Sinclair, Cheryl Miles el al) at the time of the 1992 change of political administration and who had, by then, long come to the fore as experienced and well-regarded diplomats, and each of whom, arguably, may have made a capable Foreign Minister, were,  in one circumstance or another, dispersed (Mrs. Miles did serve for a period, post-1992 in the new administration and returned more recently to serve as Ambassador to Caracas in the current dispensation) in what professionals in the Ministry saw as a ‘purge’ by the PPP/C’s first Minister of Foreign Affairs, Clement Rohee, whose suitability or otherwise for the position was to become the subject of protracted and carping public discourse for the duration of his tenure. Frankly, while there may be some evidence that Mr. Rohee did in some respects, learn on the job, it was the considered opinion in the Ministry that his raw and unrelenting political instincts worked at variance with the obligations of running a Ministry which, by its very nature, was ill-suited to having to embrace, simultaneously, the divisive underpinnings that attended party politics, foreign policy, unquestionably, being a discipline which, by definition, could be effective only if it were encrusted in an unbreakable chalice of national cohesiveness. Many analysts of foreign policy during the post-1992 period still hold strongly to the view that Mr. Rohee’s schismatic political instincts seriously eroded the culture of professionalism that his predecessors had built and that the requisite repair job is still in the making. While the relationship between the Minister (the political functionary) and the Diplomats/Foreign Service Officers (the professional functionaries) may have been repaired somewhat during the tenure of Carolyn Rodrigues as Foreign Minister, what is still strongly felt, is that the tier of Foreign Service professionals whom, in 1992, were sitting on the shoulders of their seniors and poised to replace them on the diplomatic front line, were mostly scattered to winds by Mr. Rohee’s incremental ‘purge’ of the Ministry.

If, therefore, there is painfully little evidence that the professional restoration required of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in order to better position it to deliver effectively on its weighty responsibilities is still to gather any great momentum, that perspective must be balanced against the trials which the Ministry has had to endure and the consequences that have derived therefrom over several years. Minister Cummings already appears to have taken the position that for whatever period she holds the post of Foreign Minister her accomplishments will depend heavily on the benefit of experienced support (a position that redounds to her considerable credit) and we will need to see evidence that the support and guidance is forthcoming, particularly given the critical importance of the issues that appear on our list of immediate foreign policy priorities, not least what appears to be the approaching political boiling point in Caracas.   

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