In recent weeks many articles have been released on the future of US Caribbean Foreign Policy relations. Among them include insightful contributions by Sir Ronald Sanders, Ambassador Curtis Ward and Professor Percy Hintzen. Together with other knowledgeable spokespersons, there are sentiments ranging from cautious to enthusiastic optimism that the Caribbean will be on the radar of the Biden-Harris administration. It has been generally agreed that immediate policies may revolve around cooperation in rolling out a coronavirus vaccine, tackling the climate resilience, and reinstating the principles of multilateralism and diversity. But there are also possible roadblocks like China, impediments to US defense strategy, the geopolitical environment and the chaotic signals of an unprecedented transition period that could pose challenges to rational diplomacy.
The blurred Domestic and Foreign Policy Lens
Optimism, therefore, must be placed in the context of a transition period in which outgoing President Trump and his allies attempt to delegitimize the Biden-Harris Government, disrupt American democratic processes and deepen partisan and racial polarization.
While the decline began well before the election of Donald Trump as President in 2016, he has severely damaged the norms, and to some extent the institutions on which American democracy is rooted. Most credible sources refer to his constant effusion of lies and disinformation; his relentless assaults on the media, the courts, the career civil service, and the political opposition; his efforts to politicize and demand personal loyalty from the military, the intelligence apparatus, and federal law enforcement; his misuse of presidential power and his quest for political and financial advantage are all glaring illustrations.
Many countries and regions like the Caribbean may no doubt have foreign policies cued up for recognition. But the maladies in USA domestic political arena that must engage the immediate attention of the Biden Presidency are likely to blunt the attention to all but the most important issues in the foreign policy agenda.
Coronavirus: ‘American exceptionalism that Kills’
The coronavirus as a foreign policy issue will pivot on the judicious and equitable roll out of the vaccine produced by multinational enterprises and anticipated to be available by the first quarter of 2021. This situation is much different to what other incoming Presidents faced. Writing in Foreign Policy magazine (November 18, 2020), James Palmer expands on the delusion of Donald Trump that American is ‘turning the corner’ even while the US government is failing while poorer countries flatten the curve. He starkly labels this trend as “American exceptionalism kills.” It is first and foremost what has to be overcome before an economic recovery can be achieved. Most Caribbean countries, especially those tourism dependent economies, will be severely affected by the new surge of the virus in the US and elsewhere just as they enter the peak season. They will require collaboration with the US to place emphasis on stopping the spread and to introduce robust tools to closure or reopening of their economies based on scientific models, both at source and destination countries.
Surviving COVID-19 and Revival of the Economy-a Global Issue
Economic revival is interconnected with measures to curb the COVID-19 spread. An IDB Report – “A Pandemic Surge and Evolving Policy Responses indicates that investing in infrastructure is one of the most viable options for an economic revival. The Report advocates that fiscal space will remain an important constraint, but as economic recovery emerges, additional resources would need to be channeled into productivity-boosting infrastructure projects to further stimulate near term growth, and long-term development. This is a useful template, touted by Biden during his presidential campaign and flags an essential policy conjuncture between the Caribbean and the USA. Collective and unified approaches to advocate for debt relief , forgiveness and resilience are necessary for the Caribbean to insert its economic priorities linked to the COVID response. The Caribbean with the support of the US has the opportunity to make its case in various international theaters such as the UN and the G7, the World Bank and IMF. There are also opportunities where Caribbean countries are involved in the hierarchy of leading multilateral agencies. Guyana now holds the chair of the G77 and China while St Vincent and the Grenadines is a members of the UN Security Council. Not using these avenues to engage will be a missed opportunity.
On the same page with US on Climate Resilience
Climate Change linked to economic revival is seen as a basis for rekindling US global leadership. Biden’s appointment of former Secretary of State John Kerry to lead US re-entry into the Paris Agreement is a strong indication of this intention. The US-Caribbean Resilience partnership provides a practical entry point for the region with its focus on disaster management, risk reduction, disaster reliance funding. Based on its geographic location, the Caribbean may yield longer term benefits by ensuring that its region-wide management integrates energy policy, disaster management and climate change impacts.https://www.cepal.org/en/publications/45098-enhancement-resilience-disasters-and-climate-change-caribbean-through
What is important is that the template tallies with a well-constructed US-Caribbean Resilience Partnership Working Group in Barbados (October 2020) to which CARICOM States are committed. https://www.state.gov/successful-u-s-caribbean-resilience-partnership-working-group-in-barbados-concludes-with-9-5-million-in-disaster-resilience-funding/. This partnership illustrates that the Caribbean does not need to reinvent the wheel but rather to chart a constructive path to ensure that its priorities are included in the global platform in the reconstruction of US’ global leadership.
The China Equation: A US-Caribbean Balancing Act
China is an important pivot in the US- Caribbean foreign policy relations. Today, they are more inherently hostile than during Obama’s presidency. As a recent Times story puts it, China has adopted “increasingly aggressive and at times punitive policies that force countries to play by its rules.” Trump challenged China’s ambitions in ways that his predecessors did not. He treated it as America’s most serious threat since the Soviet Union during the Cold War. While Biden’s approach in principle may vary only slightly from Trump’s, it will most likely be implemented through softer diplomacy. Trump’s posture, is graphically referred by Chinese economist and London School of Economic Professor, Key Jin as ‘a strategic gift to China’. Biden will no doubt be more concerned with building alliances with Japan, other South East Asia-Pacific, African and European states, all of which are worried about China’s rise. Many of these states are locked into China’s development leadership captured during the diminished engagement by the US. In this context, a concerted Caribbean policy is more likely to yield positive results for the region by allowing maneuverability in engaging both China and the USA simultaneously.
Defense Strategy, Geopolitical Environment and Diversity
It is clear from the early cluster of Cabinet picks by President-elect Biden, the priority he places on forging a robust U.S. defense strategy and shaping the geopolitical environment. These have to do not only with China’s rise but with many unanswered but urgent questions: how Russia’s resurgence intersect and challenge U.S. interests? how quickly can the bridge building with NATO occur? how will Iran and North Korea disrupt and destabilize US’ regional defense strategies? How will a range of non-state actors affect the defense landscape? What surprises or havoc will Trump reek to destabilize US defense strategy? What opportunities for U.S. defense and security exist in this complex environment? Where does the Caribbean fit?
The US Representative to the UN, Thomas-Greenfield penned a piece along with William J. Burns in an article "The Transformation of Diplomacy: How to Save the State Department" in the Foreign Affairs November/December 2020 issue, provides another preview of the new thrust in US’ foreign policy strategy. It advocates that "to start, the United States needs a top-to-bottom diplomatic surge. The Trump administration's unilateral diplomatic disarmament is a reminder that it is much easier to break than to build. The country doesn't have the luxury of waiting for a generational replenishment, marking time as new recruits slowly work their way up the ranks."
The indications are that the Caribbean and others countries in the South may benefit from the diversification in the ranks of the Biden foreign policy team and the staff composition at the State Department. They are likely to result in greater appreciation of the needs and virtues rather than dismissive ridicule of the Trump administration.
Closer to home it is unlikely that the US position on Venezuela is likely to be different except in tone. Yet it is most likely to revert to the rapprochement with Cuba which again will signal a convergence of interests between US and the Caribbean.
While not intending to intervene in the policies of a sovereign state, the close ties between US and the Caribbean make it appropriate for its states to join the ranks supporting the call for US electoral reform. After all, any disarray in United States domestic politics tends to propel ripple effects on global diplomatic waters. The US is almost alone among major democracies in taking so long to install a new head of state. The image of a divided nation has been exacerbated by the petulant travesty of Donald Trump who after three weeks has yet to concede the elections he lost. In France, the president takes office within ten days of the election. In the United Kingdom, the moving trucks arrive at 10 Downing Street the morning after the incumbent loses. So too in Caribbean nations where peaceful electoral outcomes are the hallmarks of their adherence to democratic principles. This is fully illustrated in the recent ‘COVID 19 elections in St Kitts and Nevis, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, St Vincent and the Grenadines and Belize. That the United States takes two and a half months is reasonable in times of a normal transition. But the abnormality of Trump and Trumpism is likely to have lasting disruptive effects on US Democracy. This looks good only in comparison to Mexico, where the transition lasts an arduous five months and in the case in Guyana that ironically received threats of sanctions from the Trump administration.
Edward and Auriol Greene Directors, GOFAD.