Alicia Nicholls

It has been generally recognized by most Caribbean Community (CARICOM) countries, at least in principle, that a coordinated voice on foreign policy issues endows our small countries with bargaining power beyond our size constraints. Indeed, foreign policy coordination is one of the four pillars of CARICOM, with economic integration, human and social development, and security being the other three. However, given the current and increasing discord among CARICOM countries on key international developments, is CARICOM foreign policy coordination still a priority, or is it merely a pipe dream?

An exercise of foreign policy is an exercise of a State’s sovereignty. In general terms, a State’s foreign policy is its strategy in interacting with other States, and is influenced by what that State determines to be its strategic national interests, values, goals and priorities. The key words here are “national interests”, and they may be underpinned by ideology, pragmatism or a combination of the two. A State’s foreign policy is not static, and may change depending on the ideology of the Government in power (for example, whether right-wing, left-wing or centrist) and changing national interests, values, goals and priorities.

As a State’s foreign policy is determined by its national interests, this means that a regional coordinated foreign policy inevitably necessitates the strategic alignment of the national interests of the countries concerned.

Rationale behind the goal of a coordinated CARICOM foreign policy

From as early as the days of CARIFTA (the Caribbean Free Trade Area), the predecessor of CARICOM, the founding architects of the Caribbean regional integration project viewed a coordinated foreign policy as a life raft for assisting our small, then newly independent Caribbean States, to navigate often hostile international Cold War waters in which powerful big country sharks would prey on us little small state ‘sprats’.

Our founding fathers, and later the drafters of the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas which established the CARICOM Single Market and Economy (CSME), saw a unified foreign policy position as an insurance policy against bullying tactics and the politics of ‘divide and conquer’ – the practice by major powers of playing off CARICOM States against each other, or picking them off one by one through inducements such as aid and other financial support in order to secure votes on hemispheric and international issues. It recognises the old adage of “strength in numbers”. For example, Article 6(h) of the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas states as one of the Community’s objectives “enhanced co-ordination of Member States’ foreign and [foreign] economic policies”.

Indeed, there have been several instances where Caribbean countries have successfully leveraged their collective voice and numeric strength to their own benefit. Comprising nearly half of the membership of the Organisation of American States (OAS), CARICOM countries are a crucial voting bloc which powerful countries deem necessary to court for voting support on critical hemispheric issues. In the United Nations (UN), CARICOM countries are a smaller but still critical voting bloc.

But do CARICOM member States’ national interests really align to such an extent that a coordinated foreign policy on all issues is still (or was ever) achievable? CARICOM comprises fourteen independent countries and one British Overseas Territory (Montserrat). This necessitates balancing national interests, values, goals and priorities which do not always necessarily align. Indeed, CARICOM countries, while all small States, have their differences, whether in terms of language, geography, economic structure, population, resource endowment or size. All of these factors impact on each State’s perceived national interests, values, goals and priorities.

Foreign policy coordination has been successful in areas like climate change where Caribbean countries see their national interests as inextricably linked. But even on this important issue, there is some policy incongruence. On the one hand, CARICOM countries have demanded more urgent global action to fight climate change, while on the other, some CARICOM member States are still pursuing hydrocarbon exploration and exploitation, as part of their economic development strategy.

There have also been increasing (and frankly, embarrassing) instances of CARICOM foreign policy disunity, from as far back as the infamous US Ship Rider issue in the 1990s, the inability to unite around a single candidate for Commonwealth Secretary General in 2015, to as recently as the UN vote on the US’ controversial motion to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel (instead of Tel Aviv). There is also the still unresolved issue of the region’s position on the One China Policy – some States recognize the People’s Republic of China, while a few still recognize the Republic of China (Taiwan).

The Venezuela Humanitarian Crisis

The latest example of foreign policy disunity relates to the devolving political, economic and humanitarian crisis in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela – a country which, despite some differences, has been an important friend to the region in terms of aid and other support. I highlight the Venezuela crisis not just because it is one of the biggest hemispheric crises affecting the region, but it is a nuanced issue which clearly shows the divide in CARICOM countries’ national interests, and hence their diverging positions on the perceived solution.

The suffering of the Venezuelan people wrought by the incompetence of the Maduro regime, and made no better by western countries’ economic sanctions, have caused spill-over security, health, economic and other risks for neighbouring countries. According to the UN, over three million Venezuelans have fled that South American country since the start of the crisis. Many have migrated (illegally in many cases) to neighbouring countries, including Trinidad & Tobago. It is, therefore, in CARICOM countries’ interest for the humanitarian crisis to be solved. However, CARICOM countries differ on what they believe the solution should be.

On January 10, 2019, the OAS Permanent Council approved a resolution not to recognize the legitimacy of the second term of current Venezuelan President, Nicolas Maduro Moros. CARICOM’s disunity on this issue was again on full display for the world to see. The Bahamas, Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica and Saint Lucia were among the 19 OAS member states which voted to approve the resolution. Dominica, St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Suriname were among the 6 (including of course, Venezuela) which voted against the resolution. St. Kitts and Nevis, Trinidad and Tobago, Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados and Belize abstained, while Grenada was the only OAS member State which was absent for the vote.

What explains this disunity? To my mind, mainly national interests, exacerbated by the fact that CARICOM remains an inter-governmental organisation. For instance, Guyana is currently embroiled in a long-standing border dispute with Venezuela, which has been inflamed under the current Maduro regime. This may explain Guyana’s vote in favour of the resolution. Ditto could be said for Jamaica which had recently decided to reacquire Venezuela-owned shares in Petrojam. On the other hand, some other CARICOM Member States are members of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) and recipients of assistance from Venezuela through, inter alia, the PetroCaribe Initiative. This may explain why they voted against the resolution. National interests not only dictate a country’s position on an issue, but are what determine whether a CARICOM member State will change its vote based on the promise of aid or support.

Moreover, while the majority of CARICOM member States appear to have adopted a position of non-intervention, some member States (the Bahamas and Haiti) have decided to follow major Western powers in recognizing Opposition leader, Juan Guaido, as interim president of Venezuela.

Given the region’s friendship with Venezuela and the implications of the ongoing crisis for many CARICOM countries, it is commendable that some CARICOM governments have assumed a leadership role on this issue. Some CARICOM governments have vociferously challenged the pronouncements of the OAS Secretary General His Excellency Luis Almagro as not speaking for all OAS member states. A CARICOM delegation led by current CARICOM chairman Dr. the Honourable Timothy Harris, Prime Minister of St. Kitts & Nevis, recently initiated a visit to the UN to discuss the crisis. It should be noted, however, that not all CARICOM governments took part in this meeting, which shows that even on this very important issue, the region still cannot sing from the same hymn sheet.

Is a coordinated CARICOM foreign policy merely a pipe dream?

There appears, at least in rhetoric, a renewed interest by CARICOM leaders in advancing the regional integration process, of which foreign policy coordination has traditionally been a major pillar. This has been aided no doubt by the initiative taken by Jamaica in the commissioning and publication of the Report of the Commission to Review Jamaica’s Relations within the CARICOM and CARIFORUM Frameworks, more popularly referred to as the ‘Golding Report’, and the reinvigorated leadership displayed by Barbados under its new Prime Minister (lead for the CSME in CARICOM’s quasi-cabinet).

The Golding Report identified the glaring failures in foreign policy coordination as one of several challenges currently confronting the regional integration process. The report rightly cites several of the issues which account for this policy disunity, including offers of aid in exchange for votes, lack of political will, inability of diplomats to get clear policy instructions from their capitals, and of course, national interests. As such, recommendation 26 of the Report is to “review the procedures for foreign policy consultation and coordination in order to avoid as far as possible, the types of conflicts and embarrassing positions that have emerged from time to time among CARICOM members depriving it of the collective force it is capable of exerting”.

However, I would go further. In this time of increased introspection by our leaders on the regional integration process, I think there needs to be reconsideration of whether a coordinated foreign policy is really an achievable goal for the region or are we merely chasing a lofty pipe dream which our diverging national interests, values, goals and priorities may be unable to bridge. Indeed, can we really say that the region is any closer to a unified position on the One China policy? Moreover, given the current ideological divide in the region on the issue of citizenship by investment programmes (CIPs), can we really mount an effective and unified CARICOM approach against the EU’s targeting of CIPs in the region?

Let me clarify that I staunchly support our founding fathers’ conviction that there is strength in unified foreign policy positions. Indeed, the enormity of the global challenges confronting the region, whether from Brexit, the possibility of another global downturn, Venezuela, rising populist and nationalist sentiments internationally, blacklisting etc, means that a unified CARICOM front, to the extent possible, should be the desired default position for helping us navigate these challenges.

On the flipside, I also recognise that we must be honest with ourselves. We must face the reality that the goal of a coordinated foreign policy on all issues may be too ambitious given divergent national interests which have accounted for the increasing track record of foreign policy disunity. Indeed, these all too public displays of foreign policy disunity only serve to undermine the Caribbean public’s faith in the sincerity of our leaders’ commitment to the regional integration process, and to empower CARICOM-skeptics. We, perhaps, are setting ourselves up for failure.

An alternative and more achievable approach, therefore, could be for CARICOM member states to clearly identify specific foreign policy priority areas on which they would strive to present a unified policy position. The European Union (EU), for instance, has sought to harmonise its foreign policy (Common Foreign and Security Policy) primarily around security and human rights issues. For CARICOM, priority areas for foreign policy coordination could be more straightforward “low-hanging fruits” such as foreign trade, security, the loss of correspondent banking relationships due to de-risking by global banks, tax issues, and climate change. These are areas in which a unified CARICOM foreign policy position is perhaps most achievable and most effective.

I appreciate that my view may be unpopular and differs from traditional orthodoxy, but in these times of increased economic and geopolitical uncertainty, the continued desirability of pursuing a coordinated foreign policy is an issue which CARICOM will need to resolve and do so quickly, even if we decide we will only coordinate on certain foreign policy issues.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B., is an international trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.