Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by this author are their own and do not represent the official position of the Barbados Today Inc.
by Dr. Peter Laurie
Most of us in the Caribbean probably expect very little from the new Biden Administration, simply because we recognise the enormity of both the domestic and foreign policy challenges he faces.Apple-converted-space”> We might be forgiven for concluding that the Caribbean, far from being on the front or back burners, is not even on the stove. I share that view.
Indeed, as the Head of the Barbados Foreign Service for ten years, my perhaps cynical take on American policy to the Caribbean was that we might expect one of two options:
benign neglect or malign attention. I always thought the former was preferable.
But something has given me pause. I had originally imaginedApple-converted-space”> Biden as a transitional president who would not rock the boat; a middle-of-the-road, nice old guy. But after his first hundred days, I now believe his presidency might just be a transformational one, which is exactly what his country and the world need at this juncture in our history.
The one event that changed my mind, oddly enough, was his decision to withdraw all American forces from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021. The safe decision was to do what all his predecessors have done: nothing.
That is what most of the foreign policy and defence establishment, mired in their blinkered conventional thinking, would have advised, and according to reports, that is indeed what they did. The pushback against his decision has been strong and comes from both conservative and liberal sides. Both Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton, two former Secretaries of State, have reportedly dissented.
One former Pentagon official under Obama even called the decision “strategically stupid, a humanitarian disaster and morally reprehensible.”The general consensus of those opposed to Biden’s decision is that any withdrawal should be ‘conditions-based’. What does that mean? Never. Because conditions will never favour a withdrawal.
Of course, those who argue that the Taliban will take over and women will be repressed and human rights will be violated are probably correct. The fact is that Afghanistan is presently a basket case when it comes to democracy, the rule of law, and the observance of human rights, and will continue to be for some time to come. But then so are many other countries. The US (or NATO) has no obligation to unilaterally ‘police or save the world’. This is the purpose of multilateral institutions like the UN, but that’s a different discussion.
Biden’s decision showed toughness and vision. So too did the proposals he put before Congress for ending the pandemic, restarting the American economy, and addressing social and economic inequality, not to mention institutional racism and climate change. These are big, bold and far-sighted policy aspirations. All this leads me to believe that American policy towards the Caribbean might possibly be as innovative. The world is in the throes of turbulent uncertainty crying out for vision and innovation.
Capitalism is being transformed from the conventional and false assumptions of neoliberal economics and ‘trickle down’ theories of economic growth and organisation, to a market economy in which the state plays an entrepreneurial role, ensures economic and social equity, while spreading wealth through pre-distribution rather than re-distribution. There are many economists exploring the changes, but two authors of note are Mariana Mazzucato and Kate Raworth.
The second major disruption is digitalisation. This is transforming not just the way we communicate, but also the way we live, do business, and relate to each other as human beings.
The third disrupter of our complacency is the growing awareness of the need for reparatory justice for the victims of colonialism and racism. This is ‘good trouble’.
And the fourth disrupter is climate change.
The Caribbean is not exempt from these disruptions. Indeed, the latter especially impacts those of us who live in the Caribbean archipelago.
All this means that the US-Caribbean relationship must itself be transformational. The Caribbean Sea is an area of vital importance to the US in the uncertain times in which we live. It cannot be ‘same old, same old’.
What do I mean by ‘same old, same old’? Traditionally and conventionally, the US has been willing over the decades to offer financial and technical support for interdiction of the illegal traffic in drugs, arms, and humans, strengthening law enforcement and the administration of justice especially in respect of money laundering and organised criminal and terrorist activity. In addition, there is the usual expressed desire to see increased American private investment so as to remove the conditions for greater unemployment, crime, and, most important, the desire to immigrate to the US.
Don’t get me wrong. These have been valuable contributions. But at the present inflection point in history, both the US and CARICOM need new transformational strategies for themselves and for their special relationship.
First and foremost, the strengthening of CARICOM as a single economy. How the US might assist in this is not readily apparent, and would in any event have to be worked out and agreed to by both sides.
• Top of the list ought to be a single digital space including cheap and fast broadband and cybersecurity;
• Integrated management of the security and resources of the Caribbean Sea for resilience and sustainable blue growth;
• Intra-regional transport especially by sea (fast ferries); and nutrition security (fast delivery of regionally grown fruits and vegetables rather than processed foods loaded with sugar and salt).
I would urge all regional leaders to go to their desks and open the bottom drawer where they have stuffed the report of the CARICOM Commission on the Economy 9.58 Speeding up the Caribbean, dust it off, and read the damn thing. Incidentally, the 9.58 refers to the world record for the 100 metres held by our own Usain Bolt.
Other issues on which collaboration might be mutually beneficial are: reform of the international financial institutions to take account when allocating concessional resources of the unique vulnerabilities of our countries to climate change and natural disasters; energy security focused on renewable sources; and the building of resilience.
Besides strengthening CARICOM, a wider problem for the US-Caribbean partnership to work together to resolve is a negotiated and peaceful end to the horrific situation confronting the people of Venezuela under a regime that has destroyed their economy and trampled democratic rights and freedoms.
And as far-fetched as it may seem, the partnership can help the world come to terms with the reconciliation and healing that reparatory justice requires for the victims of colonialism, genocide, enslavement, and indenture.
Of course, if some in the foreign policy establishment in the US have their way, the Caribbean would be simply a theatre of rivalry with China, with CARICOM countries being asked to choose between the two. This would be totally counterproductive. CARICOM countries have friendly and cooperative relations with several Asian countries including China, Japan and India. Who can forget that when wealthyApple-converted-space”> countries were refusing to sell us Covid-19 vaccines, India donated 100,000 to Barbados?Apple-converted-space”> These relations are important to CARICOM and they would bitterly resent being asked to choose.
Indeed, it is absurd to suggest that the US has to compete with China or anyone else in the Caribbean. We have a special relationship based on shared historical experiences; shared values of human rights, the rule of law and democratic freedoms; and shared aspirations. This is an enduring partnership, not a transactional contract.
Most of all, Biden has an opportunity by supporting Caribbean integration to show that multilateralism works and that democratic governance can deliver economic and social benefits to its citizens far better than autocracies.
Together we can build back better.
Dr. Peter Laurie is a retired permanent secretary and head of the Foreign Service who once served as Barbados’ Ambassador to the United States.