In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election as President of the United States of America, there is genuine concern about what his Presidency will mean for the Caribbean. So far, there have been expressions of both optimism and pessimism emanating from the region.
Government officials have been guarded in their comments, recognizing that they will have to deal with the Trump administration come January; academics and former politicians have been less careful, voicing considerable fears and bemoaning the consequences of many of the policies that he said he would institute. The single thread running through the Caribbean responses is uncertainty.
Uncertainty is a game stopper. It causes governments and businesses to pause; to adopt a position of ‘wait and see’. No one takes bold steps, lest they backfire. At the same time, no one rocks the boat. But, this cannot be a time for pause by the Caribbean. Unlike any other administration in the past, nothing is predictable about what the Trump administration will actually do.
During the election campaign, he clawed-back from some of the strident positions he took, and he insisted that he would definitely implement others. However, as people in every Caribbean country know well, statements, pledges, promises, and threats made in election campaigns are often abandoned by politicians once the reality of office and its constraints crowd-in on them. Talk is cheap, until the reckoning comes when actual factors have to be taken into account, such as costs, the rule of law, treaty and contractual obligations and public opinion.
There are a few certainties in the present situation. One of them is that while Mr Trump won the presidency on the basis of the number of states he carried, he did not win the vote of the majority of American voters. Therefore, if he truly wants to lead a united America at home and abroad, he will have to listen to the voices that shouted out visions, ambitions and aspirations that were very different from his.
To try to ride rough shod over popular opinion is possible in autocratic states where the government holds sway over everything, including the media. The American Republic will not stomach autocracy easily, if at all. There are enough independent media, think-tanks, foundations, institutes, and associations dedicated to free thought, free speech and open criticism to keep any US administration on its toes even if, as in this case, one political party controls both the executive and legislative branches of government.
Caribbean governments are right to express the view that they will work with Mr Trump’s administration. It would be impractical, if not foolhardy, to adopt any other position. Donald Trump has been elected President in accordance with the rules and procedures of the American system. He is the President-elect and he will begin his 4-year period of government in January. What is important is for Caribbean governments to try to influence a Trump administration to pursue policies in which there is, at the very least, mutual benefit.
That work starts with the group of Caribbean Ambassadors in Washington DC. They have to make contact with the persons that Trump will appoint to his Cabinet and their staff members to identify the areas of mutual interest and concern; they also have to begin to educate them about the many challenges that the Caribbean faces, especially those that are caused by US government action.
Further, Caribbean ministers have to seek every opportunity to connect with US Cabinet members as part of the early education process about the Caribbean which, after all, lies in such close proximity to the US mainland and its Caribbean territories to be its soft underbelly.
The field will be crowded. Every ambassador in Washington, DC; every head of government and every minister of every country will be seeking to do the same. Constrained by small embassies and limited budgets, Caribbean countries will find the competition for the Trump administration’s attention to be daunting. But, too much is at stake to hold back from the critical and crucial work that has to be done.
One of the biggest challenges that faces the Caribbean, and one with dire consequences, is how to change Mr Trump’s campaign position on climate change which he believes to be a myth. Caribbean countries, subject year after year to frequent and intense natural disasters, know well that far from being a myth, climate change and its concomitant sea-level rise are facts that have already set back their economies and are now eroding their coastal areas and land mass.
If in three years’ time, the Trump administration does withdraw the US from the agreement of the Conference of the Parties (COP) on Climate Change, it will start a chain reaction with grave consequences for the survival of the region. For, if the US pulls out of the COP agreement, two other great polluters – China and India – will do the same, on the basis that if the US is continuing to industrialize despite pollution, why shouldn’t they. Other countries would follow the pattern; the COP agreement would unravel and the small island states and countries with low lying coasts in the Caribbean and the Pacific will be the victims.
There are, of course, other difficulties in the US-Caribbean relationship that did not start with Mr Trump. They include ‘de-risking’ and the withdrawal by US banks of correspondent relations with Caribbean banks – a situation that is a dagger at the heart of the region’s capacity to participate in the global finance and trading system. Starting a conversation with members of the Trump administration is essential to get the Caribbean’s concerns across.
The US has chosen its President and its Congressional representatives in accordance with its Constitution and its laws. That deal is done. This is not a time for hand-wringing and lamentation; it is a time for engagement, persuasion and negotiation in the region’s interest.
(Sir Ron Sanders is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the United States of America and the Organization of American States. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London and Massey College in the University of Toronto. Responses and previous commentaries: www.sirronaldsanders.com)