I spent 30 years in the Barbados diplomatic service and when it came to relations with the United States, my realistic view, from the perspective of a small state in the Caribbean, was that from the best and worst, you could expect from Washington benign neglect or malign attention. I always opted for benign neglect.
The Trump administration represents a radical departure from longstanding American relations with the world. Indeed, if more neo-fascists like Trump and Brexit hardliners come to power all over Europe, joining such jingoistic dictators like Russia’s Putin and Turkey’s Erdogan, then we can expect to see the most dangerous period in international affairs since the 1930s, with xenophobic hysteria and mindless nationalism ruling.
For sure, Trump and Bannon, his chief neo-fascist strategist, seem intent on destroying the international order that was so painstakingly crafted after the Second World War. We seem headed back to a dog-eat-dog world in which might is always right.
Having said that, I’m not an idealist when it comes to international relations. Both my studies and my career have taught me that there is little morality in relations between nations, and that the pursuit of national interest overrides all other considerations. But what Trump is hell-bent on doing is destroying the international structure and procedural framework within which pursuit of national interest has taken place in the post-war world, and which was largely successful in containing conflict and promoting cooperation.
His ambassador to the UN has already made it clear that if you do not support the US unquestioningly, she will ‘take names’. In other words, you will pay the price. And this is not a ‘deal’ that is negotiable for a quid pro quo: this is a threat.
That international architecture (the UN and its specialized agencies, the IMF, World Bank, World Trade Organization, international human rights instruments, and so on) which we all now take for granted, at least provided some constraints on the great powers. But that is now all over if Trump and Bannon get their way.
And that is the big political question: whether the Republican-controlled Congress will cave in and let him override law and morality, or whether Trump can create an American Orwellian post-truth nightmare in which we see the reign of ‘alternative facts’. I would not bet against Trump. He is a shrewd dictator in the making who is not constrained by the usual political considerations. He has a scorched earth attitude to politics.
Now since Trump and his billionaire Cabinet are interested in feathering their own nests, and are not in the least interested in multilateralism (nor for that matter in helping the American working class), and are looking for bilateral ‘deals’, some of our leaders in the Caribbean, especially those with a history of flagrant abuse of ethical principles, may rub their hands with relish and think that this is a glorious opportunity to sell out their people and make a deal that lines their own pockets. Well, my only advice is take a very long spoon and a condom when you sup with the devil. Your hair may turn prematurely orange, and that’s the least of it.
None of the policies out of Washington is likely to be favourable to the Caribbean, whether it be in tourism, trade, international business, investment, or climate change, and if Trump wants your oil, he’s going to grab it. But more damage is likely to be inflicted on Barbados and the Caribbean from the disruption of the international order by Trump and his fellow neo-fascists, like Marine Le Pen in France, the Dutch right-wing populist Geert Wilders, and the Brexit crowd in England, all of whom combine economic populism with a virulent ethnic nativism.
Some people think that my antipathy to Trump is based on his politics. It is not. I object to Trump because he is a psychopathic liar and a mentally unstable person with dangerous authoritarian impulses who now occupies the most powerful position in the world. So, as Shakespeare had Marc Antony say, “Cry ‘Havoc’ and let slip the dogs of war.”
Indeed I have over the years, since I retired, railed against Chavez in Venezuela. Chavez, a charismatic former military officer who had attempted to stage a coup, was eventually elected president with a strong populist message, promising to end poverty, bring back jobs and make Venezuela great again. His ‘socialist’ revolution, dubbed Chavismo, swept away everything in its way, and took over every branch of the government.
In less than two decades, Venezuela’s democracy crumbled and mutated into a personalist autocracy. He started an all-out war on the media, imprisoned opposition politicians, abolished the independence of the judiciary, and rigged elections. All the while corruption amongst his cronies and lackeys grew at an alarming rate and the economy was reduced to rubble. Barbados ought to take the opportunity and close its embassy in Caracas and open one in due course in Colombia, where there are greater potential economic benefits to be gained.
One can see the same impulses with Trump as with Chavez. His relentless assault on the media is not a temper tantrum but a carefully calculated strategy of attempting to destroy the freedom of the press. He’s having a disastrous time trying to roll out his policies, so look for him to use the perennial political trick of would-be dictators: scapegoat an internal group (in this case primarily Muslims) and find a ‘threatening’ foreign enemy and start a war.
So what would I advise the Government of Barbados to do? Nothing. Do not attract attention. Keep your head down, invest in the education of our people, our most valuable resource, and hunker down for the foreseeable future. This too will pass.
(Dr Peter Laurie is a retired permanent secretary and former head of the Barbados Foreign Service who at one point served as Barbados’ Ambassador to the United States)