The study of international relations has always been about understanding and dealing with the unknowns, both the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns. That’s why, despite all the research and analysis, and the increasingly sophisticated tools we now have at our disposal, it’s still very much a game of chance.
Devising and implementing a foreign policy was always a hard task; right now, this is complicated by a world in turmoil. The entire structure of international relations set up after the Second World War is slowly being demolished. President Trump is the main wrecking ball, for the US was one of the architects of the post-war international order and Trump is taking America away from diplomatic multilateralism into a dog-eat-dog world of aggressive isolationism, with the inherent risk of an accidental war.
But even without him, the forces unleashed by a globalization (trade liberalization and the free movement of capital) that favoured the wealthy at the expense of the poor have provoked a backlash across the globe against the political status quo. This clash is often characterized as ‘populism’, and described simplistically as ‘the (good, mainly rural) people vs the (bad, mainly urban) elites’. The Dutch political theorist Cas Mudde more accurately describes contemporary populism as an ‘illiberal democratic response to an undemocratic liberalism’ – one that ‘asks the right questions but provides the wrong answers’. Spot on.
The problem with diagnosing populism is that it has several strands, some good (dissatisfaction with a political status quo characterized by a high level of inequality), and some bad (vilifying and blaming all our problems on those who are different in colour, ethnicity, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, and so on. As president Trump, who has consistently scapegoated immigrants of colour, pithily put it, why does the US have so many immigrants coming from s…thole countries in Africa rather than from countries like Norway? And bear in mind that no group is exempt from being scapegoated: Frantz Fanon, a leader of the anti-colonial struggle in Africa, said that his mentor, Aimé Césaire, always told him, “Whenever you hear anyone abuse the Jews, pay attention, because he is talking about you.”
What all streams of populism have in common is a rejection of the liberal democratic state (rule of law, constitutional rights and freedoms and so on) in favour of an autocratic leader who can, in their view, destroy all the institutional and legal restraints on the popular will and ‘drain the swamp’. If we are honest, this yearning for the ‘strong’ man (yes, they’re all men; incidentally, why is that? Sorry, rhetorical question) can be hugely appealing. The problem is that the autocratic leader ends up, once institutional restraints are removed, indulging in wholesale corruption and often massive violations of human rights. One of the everlasting truisms of politics is that power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
In this complex fast-changing world, where can Barbados look for stability? Three countries: China, Ghana, and Guyana (within CARICOM).
China is fast becoming the most technologically sophisticated, innovative and economically developed country in the world. The US, instead of picking a fight with China, ought to be looking for ways to strengthen cooperation at all levels, because very soon America will want to beg, borrow or steal China’s technology, whether in broadband, artificial intelligence, space science, or infrastructure and transport (electric buses anyone?).
China’s Belt & Road initiative is the most significant global development strategy since the 1948 European Recovery Programme, known as the ‘Marshall Plan’ after the American Secretary of State George Marshall, in which the US invested some $15 billion (over $100 billion in today’s dollars) to rebuild the economies of Western Europe with the stated aims of winning friends and influencing people, building up economic infrastructure, creating and opening markets, and stopping the spread of communism, i.e. helping others while helping itself — a typical win-win situation.
These goals, apart from stopping communism, are more or less the same goals of China’s Belt & Road initiative. So why all the American suspicion of China? China is only claiming its rightful place in the sun. A China-US axis might very well form the basis of a new architecture of international cooperation, if we are not, in the meantime, all destroyed by nuclear war or catastrophic environmental disasters.
In any event, Barbados should have, as its number one priority, the strengthening of relations with China at all levels. This is not to rule out or dismiss cooperation with other industrially advanced friends like the UK, Canada, the EU, and Japan. Nor is it to downplay cooperation with other developing countries in Latin America, Asia/Pacific, and Africa. It is just that some of these countries are going through both serious political and economic challenges right now.
Indeed, we should be looking at what kind of relationship we might have with a post-Brexit England (I use the designation ‘England’ advisedly). I have a suggestion: offer a rejuvenated, proudly independent England, a small naval base in Barbados for it to relive the dream of its imperial Caribbean glory, at the same time as we relinquish the English monarch as Barbados’ head of state in favour of a Barbadian. Even Cammie T., ardent monarchist as he was, might have relished such a deft political stroke.
As far as the US is concerned, we should not have to choose between the US and China. Whereas the values of China’s political system do not coincide with ours, America is not only our neighbour but also our closest friend with whom we have so many ties that bind and with whom we share so many values, and where so many of our nationals live and thrive. Trump is frightening, but he too will pass, and we can go back to normal.
Ghana is Africa’s fastest growing economy, an institutionally stable democracy, and one of the best-governed states, not to mention the home of many of our ancestors, so it’s an obvious relationship to develop. What’s not to like about that?
Guyana, with its immense oil resources, is within a decade or two, going to be one of the wealthiest countries in the world. That is, provided they can overcome their political challenges and the ‘resource curse’ that has afflicted countries like Venezuela. Their planning seems to be good. The economies of Guyana and Barbados are complementary. Much synergy to be gained.
How many people remember that Prime Minister Sandiford proposed in 1993 a confederation of Barbados, Guyana and Trinidad & Tobago? A discussion paper was drawn up, then the 1994 election occurred. The paper still exists.
Who knows, we might yet look at some type of formal agreement, compatible with membership of CARICOM, including a possible confederation between Barbados and Guyana, but I suspect the time is not yet ripe for that.
(Dr Peter Laurie is a retired permanent secretary and head of the Foreign Service who once served as Barbados’ Ambassador to the United States)