When Barack Obama campaigned to become President of the United States he made clear that he was against what he described as ‘wars of choice’, a reference to the way he saw George W Bush’s decision to invade Iraq. Instead, the then incoming President made clear that he favoured ‘wars of necessity’; that is to say, those that were unavoidable and related directly to the well-being of his country and its allies.
Six years on and against the background of a world in which international relations remain in flux, this important distinction was spelt out more precisely when he addressed the West Point Military Academy’s class of 2014 on May 28. Although his message setting out future parameters for US foreign policy – about which more later – was essentially aimed at making clear the United States’ priorities and responses, his general approach was of some general relevance to a Caribbean that is still struggling to develop a cohesive regional foreign policy.
For the last several years CARICOM has been trying to arrive at a common position on foreign relations in a way that takes account of the region’s smallness and sometimes unique requirements. It has been attempting this against a background of an increasing diversity of overlapping or contradictory bilateral relationships that CARICOM’s member states have established, and a fluid external environment.
CARICOM Foreign Ministers’ latest response is to produce a paper to go to Caribbean Heads of Government when they meet in Antigua this July.
As a part of this process, Foreign Ministers sought the views of some of the region’s leading experts in the fields of foreign policy and economics at the time of the May 20 meeting in Georgetown of their Council for Foreign and Community Relations (COFCOR).
There a long overdue in-depth discussion took place on foreign policy priorities, centring on how best the region might respond to the emergence of multiple polities and a single world economy; how best to address the opportunity and challenge posed by the region’s changing relationship with Latin America; and the need to adapt the region’s foreign policy in ways that might enable the region to better address the economic and social challenges it faces.
As is relatively well-known, the Caribbean has been facing something of a quiet crisis in its foreign relationship with its traditional partners in North America and Europe.
This has come about for a variety of reasons. For their part the US, Canada and Europe have been adapting their relationship with the Caribbean so that it more closely fits with their changed priorities at a time of austerity. This has resulted in greater stress being laid on security, the environment, shared values, encouraging self-generated prosperity, a diminution in development assistance, and a desire for better dialogue on shared concerns.
This has been occurring as other nations, many new to the region, have become significant economic or investment partners, and at a time when the Caribbean has been less able or willing to defend its existing economic self-interest or, for whatever reason, has not always responded when it matters most.
To be fair, as CARICOM’s Secretary General, Irwin Larocque, implied at start of the COFCOR meeting that the region has not found the dilemma of rebalancing its relationships easy. Noting the ‘narrowing of the interests’ of traditional partners in their relations with the region, he went on to say that despite the multiple centres of power and influence that had emerged, the US remained the major global actor; the Latin American relationship was deepening and now involved closer bilateral relationships and overlapping integration mechanisms; the EU remained a major centre of political and economic influence; and the influence of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa was increasing along with their strategic weight.
The challenge, he suggested, was knowing how small and vulnerable states should best respond to this new geopolitical situation in a coherent way, and in their own best self-interest.
What is apparent in the Secretary General’s remarks is that the region, like many others, is faced with the difficultly of responding to the re-location of political and economic power as alliances change, foreign policy becomes more events and issues based, and relationships cease to be constant.
In the last few years new layers of complexity have emerged in international relations that have made the coordination of foreign policy not just challenging but also expensive and necessary especially for small nations if their interests are to be defended; a change that demands that all nations take a much more selective approach to foreign policy based on core self interest.
And that to some extent is where the remarks of President Obama come in.
In a wide ranging overview of the way in which the US is seeking to position itself in the world, he told the US’s newest military officers that US exceptionalism means that it will always lead on the world stage, that isolationism is not an option, that it has hubs of unrivalled alliances, will act on behalf of human dignity, and will continue to encourage democracies.
But more significantly, his message was that the United States will use military force unilaterally when its own core interests demand it, when its people are threatened, when its livelihoods are at stake, and when the security of its allies are in danger. Otherwise, where issues of global concern do not pose a direct threat, it will take collective action.
This message is one that could usefully be translated into Caribbean thinking about what does and does not matter when it comes to foreign policy, which in regional terms ought to mean supporting to a significantly greater degree than is the case at present, economic and social objectives.
Put another way, the Caribbean should have a different order of priorities. ‘Wars of necessity’ would include for example the now all but lost matter of the graduation of the region out of development assistance, or core foreign trade agenda issues like the defence of rum and tourism. In contrast, more careful long term thought may need to be given to issues that might be regarded as ‘wars of choice’ if they threaten to take traditional relationships close to the point of disengagement.
It is to be hoped that Heads of Government will give foreign policy issues the time they deserve and clarity in their direction.
David Jessop is the Director of the Caribbean Council and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org