A few days ago the US President, Barack Obama, gave what in effect was a farewell address to the United Nations General Assembly. It was personal, heartfelt, and frank. It spelt out the challenges that liberal democracies, including those in the Caribbean, will face in the years to come as the stresses caused by globalisation and its progeny, inequality and migration, give rise to populism and autocracy.
In measured but direct remarks which may well come to be seen as prophetic, Mr Obama painted a bleak picture, describing a paradox that has come to define the world of the early twenty-first century.
“A quarter century after the end of the Cold War, the world is by many measures less violent and more prosperous than ever before, and yet our societies are filled with uncertainty, and unease, and strife. Despite enormous progress, as people lose trust in institutions, governing becomes more difficult and tensions between nations become more quick to surface,” the US President told a packed General Assembly.
The world, he said, faced a choice. “We can choose to press forward with a better model of cooperation and integration. Or we can retreat into a world sharply divided, and ultimately in conflict, along age-old lines of nation and tribe and race and religion.”
The US President went on to say that a world in which one percent of humanity controls as much wealth as the other 99 percent will never be stable. Expectations, he said, will rise faster than governments can deliver, leading to a pervasive sense of injustice and undermining people’s faith in the system.
Mr Obama said that the solution was to develop new models for the global marketplace that are inclusive and sustainable, and models of governance that are inclusive and accountable to ordinary people.
Accepting that all nations will not want to adopt US thinking, he went on to note the growing contest between authoritarianism and liberalism. It was possible, he said, to adopt a much darker and more cynical view of history, motivated by greed and power, involving cycles of conflict and suffering before periods of enlightenment.
The President’s remarks sounded much like a valedictory for a world order ceasing to exist: one in which the post-Second World War settlement and present commitment to a rules-based system is being replaced by doubt, where unity of intent is no longer sustainable, and in which a new and more equitable world order will require creating.
It suggested that when President Obama demits office next January, international relations will continue to deteriorate irrespective of the winner of the US presidential race, and that Russia and China’s less easily challenged systems are likely to be significantly more unified in their purpose than the US or Europe.
It reflected a sense in many parts of the world that multilateralism, the rule of law and rules-based systems are fragmenting, and verifiable facts and logical arguments are increasingly giving way to an approach according to which what one does or says one day can be denied and forgotten the next, free from public questioning or consequence.
The change will be particularly stark if President Obama’s intellectual and humane approach is replaced by that of a bombastic, shallow and sometimes seemingly irrational Republican successor who, judging from remarks made over the last nine months, is unlikely to bring depth, empathy and genuine humanity to a troubled world, let alone any desire to find multilateral solutions.
That said, the US President’s remarks could also be taken as a lament for the end of the unipolar world that the US has enjoyed since the end of the Cold War, as recognition of the continuing rise of China, and an acknowledgement of Russia’s belligerent return to the world stage. His views undoubtedly represent too a personal recognition of the limits to US Presidential power, the difficulties of achieving results internationally, and an implicit warning to his successor.
President Obama’s world view is of course at odds with that of many countries, including some in the Caribbean which see significant contradictions between what has been said and what has been done by successive US administrations.
One only has to read the communiqué and comments coming out of the recent non-aligned summit on Venezuela’s Isla Margarita to see a very different global view to that of the US President.
Irrespective, what President Obama’s remarks do is to raise the general question as to which world view the region shares and as the world fragments into new blocs, ask what groupings or alliances will in future offer the greatest long-term philosophical, political and practical synergies to the region.
This question is far from academic. In the next two years the region will have some important decisions to make. These include determining the future political role that will be required of the African Caribbean and Pacific group of nations (the ACP) and the region’s part in it; how much weight relatively the Caribbean should give to its participation in the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), which the EU 27, China, Canada and others see as being a more significant future interlocutor; whether CARIFORUM has a future or will be left to wither; and whether additional or alterative regional configurations might offer individual nations greater economic utility than CARICOM.
If as President Obama suggests, the global consensus is fading, Caribbean Foreign Ministers should be encouraging a debate on which relationships offer the best future defence of national sovereignty, the greatest long-term advantage, and how consequently they and the Caribbean more generally should prioritise and reorder future foreign relations.