Editorial | CARICOM reset on relations with US
Over the next several weeks, he will inflict more damage on America’s moral authority not because he genuinely believes that he is being cheated out of an election victory, but out of fear. Hubris and ego apart, Donald Trump is afraid of the legal jeopardy, civil and criminal, he will confront when he leaves the American presidency. Nonetheless, he will be gone.
In which event, Joe Biden will become president of the United States. And although morally diminished after four years of Mr Trump’s antics, the US will still be the pre-eminent global power. The world will have to do business with the United States even as Mr Biden works at rebuilding its image.
That, of course, includes America’s small, vulnerable, mostly island state neighbours in the Caribbean. But appreciating, and responding to, America’s power does not mean relinquishing sovereignty or spinelessly toadying to Washington. It implies a mutually respectful engagement among friends, which, unfortunately, is not how relations between the United States and the Caribbean evolved during the Trump presidency. Which is why, as Mr Biden prepares to take office in January, the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) must be prepared for a serious engagement with his administration from day one.
That will require frank discussion by the community to set out its priorities and prevent the schisms that characterised intra-CARICOM relations as the community interacted with the Trump administration, especially over the political crisis in Venezuela and leadership of critical hemispheric institutions.
Prior to Mr Trump, recent US presidents, going back to Bill Clinton at a 1997 summit in Barbados, have met CARICOM’s leaders as a group. Mr Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, did so in Kingston in 2015. George W. Bush held such a summit at the White House in 2007. America’s secretaries of state also periodically met the region’s foreign ministers together. These regional approaches did not obviate bilateral relations.
Mr Trump, who eschews multilateralism and has a narrowly transactional approach to international relations, driven by his ‘America First’ doctrine, had a different approach. For instance, in March 2019, rather than hosting a summit with Caribbean heads of government, Mr Trump met five leaders – four of them, including Jamaica’s prime minister, Andrew Holness, were from CARICOM – at his Florida resort of Mar-a-Lago. What Mr Trump’s guests had in common was that they had either been hostile to Venezuela’s president Nicolás Maduro or openly endorsed the self-declared president, Juan Guaidó, as the country’s legitimate leader.
In January of this year, Mr Trump’s secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, met with a handful of CARICOM foreign ministers in Kingston for a gathering that Barbados’ prime minister, Mia Mottley, described as “an attempt to divide the region,” to which her government would not be a party. The countries at these meetings also helped the United States secure a second term for the controversial Luis Almagro as secretary general of the Organization of American States and played a part, in September, in overturning the tradition of having a non-American as its leader and installing the hard-right Trump nominee Mauricio Claver-Carone as president of the Inter-American Development Bank.
With respect to the Venezuelan crisis, the policy of a Biden administration in terms of substance is unlikely to be much different than Mr Trump’s. Its tone, though, is expected to be more tempered, far less bellicose. CARICOM members will have greater space to seek common accord without feeling additional pressure from Washington to openly display support for its position. Additionally, a Biden White House and Democrats in Congress, who were opposed to Claver-Carone, will live with him.
In other words, there is an opportunity for a CARICOM reset to a more cohesive approach to relations with the United States. Against this backdrop, regional leaders should urgently call an informal foreign-policy summit to talk through the issues that soured regional relations during the Trump presidency. They should then mandate their foreign ministers to develop a CARICOM agenda to inform the community’s relations with the Biden administration.
Some of the issues to be addressed are obvious, starting with America’s return to the principles of multilateralism in a way that recognises, and protects, the interests of small, vulnerable states like those in the Caribbean. Settling the leadership of the World Trade Organization and America’s return to an updated Paris climate agreement and the World Health Organization are important on this front. In relation to the latter, America’s support is vital in ensuring that the Caribbean and other poor countries are not further marginalised by the coronavirus pandemic, and that they have access to the vaccines being developed for the virus. The CARICOM agenda should also include bringing permanence to the Caribbean Basin trade agreement and the protection of the region’s diaspora in the United States.
Having packaged its priorities, CARICOM must, even ahead of Mr Biden’s inauguration, work the back channels to bring its agenda before the administration. That means leveraging relations with people close to the administration, such as Susan Rice, the Obama administration alumnus who has regional connections and is likely to have a senior Cabinet post in the administration. There, too, are several friends of the Caribbean in Congress who will be close to the centres of power.