A moment for careful reflection

By David Jessop

Few people understand how great the daily pressures are on a Prime Minister or President. Instead they mostly observe the public persona, see their leaders in the context of tribal politics, and are variously entertained or exercised by the media coverage of what is said, done or ignored.

Irrespective, as holders of high office, all Heads of Government are required to consider and take decisions that are likely to affect a country and its citizens’ well-being for years or even decades ahead. They are expected to respond with wisdom and judgement to events at all hours, and have a view on everything from the banal to the very serious.

So challenging is this responsibility that, for example, a senior figure in Washington told me just months after President Obama took office in 2008 that the President– whom she and her husband knew well–  was prematurely becoming grey haired, because of the pressure and responsibility.

In this context 2017 is likely to be among the most strategically challenging that Caribbean leaders and senior Ministers responsible for more than domestic policy will have faced since independence or the US intervention in/ invasion of Grenada.

This is because the global order that emerged after the Second World War and at the end of the Cold War is about to be upended and despite objections, consigned to history.

This is not only because of the radically different thinking of the incoming US President and those he is appointing, or the changes in Europe that will follow the UK electorate’s decision to leave the EU, but also for reasons of the political and economic repositioning now taking place globally. These include the internationally assertive and mediatory role that Russia is pursuing, the emergence of China as a global economic and military power to rival the US, its rejection by the new US Administration, and likely realignments and confrontations in the Middle East and East Asia.

In this process and its uncertain outcome, there will likely also be a rapid reorientation of thinking about future relations with the Americas by nations from Canada to Japan and Taiwan, as they too seek to rebalance their alliances and influence in the context of wider change.

As history has demonstrated, the nations of the Caribbean and Central America are located at a critical strategic crossroads for every major power, implying that the region is unlikely to escape future tension or taking sides.

This suggests that in the coming months every nation in the Americas will need to reassess how their core concerns at a national and regional level should best be promoted as international relationships change.

Finding responses will be far from easy, not least because of the ambiguity– possibly intentional– of the President-elect’s seemingly viscerally driven pronouncements, and the absence of any detail on how the incoming US Administration and Congress intend to reconcile the contradictions.

That said, there is much that can be done to prepare and to achieve a better understanding of the ideas and concerns that will drive events.

A good starting point is a short paper by Dr Evan Ellis, published by the US Strategic Studies Institute where he is a respected research Professor of Latin American Studies. The paper, ‘Strategic Insights: Thinking Strategically About Latin America and the Caribbean’, looks at the importance of the Caribbean Basin to the US, raises important questions about the implications of its potential adversaries’ presence in the region, and makes suggestions as to how future US policy might be adapted.

Another would be to explore in Washington through political friends and its many think tanks, the implications of Donald Trump’s prepared remarks in Mexico City at the end of August 2016 after he had met with the Mexican President.

Then, Mr Trump appeared to indicate an interest in an economic agenda for the Americas.  He said that one of the goals he wishes to share will be to “keep manufacturing wealth in our hemisphere”. “When jobs leave Mexico, the US, or Central America, and go overseas, it increases poverty and pressure on social services as well as pressures on cross-border migration”, he observed. Elsewhere in his remarks, he said that Mexico and the US “have tremendous competition from China and from all over the world. Keep it in our hemisphere”.

A third would be to consider those who have most influenced the thinking of President Putin and the impact this has had on the neo-conservatives and others around Mr Trump who embrace the idea of a grand bargain with Russia on a new global balance, and the creation of spheres of influence.

In this, the thinking of the late Russian historian and anthropologist, Lev Gumilev, is particularly significant as it speaks to the new Russian nationalism and revanchism. Oversimplified, his theory of ‘passionarnost’ involves a belief that each nation has the ability to make and create history and that any simplification to fit some predetermined conclusion leads to its distortion. Or, in Mr Putin’s referenced interpretation in 2012: “Who will take the lead and who will remain on the periphery and inevitably lose their independence will depend not only on the economic potential but primarily on the will of each nation, on its inner energy”.

Other avenues would be to study China’s recent new policy paper on Latin America; the earlier published writings of some of Mr Trump’s appointees, whose views are little changed on issues from climate change, to Cuba, Venezuela and financial regulation; and, as bizarre as it may seem, to cautiously consider what is being said by Breitbart News, the online publication previously controlled by Mr Trump’s Chief Strategist, Steve Bannon.

More immediately, there are many well informed diplomats in the region able not just to reflect on their own countries’ thinking on some of these issues, but also able in private to interpret the regional implications of the possible actions of others on the basis of realpolitik.

None of this is intended to be pessimistic. Rather it is to express the hope that those in the Caribbean who steer government, are in opposition, in business and academia, will use a little of the normally quiet month of January to try to understand better not only the thinking and motivations of a world in which international relationships may change rapidly, but also to consider how the region might adjust to the new global equation.

(David Jessop is a consultant to the Caribbean Council and can be contacted at   david.jessop@caribbean-council.org )