New US policy raises difficult questions for the Caribbean

By David Jessop

By law, every US President must publish a national security strategy. The objective is to provide the highest-level guidance on the responses required by the country’s military, diplomatic, and executive branches to real or perceived threats.

Last Tuesday, following a speech by President Trump outlining his approach to national security, the White House released a fifty-three-page document setting out how his administration intends putting ‘America First’ in the world.

The strategy paper paints a bleak picture. It sees all states as being in a relentless competition for power and influence. The US, it argues, has been weak and must now become engaged in a determined struggle to restore the unipolarity it achieved when it won the cold war.

It all but rejects interdependence and multilateralism, suggesting that what happens in the world today is a zero-sum game in which only by advancing US principles will prosperity spread around the globe.

The document has some broad themes: ‘America First’ will be the ‘foundation of US leadership in the world through outcomes, not ideology’, a policy described as ‘principled realism’; China and Russia want to ‘shape a world antithetical to our interests and values’, and are perceived to be challenging US power, influence and interests; unless they and others adapt their thinking,
the US ‘will compete with all tools of national power’ to ensure ‘that the regions of the world are not dominated by one power’.

Whether one accepts the underlying philosophy or the interpretation of history or not, the document has potentially profound implications for any nation or government that sees the world differently.

Although it contains some positive language, for instance on organised crime, corrupt officials, terrorism, and engaging the private sector in development, it suggests that divide is likely to emerge between the US and the Caribbean if Washington decides to deploy its world view in a regional context.

Any reading of the whole document suggests numerous points of divergence.

The most obvious relates to China, which over the last decade has become for almost all nations in the region an important investor, trade partner, and advocate of issues of vital importance, most notably climate change.

The section of the new US strategy paper on the Western Hemisphere could not be clearer. ‘Competitors have found operating space in the hemisphere. China seeks to pull the region into its orbit through state-led investments and loans’, it states.

It goes on to criticise both Cuba and Venezuela, and Russia and China’s relationship with both, noting that the US ‘will isolate governments that refuse to act as responsible partners in advancing hemispheric peace and prosperity’.

The section concludes by indicating that together with Canada, the US will deliver in the Western Hemisphere a policy that ‘limits the malign influence of non-hemispheric forces’ while as in the past, working to increase increases economic opportunities for all, improving governance, and reducing the power of criminal organisations.

Whether Canada sees the region in this way; what this means for example for Grenada’s reported request to China’s Development Bank, to help draft a national development strategy; how US policy will in future relate to the Caribbean’s special relationship with Cuba, enshrined in the recent declaration at a CARICOM-Cuba summit in Antigua; or how it might relate to the possible rescue of Venezuela’s mismanaged oil sector by Russia ROSNEFT; are just some examples of the practical issues the region is going to have to reconcile in its dialogue with Washington.

More importantly still, the region is going to have to take a position on what the document totally fails to mention: the existential issue of climate change. Not only does the strategy paper fail to recognise global warming, vulnerability, or smallness, it suggests that US interests in future, in relation to natural disasters, will solely relate to building resilience at a domestic level while for others placing emphasis on the export of fossil fuels and renewable technology.

Elsewhere the document introduces new conditionalities. When it comes to future US development assistance this ‘must support America’s national interests’, contains potentially contentious language in its qualified support for multilateral institutions, and more generally suggests that the US will respond negatively to those nations that do not support its foreign policy.

For the Caribbean, this will likely pose a conundrum. Smallness, the importance of the US and a trade and investment partner, its physical location, it good relations with neighbours and others that the US now sees as an unwelcome influence, and CARICOM’s renewed drive for a rapid multilateral response to climate change, all suggest that future relations with Washington may become difficult.

Both China and Russia have rejected the Trump doctrine.

Speaking a day after the US President’s remarks, China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson, Hua Chunying, emphasised China’s multilateralism, commitment to multilateralism, and Beijing’s ‘solidarity, co-operation and affinity with the developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America. She also observed that as the two largest economies in the world co-operation this was the only right choice for China and the United States. Rather more bluntly, Russia dismissed the new US doctrine as ‘imperialist in character’.

What happens next is uncertain as the new US strategy seems to be at odds with some of the foreign policy initiatives the President is said to favour. Indeed, a Washington Post editorial even questioned whether he had read it.

What now seems to be on offer, is far from the approach taken by the Obama administration foreign policy which had healed many hemispheric rifts. If followed through on, the Trump doctrine will be divisive and significantly less in the interests of the region and it desire for a joined up global approach to its future development.

(David Jessop is a consultant to the Caribbean Council and can be contacted at )