By Benito Wheatley
Benito Wheatley is an Analyst at the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) in Washington, DC and a Researcher for the publication ‘International Affairs Forum,’ produced by the Centre for International Affairs in Arlington, Virginia. For comments or questions he may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Caribbean states today find themselves in an international system in which the traditional centres of power are shifting. No longer is power solely concentrated among a select few powerful states in North America, Europe and Japan; rather, economic, political, and military power are now more widely dispersed around the world. The economic and financial weakening of the West, coupled with the rise of China, India, Brazil and a resurgent Russia, have dramatically changed the power dynamics of the international system and accelerated the pace of change. In sum, the uni-polar world of the post-Cold War era dominated by the United States and its allies is diminishing and an uncertain new world order is emerging.
This rare realignment of the international system presents a historic opportunity for Caribbean states to reinvent themselves in world affairs and to assert themselves on the international stage. Importantly, the Caribbean’s geographic location and colonial history place it within multiple spheres of influence and define the region’s relationship with the rest of the world. The international relations of the region encompasses Caribbean state’s relations with powerful state actors like the United States (US), China, and Russia; former colonial and status quo powers such as Britain, France, Netherlands and Canada; and regional and revolutionary states like Cuba and Venezuela.
Hemispherically, the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), an international cooperation agreement for the integration of Latin America and the Caribbean, counts among its ranks Caribbean states including Dominica, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Antigua and Barbuda; as well as Latin American states including Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Ecuador. The organization was established to coordinate and strengthen cooperation between the neighboring countries of the Caribbean, Central America, and and South America.
In the Caribbean itself, the region’s premiere regional organization, the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), is an exercise by a collection of Caribbean states to carve out an independent sphere of influence. The organisation’s major challenge is managing the region’s international relationships, while maintaining an independent position that promotes the interests of the region.
Notably, the Caribbean has been courted by a number of states as the competition for natural resources and influence between great and emerging powers has intensified in recent years. World powers such as China and Russia have established partnerships and struck a number of strategic deals in select Caribbean countries. Venezuela continues to supply Caribbean states with cheap crude oil, refined petroleum products, and liquefied petroleum gas at reduced rates under its PetroCaribe Energy Cooperation Agreement. In further overtures, Venezuela in late 2008 expressed interest in joining the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS), but its application for membership was never formally taken up by the subregional organization. The US is closely monitoring the activities of other world powers and hemispheric players in the region, and recently pledged to renew engagement with CARICOM and to increase aid flows to the region.
Despite these advances, CARICOM must be careful not to entangle itself in any regional, hemispheric, or global disputes or rivalries between competing powers. Rather, Caribbean states should concentrate their foreign policy on international trade, climate change, democracy, and other issues that directly impact the region.
Historically, the Caribbean, with the exception of Cuba, has played a marginal role in world affairs in the post-Cold War era. The relatively weak position of the region in the international system necessitates its small island and coastal developing states’ reliance on international organisations and institutions such as the United Nations (UN), World Trade Organisation (WTO), and Organisation of American States (OAS) to advance their agendas and interests in global affairs. As members of the WTO, Caribbean states have skilfully defended their commercial interests, which was clearly demonstrated by the Republic of Antigua & Barbuda, which successfully mounted a challenge against the United States in 2005 on the issue of online gambling. Caribbean states have also vigorously defended their commercial interests in the stalled Doha round of international trade talks by joining a number of emerging and developing states calling for the elimination of farm subsidies and lowering of non-tariff barriers in agricultural markets in the US, Europe, and Japan.
In the diplomatic arena, Caribbean states have also performed skilfully, which was most recently demonstrated by the twin-island Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, which successfully hosted and superbly chaired the Fifth Summit of the Americas (April 2009) held in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad. The highly anticipated meeting was expected to be highly contentious and non-productive, but was salvaged in part by the statesmanship of Prime Minister Patrick Manning and his aides. Importantly, CARICOM member states are strategically positioned to play a constructive role in the democratic development of the region, given their strong traditions of democracy and respect for human rights. Their solid record in both areas gives them the credibility and legitimacy to speak forcefully on issues of democratisation, political reform, and human rights with respect to Cuba and Haiti.
Another area where the Caribbean as a region has an opportunity to make its voice heard on the international stage is climate change. The danger of rising sea levels and more intense and frequent tropical storms and hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea as a result of global warming makes climate change a legitimate concern for island states and coastal nations. Caribbean states should use international forums, such as that provided at the United Nation's Summit on Climate Change in Copenhagen (December 2009), to express their concerns and inform the world about the real dangers of climate change and its impact on the region. Caribbean states must also leverage their membership in international institutions like the UN and OAS to garner support for combating problems like drug and human trafficking.
Finally, in order to play a greater role in global affairs, Caribbean states must transform the region’s image from that of sunny vacation destinations and offshore tax havens to regional power brokers. The Dominican Republic was moderately successful in this regard when it helped mediate and resolve a conflict among Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador in 2008. Notably, the country has reapplied for membership in CARICOM.
In conclusion, the realignment of the international system has created a historic opening for the Caribbean. Caribbean states, and in particular CARICOM member states, have an opportunity to change the Caribbean’s marginal role in world affairs by strategically asserting themselves on the international stage. A constructive role can be played by Caribbean states in hemispheric relations and the democratisation of Cuba and stabilisation of Haiti. Caribbean states can also take active roles in world trade talks facilitated by the WTO and global talks on climate change. If Caribbean states act strategically to position themselves as power brokers in the emerging new world order, they have an opportunity to exert a greater measure of influence in the international system than has traditionally been the case, despite their limited capabilities as developing small island and coastal states.