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David Jessop | A ‘President Trump’ and the Caribbean

Published:Sunday | July 31, 2016 | 7:00 AMDavid Jessop

In the last few years, the world has seen the emergence of what has become known as post-factual politics.

This is the practice whereby some running for high office speak untruths, draw factually incorrect conclusions, and provide no policy detail.

Donald Trump, the Republican Party's presidential candidate, has skilfully used such an approach to translate voter anger against economic globalisation, elites and as migration, to facilitate his hope for rise to power.

It is a tactic not dissimilar to that taken by those who, without any clear alternative or plan, encouraged the United Kingdom electorate to vote to leave the European Union (EU). It is also reflected, for example, in the remarks of President Putin, President Erdogan in Turkey, or President Assad in Syria, who reject fact as simply the mistaken perception of others.

The inference is that rationality is dying, that democracies and voter anger are there to be rendered, not into practical alternatives, but used to drive a belief that an individual somehow has the ability to transform the life of voters because he or she says he knows best.

This has implications for the Caribbean. The region has become used to the global status quo that emerged from the Second World War, Independence, the Cold War, the rules driven trade system at the World Trade Organization (WTO), multilateral treaties, and organisations such as the United Nations that have given even the smallest countries a global voice, based on a recognised need for consensus.

Now, in a cry of rage, huge numbers in the Republican Party in the United States have chosen as their candidate a man whose approach is so low on detail and high on ego that it requires voters to trust him alone to make them feel great again.

This has enabled Mr Trump, only months before the US electorate decides on who will assume one of the most powerful positions in the world, to continue to make assertions about what he would do as president, without any substantive explanation on how his ideas are to be achieved, or their likely consequences.

In Mr Trump's dark acceptance speech at his party's convention, and in his earlier remarks, it is, however, possible to see common themes when it comes to US foreign, security and trade policies.

He sees no value in trying to change other countries' systems. For him, relationships are about winning, and extracting the maximum value for the US. As an aggressive dealmaker, he places value on strong authoritarian leadership, a huge defence budget, and the decisive use of military might only when absolutely necessary.

 

US NATIONAL INTEREST

 

He is adamant that other countries will, in one way or another, have to pay their way if they expect US support. For him, the strong recovery of the US economy and the US national interest is paramount. He will, he says, break with the World Trade Organisation if it does not accept his thinking. He will abandon existing trade deals. His policy will be isolationist and protectionist and not burdened by ideology.

If a Trump presidency were to be consistent in this approach, one can see many practical problems emerging for the Caribbean. For example, if nations like Mexico are to pay to secure the United States from flows of its or other nations' migrants, his administration may well also require the Caribbean to fully meet the costs of its own security; guaranteeing the safety of US visitors on the basis that through them and investment, the US is already contributing enough to the Caribbean economy and its development.

Second, if he is genuinely intent on changing US trade relationships, it is not hard to see his administration making demands for access for US goods and services on the basis of reciprocity. Just as likely would be a slow-down in US investment in the region.

From what he has said, tax penalties would be levied on those US manufacturers who have offshored their manufacturing or assembly plants into locations like the Caribbean to take advantage of a more favourable tax environment. It is also possible to imagine new, hard-to-resolve complexities in trade emerging if as president he were to abandon the WTO rules basing global trading system.

Third, it is far from clear what his willingness to accept President Putin's wish and his actions to make Russia great again will mean, or Mr Trump's decision to face in two directions on China at once. Both nations now have a presence in the region. Russia continues to develop its ties to Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua and others in Latin America. China has become a major investor and intends, eventually, to become a significant manufacturer and trans-shipper in the region.

How a Trump presidency may seek to address what this may mean in future in the Caribbean in geostrategic or transactional terms is far from clear.

And fourth, the impact of a Trump presidency's seemingly jaundiced view on European integration, defence and trade could be the final straw that breaks an already divided EU, raising questions about its viability as a single-market and development partner for the region.

In short, Mr Trump's approach may have significant strategic implications for the Caribbean, not least because his views do not accord with the way that the region has previously tried to manage its relations with the US.

A world in which ignoring fact, strategic ambiguity, traded-off spheres of influence, deniable actions in the military or cyber world by third parties acting as proxies for governments, is not the one in which the region operates.

It is an approach that does not relate well to the perhaps quaint mix of intellectuality, formality, populism and the fierce, if sometimes meaningless, defence of sovereignty, that defines Caribbean leadership.

The Trump doctrine would set aside the emollient approach that the region has become accustomed to since the end of the Cold War. For the countries of CARICOM, the implication is that what little influence they may still have in Washington could disappear entirely unless they ally themselves with much stronger regional, hemispheric or international partners. It suggests that only Cuba, and perhaps the Dominican Republic, will be able to find ways to exert leverage in a Trump Washington.

In the US and Europe, visceral voter anger is resulting in the rise of new types of politician and political parties, notionally anti-elite, desiring to be seen as authentic and somehow able to restore the past. Should Mr Trump win, the Caribbean is ill-prepared to address his brand of twenty-first century politics.

• David Jessop is a consultant to the Caribbean Council Email david.jessop@caribbean-council.org