Mon | Jun 17, 2019

Editorial | Trump’s adventure demands return to foreign policy centre

Published:Tuesday | May 21, 2019 | 12:16 AM

The Caribbean Community (CARICOM) was, on the face of it, unanimous in its rejection last week of Donald Trump’s rekindling of the contumelious Helms-Burton Act that allows Americans to sue foreigners who possess ­former US-owned properties in Cuba, nationalised after Cuba’s 1959 revolution. Just as significant was CARICOM’s repudiation of America’s long-­standing economic embargo against Cuba.

While few doubt the sincerity of the empathy with Cuba, many in the region question the strength, and sustainability, of the unity behind it. They see a clear nexus between Washington’s deepening hostility towards its old ideological foe, Havana, and its posture towards Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuela, over which CARICOM is fractured.

CARICOM declared its stance against foreign military intervention in Venezuela. Officially, the group supports internal dialogue to solve the country’s political crisis. But four of its members, including Jamaica, sided with the United States (US) in deeming Mr Maduro’s presidency illegitimate. These countries, largely tugged along by America, have all but endorsed the National Assembly’s head, Juan Guaidó, as the self-declared acting president, despite their contortions to provide themselves with plausible deniability.

America’s stance towards Cuba and Venezuela should be a matter of serious concern for Caribbean governments, for the deeper instability it could foment and the unintended consequences these might generate. However, neither Havana nor Caracas represent the full extent of the danger this region could face. For the nexus between these two countries extends to Iran, and is being dragged by Mr Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton.

Mr Bolton was among the neoconservatives who were in the ascendancy in Washington during George W. Bush’s presidency. He subscribes to an American foreign-policy position that projects, and uses, hard power, including removing ideological adversaries, especially if they are relatively weak. He was one of the architects of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Mr Bolton has found compatibility with Donald Trump, but not in the way that their relationship is often portrayed by the pundits on the American left – of the hawking ideologue (Mr Bolton) finding an empty suit (Mr Trump) capable of being stiffened into an animated puppet. Their partnership is likely to be far more complex, which doesn’t make it less dangerous.

MISTAKES ARE POSSIBLE

Mr Trump is driven by his obvious need to undo anything, especially if presumed to be good, achieved by his predecessor, Barack Obama – the Paris ­climate deal, the Affordable Care Act, the Iran nuclear deal, and, in our neighbourhood, efforts to normalise US-Cuba relations after decades of ideological chill. In Mr Bolton, President Trump found the strongman persona, to which he so instinctually gravitates, who possessed the ideological hawkishness that lends intellectual credence to unsubstantial ideas.

Mr Trump knows he has the power to, at anytime, pull the plug on Mr Bolton. It is unlikely that the national security adviser, whatever may be the claim, will publicly espouse or implement policies with which his boss disagrees, or hasn’t endorsed. Mr Trump is likely to presume that he has the option of going to the brink, and, if necessary, pulling back. Things can go wrong, however, in the absence of rigorous policy and when leaders operate without underlying moral or philosophical framework, and perceive wars more like animated parlour games rather than nasty encounters of blood and gore.

Against that backdrop, and America’s build-up in the Middle East, mistakes are possible. America could stumble into a war with Iran, made easier by the atmosphere developed over Venezuela, which some Caribbean nations facilitated. Or, if international realities make Iran too difficult, Venezuela could well be a viable fall-back option. In any circumstances, CARICOM members will face collateral damage, at the very least, of instability in our region.

The situation calls for a serious assessment of ­foreign-policy planning and goals by Caribbean ­governments, leading to, in so far as practicable, a ­common CARICOM foreign policy.

Jamaica should start establishing a commission of retired foreign-ministry mandarins to help refocus our foreign-policy agenda and to again be grounded at that centre which served us well, which we appear to have lost in recent years.