Fri | Feb 21, 2020

Editorial | Foreign policy after Pompeo

Published:Sunday | January 26, 2020 | 12:35 AM

Even with someone as objectionable as Donald Trump as America’s president, Jamaica can’t but maintain good relations with the United States, its close and powerful neighbour and major economic partner. The circumstance, though, demands from Kingston a clear, clearly articulated, and principled foreign policy, backed by skilled diplomacy.

With regard to the latter, the Holness administration emerged from this week’s visit to the island by US secretary of state Mike Pompeo with better than a passing grade. It was able to announce continued, and expanded, US support for key domestic policy initiatives, without being forced, at least publicly, to display an effusive and full-throated backing for Washington’s agenda, such as for regime change in Venezuela.

The latter issue, however, still needs to be seriously addressed, especially in the face of Mr Trump’s assaults on the multilateralism and the institutions that underpin the global system, within which small, vulnerable countries, like Jamaica, are best assured of protection against arbitrary behaviour by the world’s powerful nations.

That it is in Jamaica’s interest to be friendly with the United States is obvious. It’s barely a hop and skip between the two countries, and hundreds of thousands of Jamaicans live in the United States, who, each year, send home more than 60 per cent of the over J$2 billion in remittances received by the island. Americans, too, are the mainstay of Jamaica’s tourism, the country’s biggest industry, accounting for more than two-thirds of all visitors.

Commerce between the two countries is around 40 per cent of Jamaica’s visible trade. The rising China notwithstanding, the United States remains, economically and militarily, the world’s strongest power.

Jamaica, over decades, managed its foreign policy more than reasonably well. It asserted its independence, assumed leadership of the cause of developing countries, particularly those in the Caribbean, while, but for a period of tension with the United States in the 1970s, maintaining good ties with the big powers. Kingston hewed closely to the principles of multilateralism, even when it argued that its post-World War II supporting arrangements were in need of reform, to better serve the interests of newly emerged nations.

Two related factors have stressed old certainties: China’s rise and the emergence of Donald Trump with his not fully formed, but clearly combustible, ‘America first’ doctrine.

FUNDAMENTAL THREADS

Two fundamental threads, however, are discernible in Mr Trump’s philosophy. One is the containment of China as a technological, economic and military rival to the United States. The other is the dismantlement of the existing multilateral regimes, including the World Trade Organization (WTO), which the United States feels works against its interest, while facilitating China’s advance.

The Americans have, pointedly, made Jamaica a battleground in the US-China competition. Twice recently, US officials – the ambassador in Kingston, Donald Tapia, and Commander, US Southern Command, Craig S. Faller – openly questioned the value and efficacy of Chinese loans for, and investment in, Jamaica’s infrastructure and other areas of the economy. Mr Pompeo joined the barrage this week, warning Jamaica to be sceptical of “easy money” from Beijing.

“What good is it if it feeds corruption and undermines your rule of law?” he asked rhetorically at a policy forum with business leaders. “What good are those investments if, in fact, they ruin your environment and don’t create jobs for your people?”

Prime Minister Andrew Holness, who, previously, asserted Jamaica’s intention to pursue a “strategic partnership” with China on the basis of its own developmental priorities and in “mutual respect”, wasn’t present, so didn’t have to respond to Mr Pompeo’s remarks. Earlier, although praised by the secretary of state “for standing up to the illegitimate destabilising (Nicolas) Maduro dictatorship and its brutal repression of the Venezuelan people”, Mr Holness, who has been accused of carrying America’s line on Venezuela, tactfully avoided calling names in what, for the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), is a divisive issue. He said merely that he and Mr Pompeo had concurred “on the challenges confronting the wider region” and the importance that they be settled peacefully.

Whether they discussed the WTO, where the US has blocked the appointment of judges to hear dispute, is not clear. But America’s action poses an existential threat to the organisation, which CARICOM had defended as a key element of the global multilateral arrangement.

Mr Pompeo’s visit again laid bare the unresolved tensions in CARICOM between those who support America’s narrative on Venezuela, and were invited to Kingston, and those who don’t. It raises, too, fundamental questions of how the region should engage the world’s two big powers. These matters demand frank discussions and should be on the agenda of next month’s CARICOM summit.

With respect to Jamaica, this newspaper continues to urge a deep foreign policy review, to which Prime Minister Holness has acceded. It mustn’t, though, be a peripheral exercise. It requires the input of experienced and deeply thoughtful people, all of whom may not reside in the foreign ministry.