Mon | Oct 26, 2020

Curtis Ward | A coherent foreign policy defines a nation’s sovereignty

Published:Sunday | September 20, 2020 | 6:32 AM
Ambassador Curtis Ward.
Ambassador Curtis Ward.

Sir Alexander Bustamante (centre) is greeted by Krishna Menon (second right), head of the Indian delegation to the United Nations (UN), and his aide on the occasion of the hoisting of Jamaica’s flag at the UN. Others from left are John P. Gyles, ministe
Sir Alexander Bustamante (centre) is greeted by Krishna Menon (second right), head of the Indian delegation to the United Nations (UN), and his aide on the occasion of the hoisting of Jamaica’s flag at the UN. Others from left are John P. Gyles, minister of agriculture and lands; Robert Lightbourne, minister of Trade and industry; Lady Bustamante; Senator Hugh Shearer, leader of Government Business in the Jamaican Senate; Mr Menon and his aide

I begin with the premise that a coherent foreign policy defines a sovereign nation and without which is chaos, misunderstanding, and mistrust in bilateral and multilateral affairs. A coherent foreign policy is a predictable guide to the behaviour of a sovereign nation and offers reasonable expectations in a country’s relationships with other states. It portends responsible behaviour in response to global issues, with broad impact on the political community of nations and on issues, with possible geopolitical implications for a country’s national interests. International partnerships are built on trust and expectations that are deduced from a country’s history in the conduct of its foreign policy. Foreign governments tend to view other countries’ lacking in a coherent foreign policy as unreliable partners, and respect for them globally erodes over time.

As a keen observer of foreign policy, I have watched CARICOM countries meander through geopolitical minefields during critical periods of history. In the past, Jamaica received global recognition for its principled positions on topical issues. Jamaica has stood boldly and served as the conscience of the international community on issues of human rights, gender equality, the rights of children, discrimination and racism in all its forms, human security, humanitarian causes, justice, a level playing field for trade and economic relations, peace and security, and proliferation of small arms and light weapons. This was expected of Jamaica - that Jamaica could be relied on to lead. Jamaica’s leadership among non-OECD countries was legendary. It is no longer the norm.

Why is this so important? What are the rewards for a robust foreign policy grounded in principles that are the bedrock of a fair and just international community? There are long-lasting benefits.

Over the years, developed countries saw Jamaica as a reliable partner for proactive development assistance and shared a willingness to respond in times of distress. These benefits inured to successive Jamaican governments and the people of Jamaica over several decades. Jamaican diplomats enjoyed high levels of respect in every capital and international fora. Jamaican senior diplomats and citizens were sought after to lead and for advice and service in international organisations. Jamaica’s position on many critical issues was emulated by other countries. While serving as a representative of Jamaica at the United Nations, I was told often by senior diplomats from other countries that the decisions made in their capitals on particular issues depended on Jamaica’s position.


As a member of Jamaica’s delegation during the 1976 UN General Assembly (UNGA), we were asked by other diplomats for Jamaica’s position when considering critical resolutions as a guide for other governments in deciding how to cast their votes. Also in the 1970s, Jamaica abstained on a vote in the UNGA, and a host of other countries followed suit. Jamaica was blamed for causing the resolution to be adopted. The conclusion was that a Jamaica vote against the resolution would have prompted other governments to do the same, and the resolution would have been defeated. Major elements of the American press, and certain interest groups, blasted the Jamaican Government for abstaining, and some launched a tourism boycott of Jamaica. The Government fought back and was not fazed. Jamaica was fearless and correct in taking a principled position, the right position.

Many countries proactively sought to establish diplomatic relations with Jamaica. Several ambassadors, while serving at the UN, saw their appointments to represent their countries as ambassadors to Jamaica as upward mobility in their careers. Jamaica’s leadership continued through the first decade and a half of the 21st century, and including during my own service as ambassador of Jamaica to the UN, and our role on the UN Security Council gained high praise. Jamaica’s leadership during former prime minister P. J. Patterson’s stewardship played out in many international fora, and relationships developed then have continued to inure to Jamaica’s benefit.

There was a time when Jamaica not only led CARICOM and other Caribbean countries, but countries of Africa and Asia (the ACP countries – 46 countries in 1975, which grew to 79 by 2003) in their complex negotiations with Europe when traditional trading relations were under significant challenges. The P.J. Patterson-led ACP negotiators established new standards for negotiations and in achieving desirable results. This came at a time when complex global issues and realignment of global trading relationships severely threatened the economies of ACP countries, including Jamaica. Under Jamaica’s leadership the ACP and European Community concluded the first in a series of major trade and development agreements – Lomé I-IV and the Cotonou Agreement. Patterson’s and Jamaica’s leadership in these negotiations is legendary.

During this period in Jamaica’s history, the country was accorded the highest level of respect in its leadership of non-OECD countries on matters of global significance, especially in the quest for equity and fairness in global trade, finance, and economics. Jamaica’s advocacy, led by then prime minister Michael Manley and then foreign minister Patterson, on the need for a new international economic order (NIEO), proved to be a major catalyst for change in the international community of nations. In particular the OECD countries accepted the urgent need for reforms of global trade, financial and economic systems, and structures. Over the years, Jamaica’s leadership included the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and the Group of 77 (G-77 + China).


There was never a period when Jamaicans and the international community viewed Jamaica’s foreign policy with uncertainty. Even at the nadir of any intellectual discourse on foreign policy, including when then prime minister Sir Alexander Bustamante was asked, he famously declared: “We are with the West!” That statement, though simply stated, was quite explicit and clearly understood in the context of the Cold War. Former Prime Minister Hugh Shearer (while serving as foreign minister), giving Jamaica’s first address to the United Nations as an independent nation in 1962, called for the international observance of human rights by all countries.

Ask any junior diplomat in today’s Jamaica foreign service what the pillars of Jamaica’s foreign policy are, and they, more likely than not, would struggle to explain the principles that served Jamaica well in the past or would be at pains to identify any new principles on which the country currently stands.

I, too, have struggled to discern Jamaica’s foreign policy under the current Government since it first assumed office in 2016. Apart from lacking transparency in its bilateral relationships, the Government has failed to articulate a coherent foreign policy in its bilateral relationships and on regional and multilateral issues of significant interest to the nation. For the most part, Jamaica has been fence-sitting, which, for decades since Independence, has been anathema to Jamaicans and their pride in nationhood.

I am hopeful that there will be articulation by the Government of a comprehensive foreign policy. I expected that the minister of foreign affairs and foreign trade, at the press briefing on her agenda following her swearing-in as minister, would have given a hint of Jamaica’s future foreign-policy directions. The Jamaican people have a right to know what the Government stands for. Is it business as usual? As a cautionary note, a feckless and incoherent foreign policy generally relegates countries to the footnotes of history - if they are mentioned at all. Much of what Jamaica reaps today is a result of what Jamaica sowed many years ago. The longevity of these benefits and special relationships will depend on the future of Jamaica’s relevance. Foreign-policy appeasement only brings short-lived benefits, and the country’s sovereignty must never be for sale. Jamaica will have to get off the fence.

- Curtis Ward is the former ambassador and deputy permanent representative of Jamaica to the United Nations with special responsibility for Security Council affairs. He also served as expert adviser to the UN Security Council Counter-Terrorism Committee. Email feedback to