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PEOPLE AND THINGS – Politics and diplomacy

Peter Wickham

PEOPLE AND THINGS – Politics and diplomacy

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In the wake of reactions to Prime Minister David Cameron’s now infamous statements, there were some slightly more enlightened discussants who expressed concerned about his apparent “threat” and the extent to which it offends our concept of sovereignty.
This is an issue worthy of reflection since it provokes a discussion that stimulates the intellect slightly more than the biblical debate that was initiated two weeks ago. 
Like one commentator Peter Simmons, I too, have some exposure to international relations and am fully aware that one of the principles of our “science” is that countries do not attempt to meddle in the internal affairs of others in much the same way they would not expect us to meddle in theirs.
I am also aware (and so should he be) that this principle is observed more “in the breach” since that is precisely why we have embassies in places like London and use these to lobby other states to change their behaviour.
Nothing new
People who study international relations have grappled with this conundrum for years since our enterprise emerges from states’ efforts to do that which is, technically speaking, an affront to national sovereignty.?So to suggest that this attempt by Britain to “meddle” is novel is either a display of ignorance or dishonesty. 
It is true that Caribbean diplomats lobby passively and our interventions are more akin to “begging”, as is the case with our Air Passenger Duty (APD) mediation. In these instances, our strongest weapon is “moral suasion” since there is nothing we can threaten larger countries with since the principle of sovereignty reminds us that states can do whatever they wish within their internal borders, and taxation is one of the most sacred bastions of sovereignty.
Customarily, more powerful countries tend to lobby more vociferously and yes, use money as an inducement in many instances. As disturbing as this might sound, it is a reality of international politics and the only reason countries like Barbados do no such thing is because we cannot.
There is considerable precedent for both passive and aggressive attempts to influence national policies of states and we can perhaps look as far back as the post-World War II Marshall Plan which sought to discourage European states from moving towards communism.
Of more recent vintage is the Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI) which had similar ideological intentions, but was primarily focused on the Caribbean in the post-Grenada intervention era.
In this regard, the controversial Shiprider Agreement also comes into focus especially since this bill was one to which Barbados objected, but later signed.
Readers will recall that in this agreement we unilaterally surrendered our right to prevent the United States from entering our territorial waters, so long as they were in “hot pursuit” of a vessel that was suspected to be trafficking drugs.
In this instance, there was no overt discussion of money, but we seemed happy to comply with American demands to change our domestic laws and therein compromise our sovereignty.
Common tactics
The similarities do not end there, since these types of efforts to change domestic laws are also the custom in regional and international organisations such as CARICOM, the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and World Trade Organization (WTO).
In the international sphere, these efforts are cloaked in the language of “conditionalities”, which is a popular method of getting less powerful countries to comply with international norms and principles.
It is interesting that only two weeks ago, France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy identified Barbados as a tax haven, a designation that has negative connotations.
Certainly, there is nothing more sovereign than a state’s right to tax (as is the case with the APD argument above).
However, our response to him was a contention that his assessment was incorrect but at no time did either our attorney general or minister of finance remind Sarkozy that our tax laws were entirely within our sovereign domain and that he should “mind his own business”. 
Similarly, we might wish to cast our minds back to the days when Minister of Finance Chris Sinckler was Minister of Foreign Affairs and he advised us that the Buy Bajan campaign ran afoul of the terms and conditions of the WTO and needed to be discontinued.
This too, was a situation in which our sovereignty appeared to be negotiable.
Perhaps the most potent reminder of the “legitimacy” of Cameron’s comments lie in the international campaign against South African’s apartheid system, which reached its peak in the 1980s and 1990s.
During this period, countries across the globe joined in a chorus of condemnation against the sovereign laws of South Africa that discriminated on the basis of race, and here also we used money as a major tool. 
Countries like Barbados and other progressive states imposed economic sanctions against South Africa and its goods in an effort to force it to change the domestic laws and attitudes towards black people.
Britain’s approach
Ironically, the government of Britain was less enlightened in those days and preferred moral suasion. Certainly, one could argue that this government is now itself being hypocritical, or we could instead be thankful that the British are now attempting to be more evenhanded regarding their approach to human rights.
I would be the first to agree that Cameron’s “threat” was undiplomatic since diplomacy often requires that one states the obvious in less offensive terms.
However, to suggest therefore that Cameron’s statements were unusual in the context of international relations is intellectually dishonest. 
Instead, I prefer to think that no man is an island and often our intercourse with others requires that we adopt common standards.
In this regard, our choice is simple: we either “get with it” and maintain our friendships with progressive states, or identify other less progressive friends that we can abide with.
Peter W. Wickham ([email protected]) is a political consultant and a director of Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES).