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Independence and foreign policy

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The achievement of national independence by small countries like ours presents an opportunity for such states to exercise the options afforded to carve out their own niche in the global sphere and to advance the interests of their people. Such opportunities were impossible before constitutional advancement, as the overriding power of the coloniser meant that all matters pertaining to the exercise of sovereignty in international affairs rested with it, in our case Britain.{{more}}

That was the situation during the 10 years of the curious institutional arrangement known as Statehood. During that decade, 1969/79, while our government was responsible for national matters, all decisions, where foreign policy was concerned, were the remit of the British government.

In practice, that meant that permission had to be sought from Britain, much as Montserrat and Anguilla have to do up to this day, if our government wished to make any foreign policy move, and we certainly could not engage in any treaty transactions with foreign powers. Thus, when the Caribbean “Big Four” – Guyana, Barbados, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, took the bold step in 1976 to open diplomatic and other relations with Cuba, in defiance of the US embargo, none of the Caribbean so-called “sardines”, (the OECS states), save Gairy’s Grenada, could even contemplate such a move because they were not yet independent.

Similarly, when SVG was faced with the economic and social crisis after the eruption of the Soufriere volcano in 1979, we could not, unlike today, engage other sovereign states in discussions about relief assistance without Britain’s sanction. No wonder that when assistance was sought, and obtained, by non-governmental sources, from socialist Cuba and “communist” municipalities in Guadeloupe, there was such fear and hesitation by the Labour government in accepting the generous assistance offered.

Independence has freed us from such constitutional constraints. It is therefore imperative that we use the tools of sovereignty at our disposal to carry forward the national interests in the international arena. However, in order to do so successfully, we must have a clear grasp of international relations, develop a clear vision and be able to operate on a principled non-aligned basis.

Since independence, two Prime Ministers, Sir James Mitchell, and Dr Ralph Gonsalves, have demonstrated how one could build relations with non-traditional “friends.” In spite of the ideological conservatism of Sir James, and his major diplomatic gaffe in predicting the demise of the Fidel Castro administration, he was pragmatic enough to open diplomatic relations with Cuba and to accept Cuban university scholarships for our students.

That initiative by Sir James and the opening up of links to African states began to place our country on a more enlightened level. The current administration has gone much further and today we can count on relations with diverse partners, in anti-communist Taiwan and socialist Cuba, in conservative Austria and radical Venezuela, in the Catholic Vatican and Muslim Iran, while maintaining cordial relations with our traditional “friends” – the USA, Britain and Canada.

But such sophistication in international affairs calls for a depth of understanding. Regrettably, too many of us, in politics, in the media and in society as a whole, do not take the time to try and work out the mechanics of how a tiny, underdeveloped state can utilize its foreign policy options in the interests of our people.

Too many of us are still trapped in the slavish attitudes of the past, afraid to exercise independent judgement, for fear of what powerful states would think. We are still at the level of what is good for Britain, the USA or Canada must be good for us also. That accounts for the hostility in many quarters to Cuba and Cubans, in spite of the enormous and undeniable benefits to our country and people.

That same lack of understanding and cheap politicking has emerged again in relation to attitudes towards Ecuadorean assistance in building bridges. It is all well and good, and we can debate and discuss it, to raise concerns about whether Ecuadorean military personnel are “taking away jobs” from Vincentian tradesmen. But to throw in the mix that Ecuador was one of the states fighting the “banana war” against us is arrant nonsense.

It reveals a puerile understanding of international affairs. Ecuador is one country, but it gets different political administrations, just like SVG. And, situations change. Worse, the charge is both hypocritical and outrageous. Was it not the USA which led the attack on our banana preferences, despite not being an exporter of bananas? Should we therefore condemn or refuse American assistance on that basis?

It is time for us to grow up and become more mature in our global perspectives. Our foreign policy is an important tool for development. It must not be sacrificed on the altar of crass political opportunism or plain ignorance.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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