If small countries like Trinidad and Tobago can break out of our diplomatic lethargy both at home and abroad, we can use our strategic locations and still-mighty soft power to attract billions in investment and innovation to the region.
Caribbean countries as a whole might at first glance appear of little consequence, especially in light of the emerging great power clashes between the US and Eurasia. For many of the greatest global problems like climate change, our footprints are insignificant.
Foreign diplomats posted to TT tend to fall into one of a few buckets. Either they are mid-level operators celebrating the twilight of their careers in a cushy island posting where they are expected to do little work, or they are ambitious diplomats, taking a break after a hardship posting to some semi-war torn nation.
Similarly, local diplomats sent abroad are either career civil servants who are granted almost zero autonomy to act without consulting their minister, or political operatives, who have more leeway, but are hamstrung by relative inexperience in international relations.
Covid19 has removed the consolation of the usual round of cocktail parties and national days, all of which have evaporated. Little wonder the diplomats are glum.
Now you might well ask why this merits any form of interest at all, given the bigger problems we have to solve. After all, Caribbean economies have been in almost uninterrupted decline for the past five years, climate change is ready to displace oil and gas and sink our islands, omicron stands ready to devastate tourism, contagion from rich-world inflation looms, and regional debt continues to pile up. Our young people are leaving in droves.
But it is precisely because our problems are so serious and our resources so thin that we cannot afford diplomatic complacency. More than ever before, we need the canniest diplomats fanned out across the world bringing deals to the region.
But we have few resources and little clout. Why should anyone listen to us?
There are three reasons why.
The first is our geographic location and our status as English-speaking countries in America’s backyard. It’s no accident that the closest the world has ever come to extinction – the Cuban missile crisis – was right here in the Caribbean.
Just as the US pulls out of the Middle East and all eyes swivel to Eurasia, a competition is quietly heating up to hoover up strategic resources in the Caribbean basin.
The US has been asleep at the wheel for so long that China is well ahead, but there are some signs that they are waking up – with the State Department announcing a new regional infrastructure spending programme, named Build Back Better World (B3W). At very least, China and the US are head-to-head as to who can have the more clumsy name for their infrastructure programmes.
Small Caribbean countries should be using this to our advantage to attract billions in cheap loans and investment – just as children from divorced families always get better presents, as each parent tries to outdo the other. But I’ve heard almost no one local who seems even aware of this.
The second reason is aligned to the first, and is a product of simple maths. Most multilateral organisations like the UN operate on the principle of “one country, one vote.” That means that in the UN, Antigua, with 80,000 people, has the same vote as Brazil, with 215 million people. This is yet another form of leverage that we should be using more to command a seat at the table.
The third is our soft power. Increasingly progressive generations of voters on the left and centre-left in the US and Europe care hugely about climate change and racial justice, both of which issues we are better situated than any to articulate on the world stage.
We can capitalise on the rich world’s domestic concerns to capture more attention, resources and power for ourselves.
It isn’t just the great powers that are useful. We would meet every single one of our investment targets if, for example, we went to each Latin American ambassador (who are rarely consulted) and identified local companies and matched them to expand in Latin America – while in parallel inviting their venture capitalists and innovative companies to TT.
Our diplomats need to have these conversations urgently and constantly – while our politicians need to give them the autonomy to take initiative. Once we start operating on the basis of realist self-interest, we can punch far above our weight on the world stage.
Kiran Mathur Mohammed is an economist and co-founder of medl, an IDB Lab, Microsoft, WHO-backed health tech company, winner of the 2021 TT Chamber Champion of Business award.