CARICOM-BRICS Relations Are in the Spotlight. Here Are Some Takeaways

The argument voiced in an Aug. 29, 2023 guest editorial titled ‘Caricom and new BRICS’ in the Jamaica Gleaner newspaper that the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) blocs leadership “should commission an urgent, and robust, assessment of the implications of the BRICS expansion, and other initiatives proposed by the group, for this region” makes eminent sense.

(That editorial, also carried by other regional media houses, was published in the days following the XV BRICS—i.e. Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa—Summit that, as never before, thrust the group into the diplomatic limelight.)

Even so, that missive has shortcomings.

For one thing, the author’s perfunctory exhortation that “Caricom as a group should, perhaps, seek observer status within BRICS” runs up against the missive’s strong opening salvo—referenced above. In this sense, the argumentation in question puts the cart before the horse.

Second, the author provides a pared-down discussion of what s/he characterizes as “the larger principles of having [in BRICS] a strong platform from which to pursue global equity.” Thus, s/he misses an opportunity to address a key talking point among BRICS watchers relative to the groups hand in any (possible) post-Western global order: The need for a clearer articulation of the vision(s) thereof.

Such a clarification is especially pertinent, when casting an analytical gaze to the BRICS group post-Feb. 24, 2022.

Take the example of Russia. It is well known among Putinologists that Russian President Vladimir Putin has a narrative of grievance, which looms large with respect to the Ukraine war. It also serves as a crutch for Putin’s particular brand of challenge to the West writ large. Significantly, in part, it holds up the Kremlin’s doctrine of Russian worldmaking

This begs the question: What bearing does such a narrative have on the BRICS group, including vis-à-vis its wider reformist-cum-philosophical narrative-related projection, especially since the likes of Iran have been invited to join the group?

In a cross-section of policymaking and diplomatic circles, there are heightened concerns that such a trajectory could set in motion a hardening of views regarding the thrust and contours of an imagined post-Western global order which, in short, could become a euphemism for anti-Western ordering.

Finally, with its contention “that BRICS isn’t founded solely on [certain] geopolitical contestations,” the piece profoundly misunderstands the geopolitically heavy trajectory of the group.

Having regard to the Kremlin’s Ukraine war-related diplomacy, purportedly, within the BRICS group’s ranks, neutrality is the name of the game. However, the exercise of and diplomatic positionality around such neutrality is problematic: The group’s contemporary diplomacy—both within and outside of its ranks—is ensnared in efforts to come up with a workaround regarding criticism of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022 and its associated war of aggression.

With this in mind, it is instructive that CARICOM is non-neutral on the war.

On February 24, 2022, the bloc registered its strong condemnation of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine; a position that, on March 14, 2022, it reaffirmed. Since then, as regards the ongoing hostilities, CARICOM has repeatedly conveyed its concern in international fora.

The author does not mention this at all. 

Given this particular juncture in the BRICS-related (soon-to-be BRICS+) diplomatic journey, when highlighting CARICOM-BRICS relations, it is ill-advised to shy away from the significance of CARICOM’s principled, promptly-stated Ukraine war-related stance.

CARICOM member states are looking out upon the uneasy interregnum between the short-lived unipolar moment—now in our rear-view—and the unsettled, emergent era with a new appreciation for consequential shifts in the balance of power, as well as the implications arising, with a resolution to the Ukraine war firmly in their diplomatic sights.

In all of this, in a context where “the prevailing (international) politics often prove far costlier for such states,” the Ukraine war-related turn of (international) events is roiling the conduct of CARICOM member states’ global affairs.

Above all, against the backdrop of their “development landscape”—which is directly tied to “threats … in the Anthropocene context”the Ukraine war makes it that much harder for the 14 sovereign Small Island and Low-lying Coastal Developing States (SIDS) that comprise CARICOM to contend with critical crises facing the globe.”

As major powers pivot to the epoch to come, the now 18-month-old Ukraine war and associated macro factors stand as a significant obstacle in the way of CARICOM SIDS‘ own bid to take a step forward, serving as an all-too-familiar reminder of the role that system-level factors play in such an undertaking.

Even though “[the Ukraine] war … pits the Euro-Atlantic security order against Russia, [then, it has] security implications [which] are wide-reaching.”

This is an important consideration for CARICOM members, which are “system-ineffectual,” small states, and it is pivotal to understanding why—shortly following the onset of Russia’s full-scale invasion of UkraineCARICOM Heads of Government put the stakes involved for their respective countries even more starkly.

Indeed, CARICOM members “have historically seen the most gains when leader countries do not stray wildly from the bedrock principles of the United Nations Charter.” Hence, they were eager to associate themselves with a consequential United Nations General Assembly resolution “demanding that Russia immediately end its military operations in Ukraine.”

In sum, one ought to dichotomize CARICOM-BRICS relations pre- and post-February 24, 2022.

Instructively, for years now, CARICOM has a track record of capitalizing on “opportunities” to deepen BRICS-related ties. This is informed by CARICOM leaders’ longstanding imprimatur for the bloc to advance relations with non-traditional partners, as well as by the imperative of most CARICOM member states needing “to improve [their] export performance with BRICS.”

Given the geopolitics of the day, CARICOM may well have cause to ask searching questions around the extent to which the post-February 24, 2022 BRICS group can serve a wide cross-section of its interests.

By the same token, it would be short-sighted to throw the baby out with the bathwater. For example, some of what is in the XV BRICS Summit declaration resonates with CARICOM. One such matter is the “call for reform of the Bretton Woods institutions.” In this regard, on the international stage, CARICOM is a leading voice for reform of the international financial system. Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley has taken a special interest in the matter, championing The Bridgetown Initiative.

Furthermore, to the extent that bilateral and multilateral relations are complementary, a strong case can be made—for example—that deepening Guyana-Brazil relations lend themselves to overarching CARICOM-BRICS relations.

That said, CARICOM member states are also deeply wrapped up in aspects of the U.S./Western-led liberal international order (LIO) and, by extension, its institutional bedrock.

Those interests are also of a piece with Washington, which—having neglected its ‘third border’ for much of the unipolar moment—is in the midst of a charm offensive with and is winning over member states of CARICOM, who are collectively invested in the pursuit of even deeper ties with their northern neighbour.

This marks a big change to the way that the United States views the Caribbean, with which relations looked very different some thirty years ago.

As regards “the post-1945 international system and the bipolar stand-off between the United States and the Soviet Union,” Washington prioritized “security concerns [over] other policy interests;” such that—in the determination of the United States’ foreign and intelligence services—by “the late 1980s … [Caribbean states had] lost strategic importance.” What is more, by the late 1980s and early 1990s, when there was a geoeconomic swing to a new wave of globalization, those states were caught flat-footed in respect of their developmental trajectory.

In reflecting on this dire state of affairs, the then-Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago cautioned that regional states were at risk of “becoming a backwater.”

By the late 20th Century, then, the Caribbean occupied vastly reduced real estate in the United States’ foreign policy agenda.

Over a generation later, times have changed. 

With much fanfare, the Biden Administration has called attention to new Caribbean-related assistance.

In fact, CARICOM’s Council for Foreign and Community Relations “[has] expressed satisfaction with the reset in CARICOM’s relationship with the United States of America.”

Washington is pursuing such a diplomatic approach, by and large, to counter the PRCs growing influence in the Caribbean. 

In this regard, Beijings “motives … are both economic and political and have to be examined in the wider context of China’s overall foreign policy, its shifting worldview, its superpower status and the geo-politics of the current global conjuncture.” 

Much the same could be said of CARICOM member states’ approach to bilateral foreign policymaking writ large. Of note, these states pursue their respective bilateral foreign policies in line with their national interests. How they navigate relations with respective BRICS members and with Western powers—such as the United States—is a sovereign decision.

In fact, with one caveat, CARICOM member states have long-standing diplomatic ties in that regard.

What, then, is the rub? In short, given key fissures regarding their respective foreign policy frameworks, they will likely run into difficulties in the realm of coordinating a regional approach to the BRICS group.

The one-China principle (which underlies the aforementioned ‘caveat’) is an apt example in this regard, considering that only five of the 14 sovereign CARICOM member states extend diplomatic recognition to Taiwan.

That CARICOM is on the cusp of a high-stakes multipolar international order, which has many unprecedentedly complex moving parts, it is of paramount importance the several issues (including the central questions) arising form part of a standing item on the agenda of the bloc’s foreign policy establishment

The op-ed under reference would have done well to draw attention to such issues, too.

Still, the far more important takeaway from that guest editorial is that—going forward, with due regard to overriding foreign policy interests—CARICOM needs to do a lot more thinking about its relations with the BRICS group.      

At this juncture, the group benefits from an unprecedented boost in its status in international relations. Accordingly, it behoves CARICOM to do its homework regarding turning the BRICS group’s growing influence to its advantage, while—in the process—careful not to undermine its small states-related principles and interests.

[Image credit: Carport, via Wikimedia Commons]

Dr. Nand C. Bardouille is Manager of The Diplomatic Academy of the Caribbean in the Institute of International Relations (IIR), The University of the West Indies (The UWI), St. Augustine Campus, Trinidad and Tobago. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of The UWI. The author would like to thank Ambassador Riyad Insanally for his generous and insightful advice on an early version of this article, as well as his engaged commentary on related work. Special thanks to Ambassador David Hales for perusing an earlier draft of this article and for wide-ranging discourse, which shaped the author’s perspective on underlying themes. The author is especially grateful to Ambassador Patrick I. Gomes for his incisive feedback, openness and encouragement regarding his scholarship, which also benefits from Ambassador Colin Granderson’s input.

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