Gaza, Ukraine Wars Elicit Different Reactions in the Caribbean’s Foreign Policy Milieu

Insofar as the spotlight tends to fall almost exclusively on  major Western powers and regional (middle power-type) players relative to global flashpoints, such as the weeks-old Israel-Hamas War and the now 20-month-old Ukraine war, the focus is on their interests and the power dynamic thereof.

Such conflagrations also pose a risk to the security of others, though, notwithstanding that they are farther afield from these geopolitical hotspots.  

The 14 sovereign Small Island and Low-lying Coastal Developing States (SIDS) of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), which as small states share common foreign policy interests and challenges, are a case in point. (The grouping’s mostly Anglophone, sovereign members gained independence from the 1960s to the 1980s.)

Unsurprisingly, whether it harnesses the United Nations (UN) or other means of diplomacy, this bloc has not missed the opportunity to weigh in on these current crises. What is behind this highly participatory approach to international diplomacy of the hour? For its members, amid mounting concerns within their political directorates and foreign policy apparatuses over the need to proactively shield interests in an ever more complex/unpredictable world, it is an opening to reaffirm their principled stand in relation to key tenets of the UN Charterwhich articles 1 & 2 elucidate. So, too, is it a vehicle by which—for what are still relatively young polities—to shore up statehood and treat with concerns about would-be aggressors in their neck of the woods.

Instructively, as part of their attendant diplomacy, they have pitched their reactions differently vis-à-vis the aforesaid conflicts, which are on centre stage in international relations.

With regard to the unfolding Israel-Hamas War—which, given the historical and geopolitical driving forces involved, has the makings of a larger regional war—its outcome holds important implications for a major, UN-underwritten principle (that also informs CARICOM member states’ respective foreign policies): self-determination.

It is instructive that the statement CARICOM published on October 9th, through which it first reacted to Hamas’ October 7th surprise terrorist attacks on Israel, among other things, casts a critical eye on Israel’s retaliatory strikes.

In so doing, its choice of narrative reference is powerfully evocative of members’ own collective, pre-independence pasts—i.e. “colonialism.” On the face of it, and bumping up against the statement’s bid to tread a tightrope on the Israel-Hamas War, this is seemingly a CARICOM overture to Palestine.    

CARICOM took a sharply different line than Washington, then, for whom the scale of Israeli military actions is considered to fall in the realm of a legitimate defensive response to the said attacks. (Even so, U.S. foreign and security policy communities have counselled the Israeli government to respect the laws of war and not to risk repeating America’s post-9/11 mistakes.) Washington and Israel are, however, increasingly isolated on this position.

This is even more so the case in light of the much-anticipated vote conducted under the aegis of the Tenth Emergency Special Session of the UN General Assembly (UNGA), held October 26th – 27th, on a resolution that calls for an “immediate and sustained humanitarian truce” between the warring sides. (The EU, the largest aid donor both to Gaza and the West Bank, stated its position beforehand on humanitarian ‘pauses’ in connection with the Israel-Hamas War.)

This resolution—spearheaded by Arab statesreceived overwhelming support in the now suspended emergency session of the UNGA, with a recorded vote of 121 in favour to 14 against, with 44 abstentions.

The United States and Israel are the most prominent of the dissenting voices, with the former having gone against the grain to show support for Israel in a key organ of the UN. (That said, in recent days, Washington has nuanced its blanket backing of Israel, “emphasizing the need to protect Palestinian civilians in Gaza ahead of a looming Israeli ground invasion.”)

On Oct. 18, the U.S. scuttled efforts in the UN Security Council (UNSC) to adopt a Brazilian-backed resolution calling for humanitarian pauses. (This is just the latest instance of the UNSC—whose principal mandate is the maintenance of international peace and security—suffering the effects of its entanglement in Ukraine war-related great-power competition.)

As is the case with UNGA resolutions, the resolution titled ‘Protection of civilians and upholding legal and humanitarian obligations’ is non-binding. It is symbolic, though. It sends an important message in respect of the standpoint qua sentiment of most of the international community—which makes up the 193-member world bodyon giving effect to the cessation of hostilities.

In the scheme of things, virtually all CARICOM member states voted in favour of the resolution, which some of them co-sponsored. (The Bahamas, along with some other countries, was quick off the mark in publicly welcoming its adoption.)

This aligns with CARICOM‘s October 9th statement on the conflict, which unequivocally calls for an immediate ceasefire. In it, the parties concerned are urged to bring an end to hostilities. In the context of the way forward to secure Israel-Palestinian peace, what stands out is the bloc’s support for UN-related efforts to bring about a two-state solution.

In the three weeks since the attacks, a growing chorus of CARICOM member states has reinforced this multi-tiered messaging.

Barbados, for instance, called for “an immediate ceasefire and end of hostilities by all parties.” Bridgetown cites the steadily deteriorating humanitarian situation on the ground in the Gaza Strip, voicing concern for persons‘ wellbeing on both sides of the conflict.

All told, in its estimation, the urgency of putting a stop to the fighting turns on humanitarian considerations.

Bridgetown also underscores the international community‘s responsibility to “now urgently agree and take action to ensure that the Palestinian people can exercise their right to self-determination in an independent internationally-recognised state of their own in accordance with international law.”

Barbados’ diplomatic posture on Palestine is a long-standing one, which is shared by other postcolonial CARICOM states, for whom self-determination-related international agendas are a top foreign policy priority.

For example, over a decade ago, Georgetown “formally recognize[d] the State of Palestine as a free, independent, and sovereign state, based on its 1967 borders.” The governing party has also pronounced on the war between Israel and Hamas, against a backdrop where Guyana’s President Irfaan Ali has championed the Palestinian cause on the international stage.

That South American country, whose population is partly of Muslim faith, maintains close ties with the Muslim world.

In the current circumstances, some commentators have gone so far as to call on Georgetown to “reset relations with Israel.”

Belize—having joined with its sister CARICOM states in calling for the cessation of hostilities in this most recent (though, in its scale, unprecedented) round of Israeli-Palestinian conflict—has also lent its support to efforts to breathe new life into the case for a Palestinian state.

These diplomatic narratives are telling. As intimated earlier, they engender a tie-in to struggles experienced in the colonial Caribbean. There is deep empathy for the prevailing “epic suffering” of Gazans who, by all appearances, are also the object of “collective punishment” and reportedly dehumanizing invectives. (The Gaza Strip got the short end of the stick in the Israel-Hamas War and, in the process, the West Bank has also been ensnared.)

CARICOM’s strong inclination toward the right of self-determination of the Palestinian people, as regards the Palestinian question, is not uncommon across the developing (inclusive of the Arab) world.

CARICOM foreign policy elites‘ associated thinking is that, as far as the conduct of friendly international relations is concerned, in terms of the ‘principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples’, this moment marks a setback.

Like so many other quarters of the international community, as the carnage meted out by the Israeli war machine to Palestinians in what is widely referred to as the ‘world’s largest open-air prison’ continues unabated, CARICOM is left to ask hard questions about the value of Palestinian lives.

In short, there is a deep-seated current of Caribbean support to end systematized Palestinian subjugation—which plays out in the context of an imposing panopticon and other “sweeping restrictions” by Israel‘s hand. It is understand that this is a throwback, of sorts, to a colonial past à la the “plantation economy.” And given their enduring sense of societal trauma in the latter regard, CARICOM member states are also moved to show solidarity with the Palestinian nation.

Those parallels are not apparent in these countries’ foreign policy approach to another geopolitical context, the Ukraine war. (It is worth noting that the Ukraine war is tantamount to modern Ukraine’s war of independence, even though that nation-state—in its current incarnationsprang into statehood out of the collapse of the Soviet Union some thirty years ago.)

Instead, that war is principally seen as being fraught with risks to the UN’s sovereignty and territorial integrity rule-book. To the extent that it is under challenge, a partial run-on effect on CARICOM member states arises.

There is no better example to enunciate this point than the Venezuelan security threat to the region, which is escalating anew.

Of note, recently, the Venezuelan National Assembly took a decision to mount a referendum in respect of Venezuela’s territorial claim of the Essequiboproffering provocative and incendiary narratives in relation to that planned plebiscite.

This against the backdrop of a decades-long border dispute, which pits Caracas against Georgetown, with the former—a formidable foe for Guyana—laying claim to more than two-thirds of Guyanese territory.

As Guyana’s  geopolitical stock has risen, on account of its recent oil boom, so, too, have Caracas’ bellicose statements directed at Georgetown. On that score, having long since concluded that the threat in question has a bearing on all of its membership’s national interests, the bloc continues to stand its ground. It does so by standing with Guyana as Georgetown faces such existential moments of high politics.

It has, once again, come out in support of Guyana, whose border woes with Venezuela are a standing item in CARICOM summitry. The Guyana-Venezuela border issue also features in the calculations of the bloc’s foreign policy establishment, i.e. The Council for Foreign and Community Relations or COFCOR.

In situations like this, the bloc’s members call attention to the primacy of international law. Simply put: As small states, they are outmatched by larger countries’ hard power repertoire; such that their principal recourse to sabre-rattling, or worse, from third parties is wholesale rejection of the use of force or military means (or threats thereof) to resolve disputes.

In such circumstances, whether it was in the especially vulnerable period of their initial postcolonial steps, or, in the decades following the same, as independent states coming into their own, they instinctively pivot to international law

At the heart of the matter, as Guyana’s leadership underscores, is to spare no effort to resist Venezuela’s “persistent endeavours to undermine Guyana’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” (Those underlying elements of its foreign policy are sacrosanct for this CARICOM member state, as they are for the bloc’s other members, too.) Accordingly, Georgetown is on record in rejecting “the latest actions by the Government of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela in pursuit of its spurious claim to the Essequibo territory of Guyana.”

As regards the peaceful resolution of the Guyana-Venezuela border issue, in seeking advantages over Caracas, Georgetown pursues several multilateral tracks. In addition to the CARICOM route, the UN is one such track. Georgetown utilizes hemisphere-level diplomatic thoroughfares, too, chief among which is the Organization of American States.

Moreover, bilateral relations give a fillip to Guyanas sovereignty-related cause regarding the Guyana-Venezuela border controversy. In this regard, Brazil’s support is especially consequential.

Taken together, these tracks turn as much on recourse to international norms and law as they do on soft power-driven diplomatic imperatives.

This particular moment poses a critical test and has potentially serious consequences for Guyana’s foreign policy, whose biggest prize is the peaceful resolution of this border dispute.

Caracas’ plebiscite-related ploy to try to one-up Georgetown is just the latest twist in this long-running saga, in which Venezuela has—rhetorically but also via cross-border skirmishes—made a play for the Essequibo.

The present power play is deeply disconcerting for Guyana and CARICOM writ large, not least because it is partway reminiscent of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s revanchist playbook vis-à-vis his Ukraine-related gambit.

Given this reality, the Kremlin’s so-called special military operation in Ukraine—for CARICOM and Guyana alike—hits too close to home. Fundamentally, given its scale and the aggressor involved (a P5 UNSC member, no less), this war represents the greatest test yet to core tenets of the UN and the post-war international order: sovereignty and territorial integrity or political independence.

For this reason, CARICOM came out forcefully and quickly to condemn the full-scale invasion (and the attendant war) perpetrated on Ukraine by Russia, which—to its mind—plays fast and loose with the UN Charter and the international system that constituent document helps to undergird.

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.

In sum, at such a critical moment, with the Middle East and Europe both poised on a knife-edge, CARICOM’s international relations also face high costs. After all, they are subject to the knock-on effects of wars whose wider impact on global (in)security is far-reaching. Those wars complicate challenges and dilemmas for all concerned, at all levels. And they further test a multipolar international order in the making. 

For CARICOM, the significance of the Gaza and Ukraine crises is in the degree to which—as sketched in the foregoing analysis—it has a growing stake in how those wars play qua pan out relative to the security environment globally and in the Caribbean Basin, yet, it is faced with significant obstacles regarding its ability to help bring game-changing influence to bear.  

Getting to that point turns, among other things, on UN reformin all its forms. 

Efforts to lay the groundwork for such an overhaul have long since been established, with some demonstrably more visible than others. Along the way, CARICOM has taken a keen interest in leaving its mark on the process.

Today, as the UN has hit a tipping point, with the above crises only adding to this sad state of affairs, making headway as regards reform-related efforts is an imperative duty.

If there is a silver lining to those crises-configured moments, it is that their all-round ghastly effects on humanity ought to act as a spur to a San Francisco moment 2.0.

Whether next year’s much vaunted Summit of the Future can rise to the challenge is an open question. Regardless, there is much in the ‘Our Common Agenda’ initiative that resonates with and appeals to CARICOM member states, which should seize this moment and meaningfully contribute to efforts to shape the development of an inclusive, UN-centric multilateral system. 

They can’t afford not to. 

[Photo by Al Araby, 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 or The Geopolitics

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