Monday, February 19, 2018

Problem of diplomacy by political patronage

The issue of how governments go about selecting personnel for diplomatic appointments is once again brought to the fore with the appointment of Makeda Antoine as ambassador-designate to the United Nations Office in Geneva.

With good reason, this act of political patronage by the Rowley administration has raised concern among foreign affairs professionals about the quality of T&T’s representation at one of the more challenging postings.

Ms Antoine’s curriculum vitae provides little comfort to those who see Trinidad and Tobago’s Geneva office as one that requires solid diplomatic experience and a good knowledge of foreign affairs. It should be said, however, that such lack of experience does not distinguish Ms Antoine.

Especially in recent years, it has become the norm for governments to use diplomatic postings to the major capitals of the world for reasons that have little or nothing to do with the appointees’ ability to deliver quality representation on behalf of Trinidad and Tobago.

Diplomatic appointments are increasingly viewed as reward to political supporters, family and friends; a way of defusing rivalry, as in the case of Pennelope Beckles and Amery Browne in the Rowley administration; and of pacifying fired cabinet ministers as in the case of Therese Baptiste-Cornelis and John Sandy in the Persad-Bissessar administration.

What all of this ignores is the responsibility to ensure quality diplomatic representation for this country in its dealings with the rest of the world.

This is not to say that there is no place for political appointees but they should be required to meet some clear standard. The problem is that no such standard appears to exist in this country where prime ministerial prerogative rules supreme and political appointees with the Prime Minister’s ear would appear to carry more clout than public servants.

Career foreign service personnel have every reason to worry when governments hand the responsibility for representation to individuals of limited experience and unproven capabilities. They are the ones who have to clean up the diplomatic mess created by neophytes and even seasoned politicians with limited experience of their portfolios.

They are also the ones who cringe helplessly when their ambassadors and high commissioners betray their lack of expertise and understanding of diplomacy.
This newspaper has long made the case for bringing accountability to diplomatic appointments.

These offices cannot just be patronage to be dispensed at political whim and fancy. The national interest requires a sound policy basis for appointments grounded in the foreign policy interest of T&T.

At which locations, in what circumstances, by what ratio and with what capabilities is a political appointee preferable to that of a career diplomat? It is high time for the introduction of a policy framework that addresses such considerations, among others.

The carte-blanche right to make appointment allows patently unsuitable candidates to be handed the job to represent T&T at the highest levels around the world with the risk of compromising the national interest.

It is more than time for such appointments, as well as a number of key State positions, to be brought under a framework of accountability. This is where constitutional reform is required for decentralising authority and making it transparent and accountable.