Tuesday, February 20, 2018

‘A crisis in our diplomacy’

 While contemplating recent developments in our country’s foreign relations and foreign policy, I was moved to an exchange of views with eminent former diplomats of the Trinidad and Tobago Foreign Service. These exchanges allowed me to refresh my memory in matters of  the foreign service.

 During the discourse one former consul general referred to the distinguished, recently deceased, director of The UWI Institute of International Relations, Leslie Manigat, who would often speak in his inimitable French accent, about a “conjuncture”, by which he meant “a critical state of affairs” or “a crisis”, usually in politics or international relations. 

Today one is forced to acknowledge with great trepidation, the relevance and timeliness of this concept in our foreign relations.

Sadly these former diplomats shared the view that we have plummeted to a new low in our foreign relations. In fact one of them expressed the sentiment that in terms of foreign relations and diplomacy, “Trinidad and Tobago is now manifestly adrift in a sea of callowness and incompetence and except with new orientation will never return to its once exemplary moorings.”

Permit me to highlight a few recent developments, which underscore my deep concerns and those of other eminent foreign policy specialists. The first that comes to mind is the absence of Heads of Missions, from five important capitals, such as London, United Kingdom; Ottawa, Canada; New Delhi, India;  San Jose, Costa Rica, as well as the United Nations in New York. 

Other critical developments include the downgrading by France of the French Embassy in Port of Spain; the non-arrival in Port of Spain of the United States Ambassador; and the possibility that Trinidad and Tobago nationals may soon require visas for entry into the United Kingdom, similar to the Canadian imposition under the NAR administration in 1989. 

Singly these issues would be deeply disturbing for any foreign minister, but when considered collectively, any professional diplomat would conclude that Trinidad and Tobago has indeed arrived at “a conjuncture”, a crisis in our diplomacy, a situation requiring an immediate and substantive response from the Foreign Ministry and the Government.

The appointment of an ambassador is an indication of the importance with which the relationship with the receiving country is held, (in this case Trinidad and Tobago) by the sending country (the United States). T&T over a year and a half ago granted Agrément (agreement for the ambassador to take up office), however recent newspaper reports have quoted a State Department source as saying that this is low on their priority list and it is unlikely that there would be a US Ambassador in Port of Spain before next year.

Similarly the non-appointment of Heads of Mission by the Government of Trinidad and Tobago in five of our overseas missions, not only sends a negative impression to those countries, which have resident missions in Port of Spain, but also raises questions about the lack of strategic planning and direction on the part of the ministry itself, a development to which the Minister of Foreign Affairs must turn his attention.

Costa Rica, one of the three overseas missions established and operationalised under my stewardship as Minister of Foreign Affairs, was set up to serve as a hub to the Central American region. That embassy in Costa Rica is also responsible for foreign relations with El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama and four of these countries maintain resident ambassadors at their embassies in Port of Spain. Therefore the failure to appoint an ambassador after two years, following the re-assignment of the first and only ambassador to date speaks volumes to those countries.

What does the absence of a permanent representative in Central America say for our foreign policy towards Latin American countries, moreso since T&T is also the headquarters of the Association of Caribbean States (ACS) and Central America is a significant bloc within the ACS. 

Meanwhile it has been reported that the distinguished Ambassador of France in the presence of our Foreign Minister, announced in his Bastille Day speech that the French government is downsizing—removing from Port of Spain the responsibility for commercial relations to Caracas; the consular function to St Lucia; the issuance of visas for France to the Embassy of Spain. The ultimate in diplomatic opprobrium was the statement that “the historic residence on Mary Street will not close.” Queries have been raised whether a diplomatic residence properly constitutes an embassy. 

Since the decision by France did not happen overnight, might it be that the foreign ministry was not sufficiently alert? Contrast this to the goodwill created by the alert and adept actions of the foreign ministry, as in the case of the Argentine financial crisis when the closing of that country’s embassy was averted by skilful diplomatic footwork.

It was heartening though to witness T&T hosting a number of significant heads of government and international corporations, who were attracted consequent upon the much maligned 2009 Summit of the Americas and Commonwealth Heads of Government conference held at the “tall buildings” a la the Waterfront Complex, at NAPA, and the Diplomatic Centre. However, credit must go to the administration in which I had the honour to serve and all the esteemed and respected professional diplomatic and foreign service officials, who contributed in enhancing the international image of T&T as “the must-go Caribbean destination”, for purposes of international politics, diplomacy, financial services and sustainable commercial ventures.

Finally, I have been reminded that in diplomacy, very little, if anything, happens precipitately. Diplomacy, in essence, provides the opportunity for diplomatic interaction and problem solving. 

Honourable Minister, whether it be an absence of astute professional staff, inadequate advice, inefficiency or maladministration, something is terribly wrong at your ministry, and its foreign missions. It is time to reverse elements of this “conjuncture’’.