On 28 June 2009, the Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was captured by the military and taken to Costa Rica precipitating a constitutional crisis in that Central American country. A few days later, during an encounter of the Netherlands Antillean Council of Ministers, I asked whether we were going to take a stand on this matter since it was turning into a regional predicament. The Prime Minister answered: “We’re too small. Let The Hague worry about that”.
True. We mustn’t harbor any illusions about our size and place in the world. I know we’re a tiny Caribbean island, only 60 km from the South American continent. I’m keenly aware that according to the Statute of the Kingdom of The Netherlands (“Kingdom”) international relations (but certainly not all international aspects) are Kingdom matters. Lastly, I agree that we’re living in uncertain times that more than ever call for cooperation, multilateralism, and not isolation.
But I refuse to believe that we should take a ‘do nothing, say nothing’ posture, or simply surrender to our fates. It’s precisely because we’re small that we should be smart about international affairs. There is no contradiction. The most important factor of our foreign policy should be expanding opportunities for our citizens to overcome our geographic limits. The challenge is to determine how to achieve this given the circumstances mentioned before.
What are the core principles of a sound foreign policy?
First, we need to be an internationally competitive vibrant economy with stable politics, well-defined long-term policies, and a united society. Not constitutional structure but a strong economy brings us prosperity at home and internationally.
Second, we’re credible only if we’re able to maintain domestic consensus on our core interests and foreign policy priorities. We shouldn’t become fractious, or (more) divided.
Third, we need to expand our relationships with as many countries as possible, based on mutual respect and on a win-win interdependence.
Fourth, we don’t compromise our national interests to please others. When unreasonable demands by others hurt or compromise our national interests, we need to state our position in a firm and principled manner.
In his document, No safe future for ABC islands outside Kingdom & EU framework, Mr. Comenencia proposes a foreign policy that is based on joining the EU via the Outermost Regions (UPG) apparently on the promise that the 27 (and ever-expanding) members of the EU will give us exceptions (which are unknown until after accepting the UPG status) to survive in this big bad world. Well-known scare tactics are used here: if we do not integrate into the EU and especially if we become sovereign we won’t make it on our own among the few superpowers in the world.
I know of no single sane person here or elsewhere who suggests a country -no matter its size- to be self-sufficient with a closed economy, not engaging in international trade, and without being helped or influenced by others. None of the nearly 200 sovereign states worldwide have gone solo. Why would we? This non-argument is meant to scare us. This wouldn’t be the first time either. In 1863 we were scared into accepting we were immature to have a Parliament. A few decades later J.J. Hamelberg scared us by stating that voting rights for blacks would lead to cannibalism and satan worship. Frater Radulphus echoed these tactics by saying this about women’s voting rights: We can’t even trust all men with voting rights, let alone women”1.
The author also misses the point by stating that the world is made up of a few superpowers. More and more we are seeing the surge of middle powers like Brazil, India, Indonesia, Japan, and South Korea. In addition, middle powers are finding others in strategic alliances like the Reciprocal Access Agreement between Japan and Australia that was signed earlier this month. Geopolitics isn’t static. In a system where might is right, bigger powers know that they aren’t going to get a free pass to do as they please. We need to ensure that our foreign policy positions reflect the changing strategic realities. We need to be smart.
Another selling point for UPG is the superior EU laws we would get automatically with integration. Yes, some EU laws are progressive. Even though I doubt if we have the capacity any time soon to successfully implement them without the necessary time for societal discussions, let it be known that we don’t need to be UPG to enact these (or any other good) laws.
The last point about UPGs. Three UPGs that are doing reasonably well (Madeira, the Canary Islands, Azores) have always been closely associated with and geographically near their European colonial powers. They’re often referred to as the “European UPGs”. It’s an entirely different situation for the UPGs that are far away from Europe (Réunion Island, Martinique, Mayotte, French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Saint Martin). The European Committee (EC) of the Regions on “The outermost regions of the EU and implementation of Article 299 (Amsterdam Treaty)” recommends that these UPGs integrate into their own regions. We should understand why the EC would make these recommendations instead of haphazardly cheering the UPG-agenda.
It’s mind-blowing how some insist that adopting a new structure like UPG will solve our problems like a magic wand: an abundance of money, all sorts of exemptions we will get from the EU including the 22 of the 27 members that don’t have UPGs. Apparently, we forgot that when Madeira, Azores, and the Canary Islands became UPGs in 1986 the EU consisted of 10 members and that Madeira, Azores, and the Canary Islands were part of the ascension package of Spain and Portugal.
Preference for a new structure rather than exhausting the possibilities that we already have. Understandable. The latter requires hard work. Did we forget the Central Bank suggested introducing US dollars “because our politicians can’t be trusted”? That getting rid of the pesky Netherlands Antilles would result in the plentitude of tax revenues for Curaçao? The New Union, the Curaçao-Bonaire federation, the Commonwealth, Province, and Municipality?
No one said international relations will be easy. But if we aren’t successful at home it’s impossible to be successful beyond our borders. I’m not against discussing the different options. Neither do I want to impose my take on international trade, open regionalism1. But we need to ask some tough questions and not play the bogeyman. Do we integrate into the EU with which we never had significant trade compared with North America? Does integration in the EU mean unnecessary barriers to trade with our traditional North American partners? Do we abandon the USD for the Euro? Do we choose for closed integration into the EU or are there more benefits for us with open regionalism?
Finally, instead of being afraid, we must actively and smartly participate in a global world governed by the rule of law. We’ll always be a small state, but all the more reason to have the courage and the resolution to secure the long-term interests of all our citizens.
2 Buitenlandse Handelsbetrekkingen in the Westelijk Halfrond, Rosaria, Alex 2003
Alex Rosaria is a freelancer in Asia and the Pacific. Before he was a Member of Parliament, Minister, and State Secretary. He started his career with the United Nations and worked among others in Chad and Nicaragua.
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