The Caribbean Community's Guardrail Diplomacy and the Gaza War

Nand C. Bardouille

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

05 June 2024   |  #24.05 |    The views expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and may not reflect those of UNU-CRIS. 

Expanding the avenues of diplomacy is one of the defining features of the foreign policies of the 14 mostly Anglophone sovereign Caribbean Community (CARICOM) member states, as the recently concluded Twenty-Seventh Meeting of the Council for Foreign and Community Relations (COFCOR) of CARICOM makes clear.        

Some background is in order. On the one hand, COFCOR "determines relations between the Community and international organizations and third states" and, on the other hand, it "promotes the development of friendly and mutually beneficial relations among member states." As a regional integration movement, CARICOM is built on four pillars. Among its nine-pronged objectives, the regional grouping's focus on its members' economic development and the expansion of extra-regional trade / economic relations is salient. This is in a context where the bloc's constituent treaty makes provision for foreign policy coordination, whose "milestones have supported the longevity and successes of [the] Community."

The foregoing internationalist outlook shines through in the respective statements of the meeting's three top-line speakers, as well as its communiqué.  

That these small states telegraph this particular international affairs-related narrative, following such meetings, isn’t new.

To be clear: Their shared security interests hinge on principled, multilateralist foreign policy. After all, regarding their interests in an international relations context, a core concern is large(r) states (potentially) exerting hard power. A case in point is the Guyana-Venezuela border controversy. See my assessment here, here and here.

The overriding security concern of such states is less about the threat posed by large(r) counterparts than it is about guardrail matters, which are embedded in United Nations (UN) supported multilateralism and international law. (That said, the intention here is not to gloss over that threat per se.) Notably, "[t]hese states have historically seen the most gains when leader countries do not stray wildly from the bedrock principles of the UN Charter."    

No surprise, then, that at the aforementioned meeting Dr. Carla Barnett, CARICOM Secretary-General, spotlighted the challenges which are buffeting the global context. Dr. Barnett called attention to "threats to multilateralism, disregard for international law, and increased instability in many parts of the world."   

In this regard, speaking in her capacity as the then-Outgoing Chair of COFCOR, Senator the Hon. Kamina Johnson Smith, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Jamaica, underscored the following message: "As it relates to the state of global affairs, our keen attention and concern have been occupied by the increased tensions and conflicts including the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza and associated human suffering, the threats to the integrity and sovereignty of Guyana, as well as the ongoing territorial dispute concerning Belize."               

That foreign ministers were also seized of "the upcoming elections in Third States from the perspective of exploring opportunities to strengthen relations with both traditional and non-traditional partners," though, points to a broader concern over possible shifts in security interests vis-à-vis third party governments of the day. This is as CARICOM member states' are doing their level best in girding for the geopolitics of this moment, which has especially impacted the UN's efficacy.     

Indeed, like no other institutional reform issue, UN Security Council (UNSC) reform occupies the attention of the international community.    

This concern rose to prominence shortly after the turn of the millennium, insofar as it has been given new impetus by a geopolitical context that has the unipolar moment firmly in its rearview. Synonymous with the Cold War, proxy wars are now more pronounced in "the evolving strategic environment."   

It is widely accepted that with such international conflicts on the rise, UNSC reform is crucial if the Council is to succesfully prosecute its mission. The geopolitical backdrop: The United States is squaring off with two great powers, China and Russia, and they are all drawing their battle lines in the Security Council. (They are also doing so elsewhere—by proxy.) In the context of international relations analysts' focus on great powers in that regard it is easy to miss the fact that small states—like those of CARICOM—have a stake in (indeed, they routinely lend their voices to) ongoing global debates on UNSC reform.

It is now apparent "with respect to the seemingly intractable Gaza and Ukraine wars, whose wider effects reverberate, not only regionally but also internationally, the bill for the slow rolling of UNSC reform has come due." 

That the Gaza and Ukraine wars have pushed the UN towards its tipping point is a cause of deep concern for CARICOM states, not least because—as small states—they are at a bigger risk of international law breaches.    

Instructively, on the agenda of the COFCOR meeting under reference was inter alia UNSC reform. In fact, this issue of reform was characterized as a "matter of importance to the Community." For one thing, "COFCOR views with grave concern the escalating violence in the Middle East, particularly the recent direct military engagements between Israel and Iran."

Thus, the Israeli-Iranian shadow war is now out in the open. As CARICOM states view it, the Gaza war—which is linked to the latter, decades-long conflict—along with the Ukraine war, is gumming up the workings of the Security Council. As previously intimated, this is detrimental to its mandate.

Moreover, that the Security Council serves as "their principal security blanket" throws into stark relief the issues surrounding this matter for CARICOM states. Fundamentally, "a dysfunctional UNSC augurs ill for CARICOM member states; possibly, they could end up ceding diplomatic and/or political ground qua leverage to would-be aggressors."        

That the latest resurgence of Venezuelan saber-rattling elicited an official response from Guyana informed by the UNSC's diplomatic positioning, which sequentially came first, is not lost on security analysts.      

To be sure, recent high profile CARICOM member states' foreign policy choices in respect of recognition of the State of Palestine have sought to signal their displeasure with the gridlock in the UNSC regarding the Israel-Hamas war. These states are of the view that, in the circumstances, they will effect workarounds in the pursuit of peace à la a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

Over the course of April and May of 2024, then, four member states of CARICOM fell in line with 10 of their sister states which had already done so throughout the 2010s—joining with many other states in the international community to throw their (diplomatic) weight behind Palestinian statehood.      

The bloc's recognition now of the State of Palestine—as I analyse here and here—has garnered international attention. So, too, have the respective diplomatic manoeuvres by Spain, Ireland and Norway to now back a Palestinian state. (Just days later, senior UN experts weighed in with an affirming view on all UN members recognizing a Palestinian state.) What's more, the CARICOM regional grouping's diplomatic move in respect of Palestinian statehood is also linked to its members' distress over (and pursuant to the infamous 'October 7 attacks') "Israel's overwhelming, unfocused military response," which has resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of Palestinian civilians. Israeli authorities' heavy-handed approach to the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza, whose effects have exacerbated Gazans' misery and deprivation, has not helped any. The situation in the enclave is dire.

For CARICOM, Hamas' October 7, 2023 surprise attacks against Israel from the Gaza Strip are abhorrent. But as the bloc also noted early on in the conflict: "Innocent lives are being lost amidst the fervour and violence of the actual combatants.  CARICOM thus joins the responsible members of the international community in calling for an immediate ceasefire and end of hostilities by all parties."    

Considering these circumstances, which it does not deem as conducive to the calculus of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, CARICOM felt compelled to support Palestinian statehood.

The region's support of Palestinian statehood is also symptomatic of its dissatisfaction with geopolitical alignments which have placed the wider Middle East on tenterhooks—"pos[ing] significant threats to regional stability and international peace." From where things sit now, peace in the Middle East looks an even more distant prospect.   

Accordingly, CARICOM member states have joined with most of the international community in pointedly and repeatedly pushing for an end to the conflict—which looms large as the touchpaper for a wider regional war. Having regard to the Israeli military's onslaught and the  "collective punishment" of Palestinians, first and foremost, the imperative of allowing for the unimpeded flow of humanitarian aid into the enclave is a top of mind issue for them. All the while, they have also called for the release of all hostages held by Hamas.       

Even as the U.S.-Israel relationship has come under strain, for its part, Washington continues to seemingly grant a "'blank cheque' to Israel." The effect of such diplomatic positioning on the international stage, which has come at great expense to the United States' global standing, is—for some—the following: It has lifted the veil off of America's foreign policy hubris.  

In recent days, admittedly, U.S. President Joe Biden moved to rein in Israel's war on Gaza. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who (as of this writing) has other ideas, has met this overture with customary defiance. In short, as Netanyahu plays to his far-right coalition government-related gallery, grappling simultaneously with political headwinds, Biden is very much the worse for that foreign policy démarche. For now, at least, this is the case in the Israeli context. And the United States is using this moment to try to address its tarnished image on the international stage.

Even though that three-phase plan to end the Gaza war is in Israeli crosshairs, caught up in to-ing and fro-ing, CARICOM has lent support to it. Instructively, the bloc took the opportunity to reaffirm "its position that lasting peace between Israel and Palestine that guarantees human rights, dignity and security, is through a two-state solution and encourages the implementation of the three-phase proposal as a step towards that objective."

In the eight months since the onset of the Israel-Hamas war, the CARICOM bloc has remained firm in its stance on the same, which laid the groundwork for its unanimous (principled) support recently for the State of Palestine.  

There is little reason to expect that the grouping's foreign policy approach on Israel's war on Gaza will change as long as Netanyahu digs in his heels on not giving ground on a Gaza ceasefire, which the Israeli leader has tied to the achievement of Israel's war aims. The foregoing analysis furnishes insight into what drives that approach, coverage of which is conspicuously absent in scholarly International Relations work on the Gaza war.       

In fact, CARICOM's associated diplomatic positioning tends to be obscured (if not outright ignored) in mainstream analyses of the international community's stake in a Gaza ceasefire. This article helps us to understand such small states' angling in the scheme of things. Simply put, it is not a question of whether CARICOM will be drawn into the geopolitics of the moment—which are ubiquitous. In that light, the new Chair of COFCOR, The Hon. Vince Henderson, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Commonwealth of Dominica, has emphasised that the Council will continue to be taken up with "geopolitical concerns directly affecting [the Community's] sustainable development." CARICOM member states' principal concern, then, is their ability to shore up their interests on the mantle of guardrail diplomacy.      

In sum, the dominant Gaza war-related geopolitical dynamics often collide with the interests behind that diplomacy. Given what is at stake in respect of their own security, CARICOM member states will not stand for it.