Articles - October 2017

Diplomacy In The Eye Of The Storm

Sir Ronald Sanders, Ambassador of Antigua and Barbuda to the United States and to the Organization of American States

A century, quite probably even a decade from now, September 2017 is unlikely to be noted in the annals of diplomatic history. The month was not marked by any infamy akin to the 9/11/2001 terrorist attacks on the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon outside of Washington, D.C. No major conflict began or ended, the opening session of the United Nations came and went marked by rhetorical fireworks but no exchange of hostile fire, and most of the year’s major news stories — investigations into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election in the United States; the fear of rising nationalism in Britain, the United States, and Europe; the continuing fight against terrorism and extremism; concern about climate change and the environment; breaches of cybersecurity — simmered but did not boil over.

Yet, September 2017 marked a chain of natural disasters in the form of back-to-back historic hurricanes forming in the Atlantic, strengthening as they hit warmer waters, and making landfall in populated areas. Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria reached Category 5 status with winds gusting to in excess of 180-200 miles per hour, sweeping parts of the Caribbean and the southern United States to devastating effect. Puerto Rico was especially hard hit, but so too were the British Virgin Islands, the American Virgin Islands, Cuba, St. Martin, Dominica and Barbuda — a small island, part of the country of Antigua (Ahn-tee-guh) and Barbuda (Bar-byou-duh), now denuded of vegetation and virtually devoid of population in the aftermath of the storm.

News coverage inevitably moves on from the lingering effects of disaster as more immediate events take precedence. The United States has struggled to get needed relief and resources to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, a difficult task in the best of circumstances, made even more difficult by the need to get emergency assistance to flood ravaged parts of Texas and Florida that are geographically and politically closer to home. The United Kingdom, France and the Netherlands are all providing rebuilding assistance to their associated territories in the Caribbean, like Antigua and Barbuda island states that confront the realities of sea level rise complicated by climate change.

Inevitably, the stricken island states of the Caribbean must turn to the international community — formal international organizations like the United Nations, World Bank and Organization of American States, governments willing to offer assistance, non-governmental organizations like the Red Cross, and commercial lending markets — in order to rebuild. Not surprisingly, catastrophic natural events like Irma and Maria move diplomacy into the realm of international disaster relief and reconstruction, highlighting both the human plight of victims of the storms and the economic costs of rebuilding infrastructure and a functioning economy.

Speaking for the island state of Antigua and Barbuda in Washington, D.C. is Sir Ronald Sanders, accredited as his country’s Ambassador both to the United States and to the Organization of American States. Born in Guyana and educated in the United Kingdom, Sanders speaks with the precision and sonority of the BBC-trained broadcaster he was before beginning his diplomatic career.

He has twice served as his country’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom as well as its representative and negotiator to the World Trade Organization. Ambassador Sanders served as a member and Rapporteur for a Commonwealth Eminent Persons group appointed by Queen Elizabeth II to explore ways to make the Commonwealth of States more relevant and effective in the 21st century, a position that led to him being nominated by several Caribbean states as their candidate for Secretary General of the Commonwealth. Though that bid was unsuccessful, Sanders was subsequently named to his double-hatted position in Washington, D.C. He has served as President of the Permanent Council of the OAS and led a special Mission to Haiti that helped to resolve a constitutional crisis in that country.

Today, however, he speaks quite literally from the eye of the storm. The very center of Hurricane Irma passed directly over Barbuda denuding the island of vegetation, displacing its people, and devastating the island’s tourism based economy. Sanders points out that “Barbuda’s land mass is 62-square miles. Hurricane Irma was 364 miles wide when it spread itself across the island, overwhelming it in size, strength and ferocity. Neither Barbuda nor its inhabitants stood a ghost of a chance against so formidable and monstrous a power.”

The entire population of Barbuda was evacuated to Antigua in the wake of the storm, but the physical destruction was near total. “For the first time in over 300 years,” notes Ambassador Sanders, “there was not a single living person on Barbuda. An entire civilization’s footprint was obliterated from the island. People had to leave behind all of the things that were important to them — their homes, their memories, their burial grounds — all the things that make a person part of a place and a community.”

Speaking on behalf of his country before the OAS, Sanders poignantly made the larger diplomatic point. “These storms know no borders,” he observed. “They know no ideology or embargoes. So, Irma stalked through parts of Cuba before it went on to parts of the United States. They make no discrimination between small or large, poor or rich. They see no white people, or black people or any shade of color in between. Their destruction is ruthless, heartless, and pitiless.”

In the midst of a whirlwind schedule of media appearances and high-level diplomatic engagements designed to keep the devastation caused by these historic Atlantic storms in the public eye even as world events move on and the difficult long-term work of human and economic recovery begins, Ambassador Sanders was kind enough to make time to speak with us.

Diplomatic Connections: Given the extent of the destruction wreaked on Barbuda and Antigua by these storms, how do you even begin the work of reconstruction?

Ambassador Sanders: The point is that we have to rebuild Barbuda from scratch. We cannot, not do it. This is the homeland of Barbudans who have been there for over 300 years, and they want to go home. One can understand that. And, rebuilding it with a $250 million bill has an economic benefit to it. Barbuda is one of the most gorgeous tourism spots in the world. Its beaches are quite unique – beautiful pink sand beaches. You stand in the water up to your neck and you can look down and see your toes. It is that clear, and the beaches are just marvelous.

Robert DeNiro, the actor, wants to build a $250 million resort on Barbuda. In rebuilding, we need to be aware of the need for hotel resorts of that kind, which can make a contribution to the employment of the people of Barbuda, but also to the economy of Antigua as a whole. That is a further reason for wanting to rebuild the island. But, it is a mammoth task. At $250-$300 million, we are talking about upwards of 20% of my country’s GDP.

Diplomatic Connections: Your GDP is just about $1.4 billion?

Ambassador Sanders: Yes, that’s right. You understand, therefore, we cannot generate that money by ourselves.

Diplomatic Connections: Where do you turn to generate those funds?

Ambassador Sanders: That is a good question. Our Ambassador in New York made an international appeal for assistance at the opening of the United Nations General Assembly, and that appeal will be reiterated. Unfortunately, it is difficult for our country to go to the commercial banks. Antigua is already indebted because the government has borrowed to finance the cost of rebuilding from past hurricanes.

Understand that our leaders had no choice but to rebuild. If we had not rebuilt, then Antigua and Barbuda would have had no tourism; furthermore, there would be no schools, no proper housing for the citizens of our country. Indeed, one of the reasons why Antigua survived Hurricane Irma as well as it did was from lessons learned historically. Previous hurricanes resulted in rebuilding with more resilient designs and greater protected infrastructure. Similar procedures must be followed as Barbuda is rebuilt.

Diplomatic Connections: Does that past borrowing experience now make it more difficult for you to rebuild once again?

Ambassador Sanders: We cannot borrow on commercial terms. Concessional financing from the international financial institution like the World Bank and others is something that must be attained. But, here is the other “kicker” about this. If it wasn’t so tragic you would laugh. We are classified in Antigua as a “middle income” country. Because we are classified as a middle income country, we are not eligible for concessional financing from the world’s financial institutions. Their rules force us to go into the commercial lending markets.

Diplomatic Connections: Those borrowing rules are based on the international institutions’ calculations of GDP per capita?

Ambassador Sanders: Yes, that’s right. Now here is the reality of that nonsense. What is GDP per capita? It takes the income of everybody in the country and divides it by the total population in order to generate a statistical average income.

Barbuda is a small country and being a tourism island without enough domestic capital formation, we go out and try to lure foreign investors into our country. We bring in hotels and various other businesses.

These foreign investors pay their senior staff high wages. The salaries are high. That fact serves to skew the per capita income of the country. The appearance is that we have high per capita income. But the truth is, it is 10% of the population — most of them ex-patriates — who have 90% of the income. That means that 90% of the population earns 10% of the money. This per capita GDP criterion is not fair.

We have made this point to the World Bank, the IMF and others for years. But, they turn a blind eye to it because their governments turn a blind eye to it. The governments don’t want to give concessional terms even in a crisis of this kind.

Diplomatic Connections: Climatologists and critics of the Caribbean island economies suggest that in the face of rising sea-levels and climate extremes, retreat from low-lying areas is a better strategy for the future than rebuilding. Would you agree?

Ambassador Sanders: In some areas retreat may be advisable. Clearly, we need to build more storm resilient facilities and reinforce our infrastructure to assure its survivability.

But, we are not going to abandon our countries. We are not going to wipe out our own civilizations. We intend to help them rebuild because the idea that we could contribute to the extinguishing of our own communities is anathema to us. We are not going to do it. We are going to maintain a Caribbean place on the map of the world. We are going to continue to contribute to intellectual life, to cultural life, to scientific life as we have done all these years.

Diplomatic Connections: The United Nations has actually created a formal category for Small Island Developing States (SIDS). Do small island nations have a special role to play in the diplomacy of climate change?

Ambassador Sanders: They do because they are the biggest sufferers. Small island countries by themselves did not have the power or the influence to make the world, especially the major powers, truly cognizant of climate change and its consequences. But Mother Nature has changed all of that. Leading nations are certainly aware of climate change now. What island states have to do in the diplomacy of this matter is to keep it alive in every single forum, in every part of the world on a continuous basis.

Diplomatic Connections: You have made a very interesting argument about assistance to Antigua and Barbuda in terms of a “justice” question, characterizing the plight of Antigua and Barbuda, and other small island states, as victimization. Could you restate that argument for our readers?

Ambassador Sanders: In terms of carbon emissions and pollution, the data is persuasive. The seas are hotter than they used to be. All of this is caused by the activities of human beings and their over-utilization of fossil fuels. There are roughly 200 countries in the world, but ten of them are responsible for the bulk of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. Among them are: the United States, China, India, Russia, the European Union 28, Brazil, Japan, Canada, Mexico, and Indonesia. Those are the principal culprits.

The rest of us are suffering for the consumption of that group of countries. We are the victims, therefore, of other nations’ profligacy. We contribute less than 0.001 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, and I’m talking about the Caribbean as a whole, not just Antigua. And yet, we are the victims of this pollution, year after year, after year.

Diplomatic Connections: You have also raised the matter of a long standing trade case between the United States and your country before the World Trade Organization. This was a disagreement regarding casino and internet gambling that Antigua actually won against the United States. Could settling this dispute be part of the rebuilding process for Barbuda?

Ambassador Sanders: Without going too deeply into the details of this case, let me simply say that the WTO awarded my country a substantial settlement that the United States has resisted paying. The U.S. government has lost several appeals of this decision, but has continued to ignore the requirements of the award handed down by the WTO. This has gone on for more than a decade.

We have been one of the greatest allies of the United States in the Caribbean. Antigua, for instance, was the home of the Voice of America when the United States wanted to get its messages into Central America, Cuba, and Latin America’s left-wing governments. We also hosted two U.S. facilities, both a military base and an air base. When you were in the midst of the Cold War with the Soviet Union and others, we were your friend. And, when we did that, incidentally, we were criticized by our neighbors.

President Trump says he is a master in the art of the deal. Well, we could do a deal. Whatever our need is, that is what I’d like to get to. Such a deal would be helpful to us, but it would also indicate that the United States is faithful to its friends. It will reinforce the notion that the United States will do what is right. That is what I would like to see.

Diplomatic Connections: You have had a long, distinguished and exceptionally effective diplomatic career. Antigua and Barbuda has punched above its diplomatic and economic weight for years. Based on your career experience what lessons have you learned that might help small countries be diplomatically more effective in a world dominated by great powers?

Ambassador Sanders: The first thing is to have courage. Don’t be daunted by anybody or any country or any diplomat because they come from a country more powerful than yours. At the end of the day when you sit down together it is your intellect that matters. It is the quality of your argument, the fairness of your proposed solutions, and the justice of your situation that counts most.

The second qualification is work — hard, diligent work. Read, in order to know what is going on. Be aware. Be prepared to stand your ground wherever you are. That’s important.

Small countries don’t have armies to send anywhere. We don’t place economic sanctions against anybody. We don’t have money to sweeten a deal with anybody. All we have is diplomacy. And, diplomacy means that we have to present our case firmly, soundly, not rudely but persistently. Not with intolerance, but with patience. It’s a continuous effort.

Diplomatic Connections: What advice would you offer to a new generation of diplomats?

Ambassador Sanders: I was invited by the United States State Department to talk to a class of mid-level diplomats at your Foreign Service Institute.

I told this group of people, “You are all posted to various places and subconsciously, whether you know it or not, when you are posted to these places, you go with a feeling of superiority. You go with the feeling that you represent the great United States of America and that you are in some dinky little place that’s backward. Therefore, you’ve got to tell these people what to do. That is mistake #1.”

“The other thing you believe, because you are American and you come from a great country, is that people look at you with warm and fuzzy feelings. Mistake #2.

“First of all, when you go into a country, understand you are going as a guest. Realize that what you should be doing is learning the culture of this place. How do I understand this culture so that I can communicate with these people in an effective way? Don’t behave as if you are their superior. Try to discover how you can develop a symbiotic relationship. You might (or, might not) be brighter than they are, but use that brightness to help, not to hinder.”

Diplomatic Connections: How have you acted on that principle in your own career?

Ambassador Sanders: When I came to the United States as Ambassador, for instance, it was the end of a very long career, much of which had been spent in Europe. The United States was a different place for me. But, I recognized the complexities of this country. There is no one definition of what an American is. There is no single answer to what America’s interests are in the world, except those that are encapsulated by the phrase “America First.” But, every country should have that phrase. For me it is “Antigua First,” too. But that does not mean Antigua exclusively.

I acknowledge the need to work with others. I think President Trump has finally begun to recognize that. And that is good because we should always recognize that other countries have interests of their own, just as our country has its interests.

Diplomatic Connections: How do you distill these insights into core lessons for those who practice the art of diplomacy?

Ambassador Sanders: First, pay attention and be cognizant of the society you are working for. Know what your own objectives are, but simultaneously recognize that those objectives cannot remain rigid in the light of reality. When you find circumstances that lead you to think about what the objective was to begin with, rethink the objective. Recast it. See how you might remold your objective so that it could work, not only for your country but for the country to which you are accredited.

Diplomatic Connections: Well said. Mr. Ambassador, you have been extraordinarily kind with your time and your insights. We wish your islands and the entire Caribbean well as the work of rebuilding economies, putting lives back in order, and learning the lessons to be derived from this unprecedented series of storms continues. Thank you for speaking with Diplomatic Connections.


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