Americas

Echoes of Monroe: The Need for Soft Power in the Caribbean


As China makes inroads in the Caribbean, the United States should lean on its greatest source of soft power in the region – a shared remnant of a British colonial past – the English language. This is crucial as the Caribbean is a hub for vibrant and interconnected cultures and beliefs. Given a nonexistent language barrier and geographic proximity, a partnership between the United States and the English-speaking Caribbean is natural and remains essential for influence and cooperation. Unfortunately, the United States has recently neglected the Caribbean and its leaders and has instead focused its attention on Latin America, given the alarming problems there. Yet, the United States will better address these issues by engaging with the Caribbean and winning its support. However, the United States will first need to compete with Chinese influence to strengthen its relationship with the Caribbean.

The north end of the Sir Vivian Richards Stadiums.
Image courtesy of Chuckdisi © 2015

Chinese influence in the region is growing while the United States’ position as a global power is decreasing. A 2018 Gallup poll nearly equates China’s global power with that of the United States. It also notes a significant drop in approval of U.S. leadership, especially in the western hemisphere. The United States can regain its global position and engage with the Caribbean primarily through education, language, and values. It can also use soft power to address the region’s immediate problems such as mass migration, climate change, and HIV/AIDS, all of which require bi-lateral communication and globalized methods.

Chinese influence in the Caribbean transcends economic investment and loans. In 2007, China funded cricket stadiums for the Men’s Cricket World Cup, hosted by the Caribbean. Cricket is one of the Caribbean’s most popular sports and uniquely unifies the region, especially the international West Indies cricket team and its players from various English-speaking countries. Additionally, China has offered scholarships to West Indian students and has announced more than 100 educational programs for citizens of Antigua and Barbuda. These students will have the opportunity to pursue English-medium higher education at Chinese universities. These soft power approaches reinforce China’s Belt and Road Initiative, with Foreign Minister Wang Yi stating that China wants to increase mutual support in the region.

There are instances where the United States has done well to implement the necessary pathways needed for soft power. Though effective, they have not been initiated by the federal government. For example, the city of Lauderhill in South Florida hosts international cricket games that usually draw large audiences comprised of Caribbean diasporic groups. Furthermore, the United States of America Cricket Association sends a cricket team to the Caribbean to participate in regional tournaments. This engagement isn’t restricted to cricket; in fact, Jamaica’s National Women’s Football Team recently qualified for the Women’s World Cup. However, it held fundraising efforts in Florida because the Jamaican Soccer Federation failed to provide funds for travel and training. These are efforts that the U.S. government can build upon, in addition to undertaking supplementary measures. However, the Trump administration will first need to change its rhetoric on issues dominating Caribbean policy agendas, such as climate change. President Donald Trump’s discourse on climate change is likely to alienate the Caribbean as climate change effects worsen.

There are numerous opportunities for the United States to employ soft power within the Caribbean. For example, China employs its own citizens for Caribbean development projects, making local unrest likely, especially as many Caribbean people struggle to find work. This provides an opening for the United States to compete with China: through implementing aid, investment, and educational programs within the region. It can also extend scholarship opportunities like the Fulbright Fellowship. The United States will gain access to the region’s future leaders as those currently educated by U.S. institutions will likely return to their countries to improve them.  It is a necessary pathway, which will influence coordination and communication for future generations. Additionally, these education opportunities can include sex education; sexual literacy will surely help reduce the prevalence of HIV/AIDS. The region currently has the second-highest prevalence rate behind Sub-Saharan Africa.

Other modes of soft power include disaster assistance programs. U.S. Southern Command (Southcom) has begun this process by launching its Humanitarian Assistance Disaster Relief workshop in December 2018. Most of these soft power methods can be facilitated by universities in the Caribbean, such as the University of the West Indies. Another method that is often overlooked is inviting President Trump or top advisers to visit the region. Their visits do not just resonate with Caribbean leaders, but with locals as well. Essentially, the United States will need to use soft power to market itself to the region as Chinese involvement continues.

The world and the hemisphere are increasingly becoming interconnected, making soft power all the more important. The increase in technology and the rise of social media platforms enable essential cultural contact. The constant dissemination of information and popular culture from the United States will influence the English-speaking Caribbean.  The United States will need to capitalize on this cultural exchange and shared language to compete with a rising China and to securitize its national interests in the region.

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