GRENADA: Challenges facing representatives of small countries
Thomas Cromwell

“How do you make yourself visible?”

If you know anything about Grenada, such as where it is on the map, you probably discovered it through either the US invasion of 1983, or the total devastation of the island by Hurricane Ivan in 2004.

This is the problem facing Grenada’s ambassador to Washington, Denis G. Antoine. Having been in the post for 11 years, a stint that makes him dean of the Western Hemisphere’s diplomatic corps, the ambassador has had plenty of time to wrestle with the frustration of representing a small and little-known nation in the world’s most important political center.

“How do you get seen and heard as a small country?” he asked. “Do media even know we are here? Competition has rendered us almost absent.” He pointed out that a recent US-Caricom summit in Washington, hosted by President Bush, was ignored by the media. “How do you make yourself visible?”

Not allowing frustration to win the day, the ambassador has been analyzing the changing world of diplomacy, and especially how it impacts small countries, and is writing a book about what he has learned.

He has found that the importance of his position as his country’s official representative to Washington has diminished in recent years, making it more difficult to get things done.

“You’ve got to look at how 9/11 and globalization have impacted diplomacy, as well as technology,” he told DiplomaticTraffic.com in a recent interview.

The terror attacks on 9/11 changed Washington’s priorities. Not only did it focus US foreign policy on security-related alliances and issues, it also resulted in a tighter security environment in the capital.

“You practically go through a body search to visit the State Department,” he noted. “You end up showing your ID to five people…. If we [diplomats] are all suspect… we don’t feel the reception, the welcome.”

He said this “is one aspect of lowering the value [of envoys]… it implies you don’t know who to trust.” This lack of trust contradicts and undermines the role diplomats are to play, the ambassador said. “It lowers the sense of community. The diplomatic corps in Washington shares a global vision of a peaceful world. We know which countries present challenges to this consensus.”

The challenge for a small country to get attention in Washington is matched by challenges created by technology. Traditionally, the ambassador pointed out, diplomats were in a position to communicate news about their governments and countries to their host countries.

Now, in the age of 24 hour news coverage and the Internet, “we are usually confirming, not originating news,” the ambassador said. “Traditionally, an ambassador was seen as an emissary. Today, you are chasing newsmakers.”

This means that “diplomats have to be on top of everything.” They can’t afford to be ignorant about what is happening in their countries. Theirs is the “role of validator,” he said. Hence “it is critical for a diplomat today to master technology.”

In other words, diplomats have to try to control the messages about their countries without having the advantage of controlling the information and news flow about them.

What’s more, “The modern diplomat cannot rely on his verbal skills to speak and say nothing.” There is just too much information out there to get away with this.

The island of Grenada is only twice the size of Washington, DC, and has a population of only 90,000. Traditionally having depended on agricultural exports, especially nutmeg, Grenada now is focusing on developing its tourism sector, to create jobs for the 12.5 percent of the population unemployed, and to reduce the number of people living below the poverty level, currently one third of the total population.

Another challenge for small countries in diplomacy is that many issues are dealt with on a regional basis. For example, in many areas Grenada has to deal with Washington through US-Caribbean negotiations and agreements, once more limiting the role of Grenada’s ambassador here. “There is a Caribbean desk at the State Department, not a Grenada desk,” he said.

But while the role of traditional diplomacy is less significant, other areas are ascendant. Ambassadors today have to promote trade, investment and tourism for their countries. This is rarely tied closely to bilateral or regional agreements on a government level, but more about facilitating private sector relations.

“I have started to look at how to market my mission,” the ambassador said. “Diplomats have to learn how to get on everyone’s agenda.”

He pointed out that his mission includes reaching out to individual states, in addition to Washington. “It takes a while to realize there is a lot of value in going to Iowa,” he said.

The ambassador has also worked to promote Grenada culturally. “There is more to Grenada than sea and sun,” he said. “We have a special temperament and character.”

He noted that Grenada is the stamp capital of the world, and has the largest shipwreck in the Caribbean, the Italian cruise ship, Bianca C.

The ambassador has offered his embassy for exhibitions by artists from other countries, including Nigerians and Zimbabweans, as part of an effort to promote his country as a center of art.

Referring to the US invasion in response to a communist takeover of the government in 1983, the ambassador said it was “a true rescue and new beginning” for Grenada. “We have a new lease on democracy,” he said. “We have come far past 1983.”

With 85 percent of the country’s homes and most of the other infrastructure ruined by Hurricane Ivan in 2004, the ambassador said his country had learned lessons about how to build. The slogan has been “Build Back Better.” New construction has to be licensed and follow codes.

And, looking at the silver lining: “It is not often you get a chance to rebuild a whole country.”

He described Grenada as “a refreshing and rejuvenating country…. We invite people to come and enjoy the peacefulness.”