Scott B. MacDonald, The New Cold War, China, and the Caribbean: Economic Statecraft, China, and Strategic Realignments. Palgrave Macmillan, August 2022.
Price: USD $ 98.99 | 319 pages
Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison once said, “if there’s a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, you must be the one to write it.” Scott MacDonald seems to have taken Morrison’s wisdom to heart in researching and writing The New Cold War, China, and the Caribbean, not only in writing a ground-breaking book but one that many other individuals would have liked to read—and write.
In just over 300 pages, MacDonald combines his intimate familiarity with the Caribbean, his training as an economist, and his conversance with strategic studies and China studies, to produce a book that is as perceptive as it is timely, with appropriate forays into history in order to explain contemporary developments. The author explains his intent to examine the slide into a new Cold War in the Caribbean, his primary argument being that the region’s “geopolitics have shifted from a period of relative great power disinterest in the aftermath of the Cold War to a gradual movement into a new Cold War in which a global rivalry between the United States and China is acted out regionally.”
MacDonald does acknowledge that there is a debate about whether or not there is a new Cold War, and he concedes that this new iteration of the Cold War is not an exact replication of the previous one. For him, though, the new Cold War involves “the geopolitical and economic rivalry between a set of Western liberal democratic and market-oriented countries and their competitors who represent an alternative set of guiding political principles which embrace authoritarian or autocratic regimes and usually favor a large state role in the economy …” In this respect, the main protagonists are the United States and China, with other countries drawn into the competing camps. Moreover, a central proposition of the study is the eminently supportable contention that “the global political economy is seen through the lenses of competition between countries, which can veer into outright rivalry and at times conflict.”
The book’s definition of the region goes beyond the archipelago Caribbean. While not encompassing the entire Caribbean Basin, its ambit includes Belize and Panama in the Central American isthmus, along with Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana in northern South America. MacDonald, who dates his venturing into the Caribbean to the late 1960s with a family visit to U.S. Virgin Islands, offers 10 chuck-full-of-value chapters with fascinating titles, including “China’s Caribbean Adventure,” “China, Venezuela, and Cuba: the New Cold War,” “China and the English-speaking Caribbean and Suriname,” “Caribbean States and the New Landscape,” “The China-Taiwan Duel: Caribbean Echoes,” “Realignments, Tensions, and Asymmetry: Russia and Iran,” “Europe, Canada, and the Caribbean, and the New Cold War,” and “U.S. Policy in a Choppy Caribbean Sea.”
Quite rightly, MacDonald, whose day job is chief economist for Smith’s Research and Gradings, a Virginia-based financial credit grading company that conducts research and provides credit reports using its own trademarked grading system, argues that with the new Cold War Caribbean countries run the risk of being in the middle of two hegemonic powers. Discussion of several flashpoints serves to reinforce this point.
According to the author, “the major potential flashpoints are the potential for the Chinese to establish military bases or the selling of high caliber missiles (capable of reaching the United States) to Cuba or Venezuela. It is one thing for China and, for that matter, Russia, and Iran to send their ships to the Caribbean. It is something very different to put offensive weapons with the capacity of causing massive damage in the continental United States into the hands of hostile forces.” Other flashpoints are Panama, Venezuela, and Guyana. In relation to Venezuela and Guyana, mindful of China’s silence on Venezuela’s claim against its eastern neighbor, the author asks perceptively: “What happens if Venezuela actually makes a military attempt to occupy part of the disputed area? Would China back Venezuela? It [China] is, after all, one of the major international economic props for the Caracas regime.”
The author, who also is a Fellow with Global Americans and the Caribbean Policy Consortium, raises some crucial questions, including whether Caribbean countries can “navigate between Chinese largesse, behind which possibly loom the debt traps and loss of control over parts of their economies and the power of the United States, which has ‘re-discovered’ the region and is seeking to re-engage?”
But the foregoing is just part of the richness of MacDonald’s book; part of its richness lies in the fact that, with a mind to the future, it ponders three future scenarios: a China Above All Scenario, a China Fade Scenario, and a Muddle-Through Scenario. The book’s final words also are worth capturing here: “Although it is difficult to maintain unity, there is advantage to strength in numbers. Indeed, the words of Haiti’s revolutionary hero, Toussaint Louverture, are worth noting: ‘Unite; for combination is stronger than witchcraft.” It is good to be stronger than witchcraft, especially in a cold war. And as we look toward to the rest of the 2020s and into the 2030s, the new Cold War is likely to be less of a debating point and more of a reality.”
Overall, MacDonald examines some of the crucial dynamics of the contemporary Caribbean in the global post-Cold War context, offering a rich and provocative analysis of the region as both the subject and object of global power politics that is characterized as a new Cold War. He pays appropriate attention to the policies and pursuits of global-level actors such as China, the United States, Russia, and Iran. Thus, this book offers an exceptional study of contemporary Caribbean geopolitics and geoeconomics, with appropriate attention to historical antecedents. As such, it makes an invaluable contribution to the literature on the international politics of the Caribbean.
In addition to engaging existing scholarship regarding the international dynamics of United States-Caribbean and China-Caribbean relations, it extends the discourse to under-studied pursuits of Iran in the region. Scott MacDonald offers a timely, well-thought-out study with sound organization and lucid writing devoid of jargon. This conduces to its readability for various readership constituencies; not just to students, but also to analysts and policy wonks within the Caribbean, in the United States and the other global level actors jockeying to increase their geopolitical and geoeconomic market share in the Caribbean, and in the multilateral organizations that deal with the region. The New Cold War, China, and the Caribbean is a must-read for people in these constituencies.
Ivelaw Griffith is a Fellow with Global Americans and a founding member and Fellow of the Caribbean Policy Consortium. His next book, Challenged Sovereignty in the Caribbean, will be published by the University of Illinois Press.