OPINION: Activate the ‘defence’ in defence diplomacy: President Ali’s knee-jerk response counterproductive to national defence

Last Updated on Sunday, 14 April 2024, 18:08 by Writer

by Retired Rear Admiral, Dr Gary Best

The Ali administration seems not to understand, or deliberately misunderstands the concept of defence diplomacy. See my opinions published by Demerara Waves Online on September 2023 and February 2024. And even less interested in spending taxpayers’ dollars to defend Guyana, as a priority. Defence diplomacy is a conjoined term. It means the ability to defend the nation while practicing international diplomacy. One depends on the other. Diplomacy depends on defence, and vice versa. 

The defence component of defence diplomacy (Total National Defence Plan) must be known by the nation to engender confidence in the defence troops who pledged their lives to defend this nation. It must be known to engender confidence in the Government’s ability to defend Guyana. Not the strategies and tactics! But certainly, the overall plan. It must be a plan to which the Opposition contributes to and remains continually part of. Common sense dictates that the Ali government would seek to protect Guyana’s resources, both onshore and offshore. Yet, we see no real defence spending. No real effort at protecting! 

Contrastingly, with far less income than Guyana currently earns, the PNC, recognizing its duty to protect, spared no effort in acquiring significant maritime and land assets to defend Guyana’s land and maritime borders. Acquisitions that the PPP vehemently criticized, while in opposition. However, acquisitions that resulted in frequent arrests of Venezuelan and Surinamese vessels illegally operating in Guyana’s 240,000 (sq km) exclusive economic zone (EEZ). No doubt, those legal outcomes served Guyana well in delimiting its maritime boundary with Suriname. No doubt, those outcomes continue to serve Guyana well in its current case before the ICJ. No thanks to the PPP.

In 1992 when the PPP entered office, it inherited a Total National Defence Plan, of which, defence diplomacy acted as the ‘spear’. It quickly abandoned this plan, while unsuccessfully attempting to replace the defence force with a national police force. Though that effort failed, quite annoyingly, we still hear rumblings from Freedom House about setting up border and security units, knowing fully well that a Defence, and a Police Force, legally exist. 

The PPP, in typical fashion, did not provide any type of assets increase to what the PNC government had acquired for the nation’s defence. Instead, it shrunk the Guyana Defence Force by keeping it on a shoestring budget. The result was a national embarrassment in June 2000 at the hands of the Suriname Navy. That navy expelled from Guyana’s waters, the CGX Guyana licensed drill ship which was exploring for oil. A classical failure to protect the nation’s territorial integrity.

How did the PPP respond to this national defence embarrassment? By a knee-jerk response. It hurriedly purchased one converted, ill-suited, and underperformed offshore patrol vessel (OPV) from the United Kingdom. A hotchpotch purchase. And that was it! Guyana’s EEZ remained ‘at large’ unprotected and undefended under the PPP, notwithstanding the completion of a GDF Organization Analysis in 2009, and later, a Strategic Defence Review, that recommended to the Defence Board concrete defence acquisitions to protect Guyana’s land and maritime borders. Imagine how much more secure Guyana would have been had the PPP added defence resources to maintain Guyana’s maritime and land boundaries. Maduro may well have been less bold in his actions against Guyana. The Guyana government would certainly be less mendicant and dependent on ‘other’ nations to satisfy the defence component in defence diplomacy.     

Fast forward to 2024, and the ‘real’ possibility of an annexation by Venezuela of sovereign Essequibo. A possibility which I advised was the ultimate objective of the Maduro regime. See Opinion published by Demerara Waves Online News in December 2023. Again, the PPP, in typical fashion responded recently with an announcement that it intends to purchase ‘one’ OPV. Another hotchpotch purchase. Like its previous action, the outcome will be the same. Unfortunately, there is no real commitment by the PPP to spend taxpayers’ dollars to protect the nation’s resources. The PPP’s modus is to do nothing until there is a crisis. Then, act to save face! Then, do the minimum to stave off the crisis with hurried expenditure while the Ali administration is spending 60% of the nation’s finances on infrastructure that benefits its friends, families, elites, and the contractor class. Defending Guyana? Forget about that! Let someone else do it.

Purchasing ‘one’ OPV is akin to having one functioning leg on a three-legged stool. Any study of a defence resource allocation matrix for Guyana will show that to keep one OPV at sea, a defence force will need three of them in stock. Add to that, the five patrol zones within Guyana’s EEZ and it becomes obvious how many OPVs Guyana needs to adequately defend its maritime space. Keep in mind also that hydrocarbon extraction is well beyond Guyana’s continental shelf. 

A comprehensive national defence and procurement plan is critical to maintain defence integrity. That is absent under this Ali administration, unless it’s a secret from the Opposition and the nation. Purchases of an aircraft here, a vessel there, and whatever else, is counterproductive and counterintuitive to positive defence alignment. Hotchpotch purchases will be significantly more costly in the long run and dangerous. Such type of purchases lead to application confusion and uncertainty within the defence environment, particularly, short- and long-term incompatibility that fuels interoperability challenges due to extended and one-dimensional training and retraining requirements. Add to that, lagging logistical lines and extended timelines. 

Guyana must increase its defence capability, exponentially. Not a one vessel purchase, but a class of similar vessels on the maritime front, to keep Venezuela at bay, while it practices defence diplomacy. The government must build and retain capacity to defend, while it practices diplomacy. In fragile situations, as Guyana experiences due to Venezuelan attacks, the government builds capacity, not shirk from it. Concomitantly, identity politics polarizes nation states and the rule of law. It is a threat to national defence and has no place in plural societies, such as Guyana. A unified approach is required. Good governance is also a key ingredient in attaining the defence aspect of defence diplomacy. Further, defence resource allocation is linked to foreign policy outcomes. What’s Guyana’s foreign policy remains a mystery? Its pillars remain a mystery! Its philosophy, still a mystery. And how does Guyana conduct foreign policy analysis? That too, is a mystery. However, it certainly looks like ‘one-man upism’. 

Finally, the government of Guyana, taking instructions and advice from a man who knows ‘nothing’ about ‘everything’ speaks volumes about the level of incompetence of this PPP Ali administration. 

Retired Rear Admiral Dr Gary Best is a former Chief-of-Staff of the Guyana Defence Force. He is also an executive member of the opposition People’s National Congress Reform.