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Gary Younge
Shifting powers in the Caribbean emphasise the end of empire

From the building that houses the ministry for trade, industry, consumer and diaspora affairs in Dominica you can see the Windsor Park cricket stadium and Roseau's grammar school. Take a short trip towards the West Coast Road and you'll pass the Princess Margaret hospital. All the tropes of postcolonial nationhood are here. The Queen smiles from the notes while towns called Trafalgar and Portsmouth pepper the map.

But these historical markers belie a dramatic shift in allegiance in this Caribbean island, which only gained independence from Britain 31 years ago. While the place names bear the imprimatur of the British establishment, their provenance bears witness to new money. The stadium, grammar school and road were all built by the Chinese, who also refurbished the hospital. Locals with certain kinds of eye ailments are not treated on the island but taken to Cuba for surgery. The Venezuelans pay for this along with the massive oil subsidies. Meanwhile, many of the country's brightest and best are heading to Beijing, Caracas and Havana for training. In the ministry's anteroom a choice of two magazines is offered: The Beijing Review and Latin Trade.

"At one time England were the rulers," explains the minister, Colin McIntyre. "We still have a good relationship with them through the Commonwealth. But increasingly our most important economic partners are China, Venezuela and Cuba."

This is a regional rather than a national phenomenon. China's trade with the Caribbean as a whole, including Cuba, more than doubled between 1991 and 2001 and has grown considerably since then. In 2007, China earmarked about $1.5bn for Chinese companies to invest in the region. Add this to Hugo Chávez's Bolivarian pretensions and Cuba's social capital and you have a strong bloc of support for aid, trade and development in an area that has long felt neglected.

To some this may seem of little consequence. The Caribbean is a small band of islands, many still under foreign control, with tiny populations and little economic clout (Dominica is five times smaller than America's smallest state, Rhode Island). But there is a reason why French, Dutch, English, Spanish and Creole are spoken among such a relatively tiny group of people: for centuries, from the slave revolt of Santo Domingo to the Cuban missile crisis, the region has been at the centre of geopolitical jockeying and has long punched above its weight in global affairs.

The Americans understand this. In May Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described China's growing influence in the region as "quite disturbing". But at present the US can do relatively little about it. Notwithstanding its unrivalled cultural influence, America has neither the political will, economic leverage nor diplomatic credibility to compete with what else is on offer. Whether the British understand this is not clear, and it doesn't really matter.

This is what makes the recent British tantrum over the fate of the "special relationship", after Barack Obama held bilateral talks with the Japanese, Chinese and Russian leaders but not Gordon Brown, so pathetic. The relationship hinged on the notion that Britain's demise as a colonial power could be in some way mitigated by its role as an interlocutor between the US, Europe and the former empire. There are two problems with this. First, it has long represented a delusional sense of Britain's importance to the US, Europe and everywhere else. Second, it increasingly represents an exaggerated view of America's status in the world too.

Seeing Britain clinging desperately to this role evokes not so much two bald men fighting over a comb as one bald man begging to accompany another bald man to the hairdresser so they can both get a perm.

The nostalgia for the status of Britain's imperial past is deeply ingrained. It is "a process driven by the need to get back to the place or moment before the country lost its moral and cultural bearing", explains renowned academic Paul Gilroy in his book After Empire. Gilroy, who branded these sentiments, "postcolonial melancholia" argues that Britain settled upon the second world war and the defeat of Nazism as its basis for historical self-esteem. "Once the history of the empire became a source of discomfort, shame and perplexity, its complexities and ambiguities were readily set aside."

At the level of a revival for Dame Vera Lynn, this is harmless. But when it comes to shaping foreign policy, it is disastrous. The desire of a country with a per capita GDP on a par with Belgium, to play a leading role in world affairs has entrenched a level of dysfunction in our international relations that has proved difficult to shift. Far from moving towards a moral bearing, this obsession keeps moving us away from it. One would have hoped that Iraq would have made this perfectly clear. Tony Blair suggested that only through our involvement could we temper US belligerence and steer it towards the international community. But it did the opposite, giving the Bush administration the appearance of being far less isolated than it actually was. The UK had a seat at the table. But it was the kiddie's table. The grown ups decided what we should eat and when we should finish.

Even if the relationship were more equitable, to pursue it at this stage would be a flawed strategy. Bush's excesses revealed the limits of US military and economic power. In the meantime, as Dominica's experience suggests, a mixture of more assertive regional and global powers have emerged that signal lucrative, meaningful alliances without reference to the US or Europe, let alone an interlocutor. This is increasingly true in almost every continent, but particularly Africa, South America and Asia.

"Owing to the relative decline of its economic and, to a lesser extent, military power, the US will no longer have the same flexibility in choosing among as many policy options," concluded the US National Intelligence Council (which co-ordinates analysis from all US intelligence agencies) in November.

What this means for countries such as Dominica is unclear. Venezuela's largesse is unpredictable: the economic and political forces that produce it are precarious. China is far more stable, but no less problematic. Aid from Beijing often comes with strings attached that may prove far more beneficial to the Chinese than the developing world, in a manner that can foster local corruption. Its generosity in the Caribbean is payment for the region's One-China policy that recognises the People's Republic as the sole legitimate government of mainland China (including Tibet and Taiwan.

But what it means for the "special relationship" is fairly obvious. Britain needs to develop a far more realistic, modest, nuanced understanding of its role in the world if its foreign policy is to have an impact. That will doubtless demand a less obsequious and all-encompassing relationship with the US. It will also mean deepening more meaningful ties with Europe and leveraging the historical connections with the Commonwealth. If it must live in the past, the very least we can ask is that it be deluded by its own grandeur and not someone else's.

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