The Mouse That Roared



One of my duties as the political/labor officer at our small embassy in Port of Spain, Trinidad, in the late 1970s, was to deliver démarches to the Foreign Ministry. For anyone unfamiliar with the term, a démarche may be defined as an official position (or protest) presented through diplomatic channels, generally in person.

During the Carter administration, Washington frequently instructed us to make routine démarches to the host government on all sorts of issues, especially votes at the United Nations and International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, or in hemispheric organizations such as the Inter-American Development Bank.

The instructions usually came via cables directed to all diplomatic and consular posts, and not infrequently were of little interest to or relevance for Trinidad. It seemed that I was weekly (or even more often) trudging over to the ministry, a somewhat rickety, converted Victorian mansion overlooking the Queen’s Park Savannah, with such démarches.

During these forays, I was always received politely and informally, if noncommittally, by the lower-level Trinidadian officials with whom I usually met. (Although the small ministry staff included desk officers for Trinidad’s relatively few major partners, I recall that they also had one for ROW, which stood for “rest of the world.”)

One day the Foreign Ministry called, requesting that I come at a specified time to meet with the number three official there, Trevor Spencer, an acquaintance with whom I dealt infrequently. Although the request was unusual, I of course complied.

When I arrived and was ushered into Spencer’s office, I noticed immediately that, contrary to the usual practice, he was flanked by two female stenographers, who appeared ready to record every word uttered.

After a minimal exchange of pleasantries, Spencer read a statement to me. In essence, it said that Trinidad and Tobago was a sovereign, independent state that followed policies in its interests and of its own choosing. His government did not appreciate being told by the United States or anyone else what it should or should not do.

The démarches that I was continually delivering on behalf of my government were not welcome, being both irritating and demeaning, even if they came from a country with which Trinidad maintained good relations. The unmistakable message was that they wanted the démarches to cease.

Once Spencer had finished, I asked to respond. In brief, I replied that I and the U.S. government had great respect for Trinidad’s sovereignty and independence. Everything I had ever said or done, on instructions, regarding his ministry had been intended to inform and persuade, not dictate, and certainly not to offend.

We considered démarches to be part of the normal currency of diplomatic practice, I explained. I assumed, indeed hoped, that Trinidad’s embassy in Washington was approaching our State Department in a similar way on issues of importance to his government.

Spencer did not reply to any of my points, simply reiterating the position he had already expressed. While he was professional about it, he seemed not to have any flexibility to deviate from his prepared text and to be somewhat ill at ease with the whole exercise.

I promised to report his remarks to my superiors at the embassy and thanked him for stating his government’s position so clearly. Though I had numerous occasions to deliver démarches to the Foreign Ministry thereafter, for whatever reason, I was never called in and chastised again.

The main lesson I learned from this whole experience was the sense of vulnerability that small countries may have in their dealings with large, powerful ones, no matter how friendly the latter may be. Just as an undersized person may feel intimidated, even helpless, in the presence of someone more imposing physically, small countries may react similarly.

I interpret Spencer’s remarks to me as reflecting that pervasive sense of vulnerability. As I once heard Trinidadian Foreign Minister John Donaldson say—regardless of whether elephants make love or war, it is the grass that suffers, clearly equating small countries like his own with the grass.

Retired Senior Foreign Service Officer Jonathan B. Rickert spent the majority of his 35-year career in or dealing with Central and Eastern Europe. His final two overseas posts were as deputy chief of mission in Sofia and then Bucharest.