The Diplomat Q&A: US increasing cooperation with Seychelles on maritime security front
The government of the United States recently appointed a career diplomat and senior member of its Foreign Service to head its consular agency in the island nation of Seychelles and began the process of re-establishing a permanent U.S. diplomatic presence after over 27 years of absence.
Previously, the U.S. established an embassy in Seychelles in 1976 as well as a U.S. Air Force Tracking Station, a CIA station and a Peace Corp programme, and then all were closed down in 1996, due tensions between the two countries at the time. Later, a consular agency was established without a permanent diplomat and the diplomatic and consular relations with Seychelles were conducted through the U.S. Embassy in Mauritius.
However, with the appointment of Jim Donegan as counsellor and special adviser at the consular agency in Victoria in December 2022, Seychelles and the U.S. are aiming to increase their cooperation and bring about the return of a U.S. presence in the island state. Donegan was previously the director for regional peace and security for Africa in the State Department.
The Seychelles News Agency recently met with Donegan to talk about the priorities of his term in Seychelles as well as wider international relations issues pertaining to Africa and the rest of the world.
SNA: What are your plans for the year?
JD: There hasn’t been a permanent diplomatic U.S. presence in Seychelles since 1996. Secretary of State Blinken recognised that for a country as important and as strategic as Seychelles, this situation needed to change, so he asked me to come over to Seychelles to begin the process of establishing a permanent presence. It is a process.
My being here is the beginning of a cooperative venture with the Seychelles government with our government back in Washington because to do something along the lines of formally establishing a diplomatic presence, there is a lot of bureaucratic specifics that need to be satisfied back in Washington in terms of budget issues, diplomatic security issues, of course our Congress has a big say in anything along the lines of establishing an embassy or sending an ambassador or anything like that. It’s going to take time, probably a couple of years by the time everything is in place.
My being here is the beginning of the process. I got here on December 15th, I came from Washington, where I was the director for regional peace and security for Africa. I had responsibility for regional issues throughout the continent. I am very much looking forward to it. I am just starting to meet all the important people. I have already had some very good meetings with the Ministry of Youth and Sports, the Ministry of Interior, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
SNA: You want to establish a permanent diplomatic presence here; will it be on the same scale as it was before 1996?
JD: I think to start off it’s obviously going to be a step-by-step process. We’ll see as time goes on and we’ll see what our resources are like and what Washington’s decision-making process is and how we can expand that. It’s definitely our goal to start the process of expanding it so that we have more resources, more human resources to devote to Seychellois-United States relations.
SNA: How do you see the cooperation between Seychelles and the U.S.?
JD: There hasn’t been a diplomatic posting in Seychelles since 1996, however, this doesn’t mean the U.S. has been absent from Seychelles. We’ve been doing quite a bit with Seychelles particularly in the area of marine security. Our navies, our coast guards have worked together to provide Seychelles with training, with capacity building to help to monitor and make as safe as possible in the Indian Ocean area regionally. That will continue but we’re hopeful that we can expand our cooperation in other areas such as capacity building and governance, finance and economics, along the lines of youth engagement and people to people diplomacy. There’s a lot we can do building on the strong relationship between Seychelles and the U.S. that already exists.
SNA: What are the main projects you envisage with Seychelles?
JD: The projects that are existing mainly revolve around security and working together with our militaries. There is an important military exercise that is coming up in March from 6th to March 16th; its Cutlass Express. The navies and militaries from around the region as well as other countries such as the United Kingdom, the U.S. and others will do exercises in this region to again provide capacity building for the countries to better monitor what’s going on in the Indian Ocean.
That involves some serious issues such as piracy and overfishing, which is incredibly important, probably important for Seychelles as well as, unfortunately, the problem of drug trafficking and the problem of drugs running down the African coast in the Indian Ocean is increasing. We, along with the other partners who are involved in Cutlass Express, want to do what we can to help the countries of the region to combat that as well.
My job here is of course to keep that going and to expand on it; but at the moment it’s mainly to listen, listen closely to what my Seychellois interlocutors are telling me about what their priorities are and how the U.S. can possibly help and assist in a partnership mode to advance those priorities that your country has.
SNA: Why do you believe Seychelles has a strategic role in the Western Indian Ocean, other than its obvious tourism appeal? What is so interesting here from the perspective of your country’s foreign policy and your embassy’s role [in Mauritius] in Seychelles’ society?
JD: It has an incredible amount of importance and is increasing. Your President has made some very important and well received speeches in international fora very recently both at the COP27 but, also, you’ll know that the U.S. just sponsored the Africa Leaders’ summit in December in Washington. Your foreign minister, your President was there, your ambassador to the U.S. was there and they were very involved in the portions that had to do with ocean security, the Blue Economy, with small island states’ priorities.
Those interventions were well listened to in Washington and are now being taken into account in terms of the decision-making processes in Washington. Seychelles is of course a very important partner in providing security in this region and this part of the world.
SNA: In the post-Covid era and during the Ukraine-Russia conflict, and the resultant economic consequences, do you believe less resources are being directed for aid and cooperation by your country and others towards Africa and small island states?
JD: I would say based on what was discussed in the Africa’s Leaders’ Summit (ALS) there’s going to be more. There are some specific pledges made at the summit from the U.S. for continent-wide increases in spending across the board. Not only in security but on some of the other issues mentioned in terms of capacity building, Blue Economy, climate change and many others.
Education, women peace and security are very important to us, and we are going to be focusing more funding on that. In terms of what’s coming up in the future, I would say we can expect more. From the documents coming out of the ALS, you’ll know that we’re establishing a specific office in Washington to monitor the pledges that we’ve made and to make sure that the implementation of those pledges goes as smoothly and as efficiently as possible. There is a very practical aspect of what we’ve promised. It’s not just words on a piece of paper. This office is responsible for making sure that these are carried out. I think you are going to see a lot more interaction from the U.S. in terms of those pledges.
SNA: Given the state of world affairs today do you believe the Cold War ever really ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall, especially with the continued expansion of NATO?
JD: There are still differences in how countries view governance and views on democracy. The U.S. continues to stand for freedom and for choice and for people’s desire to make their own decisions about what alliances, what friendships, what relationships they want to establish. I know the shorthand for NATO is to say NATO is expanding or NATO wants to expand. In reality, NATO itself as an organisation doesn’t expand, what happens is countries desire and ask to be part of NATO and then NATO as an organisation makes a decision and establishes processes for countries to join. So, NATO gets bigger because countries want to join it. It’s not because NATO as an organisation says ‘okay we’re going to expand’. I think that’s an important point to make. NATO gets larger because countries want to join it not because NATO is imposing anything.
SNA: U.S. defence cooperation with African states, such as Seychelles, is on the increase. How does your government view this turn of events, and do you believe that the Indian Ocean has become a more competitive defence zone, between countries like the U.S., India and China?
JD: Our cooperation with countries such as Seychelles is on the increase. We view this as a partnership. We’re doing this because there is a desire from countries like Seychelles for increased interaction with the U.S. so that there is better protection within the region but also to build the capacity of their own militaries, their own security forces of their own navies and coastguards so that they themselves can do the job better.
That is exactly what the U.S. wants to do. The more that the countries in the region can do themselves, the more secure that the region becomes. We are in lock step with Seychelles in terms of that desire and as I say with exercises such as Cutlass Express and then after Cutlass, members of our coastguards are going to remain in Seychelles and work with your coastguards. In fact, they are going to ride on your coast guards’ ships to again provide training, capacity building and again listen to your coast guard officers, your naval officers about what the challenges are and what the needs are in terms of equipment and training so that we can be more responsive as a partner for Seychelles.
SNA: What has been the greatest foreign policy accomplishment of your country since World War II, generally, in relations to the African continent?
JD: That’s a long time, but I think fundamentally it is the support that we have given to countries. If you want to go back to WWII, that was the era of African countries becoming independent. Of course, the U.S. was very involved with things like the Peace Corps, USAID and other initiatives to provide capacity building to those countries.
As some of the security challenges have increased for Africa, again we’ve been involved in terms of training, in terms of helping with United Nations (UN) peace keeping missions. You know the U.S. is the largest funder of such things via the UN and so we will continue to do that. More recently, you’d have heard Secretary of State Blinken’s speech in Abuja back in November, we want to interact with African countries in more of a partnership mode – equal partnership mode. With that comes responsibility on both sides to carry out commitments. I think that the ability to interact as partners and build the capacity of African countries is probably one of the strongest ways that the U.S. is going to continue to help African countries to grow through these tough and challenging times.
SNA: What is your preferred foreign policy theory and how do you believe countries should work together to ensure world peace?
JD: There needs to be a relationship of partnership. As Secretary Blinken said in his speech in Abuja it doesn’t work anymore should western countries come in and be dictating to or telling African countries what to do. It needs to be a partnership where there is a process of listening to African countries in terms of what the priorities are, what is required and then helping those countries to build their own institutions and infrastructures so that they can provide for their own people a secure and prosperous foundation upon which they can continue to build their countries.
SNA: How do you think small states like Seychelles can ensure their sovereignty on the world stage under the vast pressures that are exerted on them by the superpowers?
JD: I think Seychelles is a very good example of how that can be done. You have a President and a foreign minister who have made it their business to participate in international meetings – whether it’s the COP27 or the ALS and certainly at the UN to make sure that the specific issues, the specific challenges of small island nation states are recognised by others in the international community and are addressed appropriately. I think Seychelles is a very good example, and your government is a very good example of how that can be done effectively.
SNA: Do you think that the United Nations still has relevance today? And if not, what should be done?
JD: Absolutely! I spent three years working on the Security Council in New York so I’m obviously a big fan of the UN. Obviously with an organisation like that there are always improvements in efficiencies that can be made. My personal view is that if the UN didn’t exist, we would have to create it, because we need some place for nations to come to be able to talk to each other before things devolve into more serious circumstances.
That said, there are things that we’re looking at that can hopefully make the UN a bit more representative. At the ALS, President Biden confirmed that the U.S. is supportive of the Security Council being reformed to include an African seat on the Security Council also that for the G20 the process that the African Union should be represented. For all of these institutions there definitely is room for improvement. I think fundamentally the UN is more relevant now than it’s ever been in these perilous times, and we fully continue to support it and look to continue to improve it as time goes on.