It’s Time for Oceania to Refuse US imperialism.

Photo by Marek Okon on Unsplash

The storming of Congress by pro-Trump supporters on January 6 should compel us to reflect and act on the future of Oceania. While we should condemn the content of the protestors actions (their Right wing fascist politics, their defence of Trump presidency) we should nonetheless welcome the form of their actions (that is, protesting against electoral, representative democracy). Or as Slavoj Zizek put it, the protestors did the right thing for the wrong reasons. In fact, an organised political Left (if there was one) should have done the same back in 2016 after Trump was elected – not in order to support Hilary Clinton, but to force itself through the crack in the liberal establishment created by the election of Trump.

In any case, a key implication we should take from the storming of Congress is that liberal democracy has become further decoupled from capitalism. That is, the ideological edifice provided by liberal democracy (the sacredness of elections, insistence on the rule of law to deal with social contradictions etc) is no longer effective in providing the cover (i.e. masking from public awareness) for the contradictions of neoliberal capitalism. Indeed, it was perhaps the awareness of this decoupling that compelled leaders from across the world to quickly take to social media to condemn the actions of the protestors. Without the security of liberal political ideology and institutions no leader is safe from the angry mob. 

Nonetheless, the further decoupling of liberal democracy from capitalism means the 1% will require a new political ideology to mask the violence of wealth accumulation at the expense of our wellbeing and our planet. The reactions to the events in Washington by social media corporations such as Twitter and Snapchat perhaps provide a taste of what Shoshana Zuboff terms ‘Surveillance Capitalism”. Others have already pointed to the rise of “Capitalism with Asian values”, where capitalism is accompanied by a more authoritarian and interventionist state (not the free hand of the market but the guided hand of the state in the market). The intervention of the Chinese government in stopping the IPO of Jack Ma’s Ant Group provides an interesting example of the potential clash between these two possible post-liberal democratic-capitalist futures.

An important implication for the Pacific arising from all this is what it means for the imminent demise of US imperialism. In response to the events on Capitol Hill, the Presidents of both Zimbabwe and Venezuela highlighted the obvious hypocrisy and lack of any moral right of the US to, sometimes forcibly, demand democracy of other nations. For the Pacific, such demands are typically experienced as the strings attached to the provision of foreign aid. We often hear the argument that accepting financial aid from China will ultimately lead to a loss of sovereignty through the so-called ‘debt trap’. That is, we’ll pay you today but take your sovereignty later. However, when it comes to our traditional partners, including the United States, the reverse applies – we’ll take your autonomy up front for the money that will come. That is, one must adopt a raft of liberal democratic and free market policies upfront in order to receive financial aid.

The recent early declassification of documentation on the US’s Indo-Pacific Strategy provides further insight into the upfront ‘costs’ of accepting financial aid from the US and its allies. The document states as one of its objectives to “Ensure the Pacific Islands (e.g., the U.S. territories, the Freely Associated States, the Melanesian and Polynesian states) remain aligned with the United States”. The means of achieving this objective are to “Solidify our diplomatic, military, intelligence, economic, development assistance and informational advantages across the Pacific Islands”. We should read this early release in the context of the imminent demise of US imperialism. It would be foolish to think that there will be any significant difference between Trump and Biden on geo-strategic policy matters, as some would seem to suggest – while the political ideology of each differs the material base of US imperialism and the military industrial complex that supports it remains the same. While the election of Biden may return the US to a pre-Trump sense of normalcy, we should not be under any illusions as to the imperial violence of such normalcy. As Tri-Continental highlight in their dossier on the erosion of US imperialism, “Biden’s campaign website notes, ‘Biden will never hesitate to protect the American people, including when necessary, by using force. We have the strongest military in the world – and as president, Biden will ensure it stays that way’.”

While working at the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, I recall a particularly productive discussion on the geopolitics of financial aid during a workshop on regional governance and financing. In Monty-Pythonesque fashion, the representative from the Australian High Commission raised his hand and claimed “Australia only provides aid because we want to help!”. As absurd as this statement was however, the Pacific effectively acts in the same manner through its ‘friends to all’ position which operates ideologically in the manner of the fetishist disavowal: We know very well that financial aid comes with strings attached, but nonetheless we act as if there are no strings attached by playing countries off against each other to get the biggest offer. It should be clear in the current global context that such a position is no longer viable. That is, the costs to the Pacific of accepting financial aid from the US and its allies are qualitatively different than the costs of accepting financing from China. One (could) lead to proper autonomy and development within a multipolar global order, while the other leads to remaining a strategic and military outpost for a dying hegemony. Unfortunately some in the region have already made their choice. The outgoing and in-coming Presidents of Palau have already discussed the potential benefits of military tourism from US military personnel (with the implicit suggestion here being that it would be less destructive than the previous influx of Chinese tourism!).

We should take the reference to the Pacific Islands in the declassified US documentation as an indication of the power the Pacific Islands have to influence the changing global order. In the words of nonviolent political action theory, the Pacific Islands should consider themselves as a ‘pillar of support’ for US imperialism. Therefore its time for the Pacific to withdraw its support from a regional order that has never benefited the autonomy and development of the region. Its time for Oceania to step aside and allow the self-immolation of US imperialism take place while allowing a new multipolar future emerge.