It’s time for a Pacific awakening

Photo by Marius Girard on Unsplash

Slovene Philosopher Slavoj Zizek often tells a joke that seems to have particular relevance to the events surrounding the selection of Henry Puna as the next Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum. In the joke, a Jewish man named Rabinovitch is trying to emigrate from the Soviet Union. When the bureaucrat at the border asks him why he wants to leave, Rabinovitch replies “There are two reasons why. The first is I am afraid that in the Soviet Union the Communists will lose power and the new power will place the blame for all the Communist crimes on the Jews…’ The bureaucrat replies ‘But this is nonsense, nothing will change the Soviet Union, Communists will last forever!’, to which Rabinovitch replies, ‘Well that is my second reason.’

Can we not imagine a Pacific version of this joke set in the lead up to the Leaders Special Retreat in February? The Micronesian Leaders meet with the Forum Chair to tell him that they wish to leave the Forum. The Forum Chair asks why they want to leave and the Micronesians reply, ‘There are two reasons. Firstly we are afraid that Forum members won’t act in accordance with the Pacific Way and uphold the gentlemen’s agreement in selecting the Secretary General, that because of geopolitics they will say it must be merit based and that it should go to a vote!’ The Forum Chair replies, ‘Thats nonsense! The Pacific Way will always drive the political decision making of our region.’, to which the Micronesian’s reply, ‘That’s the second reason’.

The Rule of Expert Administration 

I recall attending a workshop on political parties conducted by UNDP in the Pacific in the wake of the election of Donald Trump. The target audience for the workshop was parliamentarians from across the Pacific, and the central message was clear: political parties must denounce any ideological identification, such as race, religion, political ideology and so on in favour of being  broad based, neutral, and inclusive. Political parties can then get on with the task of resolving a range of technical policy problems. This message from the workshop reflects the dominant mode of politics today in which political processes appear as nothing more than neutral expert administration. In other words, there is no place for commitment to big political ideas and causes, only the rule of technical expertise to provide the solutions to our socio-economic problems.

Indeed, according to Jonathan Pryke the Pacific Island Forum itself takes on this form of politics by “providing a ‘safe space to talk about issues beyond geopolitics that are of regional importance’. Not surprisingly then, in response to the split in the Forum a number of technocratic solutions have already been offered. For example, the Forum Secretariat plans to undertake a review of the process for selecting the Secretary General and some have suggested that the solution could be to formalise the gentlemen’s agreement as a formal administrative procedure. Meanwhile, Tess Newton-Cain suggests that “we can expect a lot of conversations and use of experts and advisers to seek a way forward” and makes somewhat of plea to ensure that the technical expertise drawn upon to resolve the split in the Forum be appropriately ‘qualified’.  

However, Maureen Penjueli was right to point out how a reliance on technical expertise and administrative procedures, such as the voting process used to select Puna, hides the politics behind political decision making. The fact that the other CROP agencies remain unscathed by the events should be read in this way – the regional powers can continue to exert their political agendas through these apparently neutral technical agencies. Indeed, the Pacific regional powers stand for a technocratic status quo that has kept the Pacific warehoused on the periphery of the global economic system since independence. Therefore, in order to deal with the fracturing of the Forum we should thoroughly reject any calls for reviews of procedures or other technical fixes led by appropriate regional expertise. Such suggestions will only serve to disavow the unequal relations of power and dependency that continue to serve the status quo.

Pacific Way Ideology 

Where does this leave us then in finding a solution to the current impasse? The other solution offered for repairing the broken unity of the Forum is an appeal to a Pacific spirit inherent in the Pacific Way of doing politics. That is, that we can rely on our Pacific relationships and engage in respectful dialogue in order to find a resolution and rebuild Pacific unity. Indeed, the very break of unity itself has been described as ‘unbecoming of the Pacific spirit’. The first point to make here is that the Pacific unity whose loss is being mourned was already shaky, if it existed at all to begin with. For example, former Director General of the Pacific Community Colin Tukeitonga argues that in the Forum there existed no real solidarity, that any unity was fragile, conditional, all politically motivated. Therefore Pacific unity is rather like the Lacanian ‘lost object’ which is lost through the process of its emergence. In this way we can rephrase for our purposes the title of Astrid Taylor’s book and claim, ‘Pacific Unity may not exist but we’ll miss it when it’s gone’. In other words, the sense of loss of Pacific unity has only come about as the result of it being lost through the election of Henry Puna. Prior to that it did not have any consistent existence. Therefore, in response to Surangel Whipps Jr. claim that “Unity, regionalism and the Pacific Way no longer guide the Forum” the point to make is that it never did, that it was relations of power and dependency that guided the forum and the role of Pacific Way ideology was to mask this fact.

Which brings us to the second point. More than reflecting any essential Pacific spirit, the Pacific Way today functions as political ideology. As ideology, the Pacific Way is constructed around a fiction which tells us that practicing consensus, respectful dialogue and so on is not only the properly Pacific way to do things, but that it also guarantees the best outcomes for the Pacific. It suggest that more ‘Pacificness’ is the answer to our problems (in the same way that democratic ideology tells us that more democracy, more participation and inclusive policy will solve our problems). Its function is to preserve the status quo by falsely presenting political decisions as matters of upholding the Pacific Way. Indeed, against Tess Newton-Cain’s claim that the Forum is where countries can meet as equals, we should insist that it is the ideology of the Pacific Way that creates the appearance of this equality. What it hides however is the vast inequality in relations of power and dependency that drive the decisions making and actions of the Forum.

In this way then, the key lesson from the election of Henry Puna and consequent withdrawal by Micronesian states is the importance of keeping up appearances, of maintaining the semblance of unity through the Pacific Way ideology. That is, the relations of power and dependency that are the truth of Pacific regional politics should always remain in the background while the Pacific Way (consensus, respect, etc) should always be presented as the face of any decision. Therefore, it was not the loss of ‘mana in our Pacific Way’ that resulted from the election of Puna, but rather the failure to maintain appearances, the loss of trust in the Pacific Way to function as ideology.

This is where the powers behind the vote perhaps made a miscalculation with regards to the purely formal performative function of the Secretary General (as discussed in an earlier post). Against claims of a merit based decision, the credentials of the Secretary General are completely irrelevant. The coordinates for decision making are provided by the relations of power and dependency, and any concrete contents of the Secretary Generals decisions come from expert consultants, advisers, CROP agencies and officials and Ministers. The Secretary General effectively does nothing more than say ‘I will’, or sign their name. Therefore the regional powers could have maintained the unity of the Forum by upholding the Pacific Way consensus and the gentlemen’s agreement, and subsequently continued to exercise their power through neutral expert administration and technocratic procedures (including CROP agencies).

Bringing the politics back?

One thing that appears from the discussion above is that Pacific regional politics is largely an exercise in avoiding politics rather than engaging in them. No wonder the late Sir Mekere Morauta called for ‘bringing the politics back’ in his review of the Pacific Plan (a call which bureaucrats took the sting out of by translating it to simply mean that Leaders should define the regional priorities). What amounts to politics today in Pacific regionalism is aptly described by outgoing Secretary General Meg Taylor in her opening remarks of the book The China Alternative: “We need not only think of these opportunities in relation to China – but also the broader range of opportunities emerging in the context of a rising China. China’s presence has others resetting their priorities and stepping up engagement”. Such thinking is typical of the ‘friends to all’ politics of the region which asserts that the more interest there is from other governments, the more resources are available to the Pacific governments. As Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa was alleged to have said once in a response to a question about heightened geopolitical conflict in the region, ‘let’s just sit back and let them fight it out and then we’ll see the resources come’. Indeed, as history has shown this form of Pacific politics transcends all political ideologies, whether communist, capitalist or something else – everyone’s money is welcome!

However, the politics of ‘friends to all’ is rather apolitical, a refusal to actually make a proper political choice. Or rather, the surface level freedom to choose between different donors is grounded in an indifferent and abstract freedom. Behind this abstract freedom is the very concrete unfreedom of the unequal relations of power and dependency that determine regional politics and the movement of resources. It is at this level where a properly political decision, of taking sides and drawing a line in the sand must take place.

While the withdrawal of the Micronesian states from the Forum does not by itself represent a change away from the entrenched relations of power and dependency in the region, it does provide a minimal opening for something new to emerge that can transform these relations. How will we respond? Will we awaken from the slumber of a politics of indifference that continues to deepen our dependencies and take advantage of the opening for transformation provided by the withdrawal of Micronesia? Or will power and dependency reassert itself through the Pacific Way ideology and neutral expert administration and close off any possibility of meaningful change in the region? While the full consequences of the fracture in the Forum wont become clear until much later, what is clear that the position that each of us takes towards these questions are deeply political. There is no neutral stance here, one must choose sides.