RECENTLY, the Pacific Islands Leaders Conference or PICL was convened at the East West Center in Honolulu. PICL members included heads of government of independent Pacific island countries, Pacific island territories, and the State of Hawaii. It not only offered a platform for regional leaders to address common issues and develop common approaches to their policy challenges. It was an opportunity for Pacific Island leaders to speak with U.S. subject matter experts and government officials about America’s growing engagement with their countries.
This year’s edition of the IPCL helped set the stage for another major event on the diplomatic calendar. This week, President Biden will host the first ever U.S.-Pacific island nations summit. According to the White House, the event is designed to witness the history, values and connections between the people of the Pacific island countries and the United States. Pacific island leaders hope this will lead to “real deliverables” on “key issues” that matter to the region. According to the President of the Federated States of Micronesia, these key issues are clearly spelled out in the Blue Pacific Strategy.
In the middle of the PICL, the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly began at the United Nations headquarters in New York. On the sidelines, I had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Ambassador Ilana Seid of the Palau Mission to the United Nations. During our interview, she shared her views on a wide range of issues, including democracy and good governance. We also discussed the upcoming U.S.-Pacific Island Countries summit. This gave me the opportunity to convey to him the concerns that were expressed on the guest list.
At the start of our conversation, Ambassador Seid shared her thoughts on the state of democracy in the Pacific Islands region.
As for Palau, Ambassador Seid sees “a thriving democracy” where citizens are “very politically engaged” and “elections are very well run”. She pointed out that the Palauns “care about politics in a way that people don’t care about politics in other countries.” For example, she pointed out that many people in the villages were watching her confirmation hearing on their televisions. As to why, Ambassador Seid attributed this high level of engagement in democratic processes to the fact that “Palau has a very high literacy rate.” She also noted that one of the main reasons “democracy has taken root and flourished” in Palau is that democratic processes happen to be in symbiosis with their traditional systems of governance. In his words, this has helped make Palau “a very successful case study in the expression of democracy”.
With regard to the wider Pacific Islands region, Ambassador Seid acknowledged that there are important similarities in people’s experiences of democracy in different places. However, she cautioned that one must be very careful when “talking collectively” about the state of democracy in the Pacific Islands region. To give color to this point, Ambassador Seid made some distinctions between the democratic states of Hawaii and Palau. Ambassador Seid observed, “Palau is much smaller than Hawaii. People are connected and interdependent. In Palau, everyone is indigenous. The ties are much closer. In contrast, she said “there are local Hawaiians and then there are imports” in Hawaii. “This dynamic does not exist in Palau. Our leaders are local Palauans. We don’t have that dichotomy. Despite this interdependence, Ambassador Seid said corruption is still “highly despised” in Palau. “It’s embedded in our culture. Leaders are supposed to take care of people, not themselves. When this is not reflected in the actions of individuals, it is impossible to sweep it under the rug. It makes the front page of the newspaper. For these reasons, she warned that policy makers should avoid “one size fits all” to promote democracy in the Pacific Islands region. Every time they do, she observed, “it backfires.”
Next, our attention turned to the concerns that have been expressed about the invitation of some Pacific Island leaders to the United States-Pacific Island Countries Summit. These include those who have not been the strongest supporters of democratic institutions in their own countries and beyond. Some examples include the leaders of Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.
According to Ambassador Seid, excluding any leaders from the Pacific Islands would be a bad idea. “Engagement and dialogue are important for any outcome,” she said. “I don’t think avoidance would argue for democracy – it would do the opposite.” In his view, a ban similar to that imposed on Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela at the Summit of the Americas “would be a mistake”. “If you are at the level of heads of state, you should be invited to the White House,” she stressed. Additionally, she warned that choosing who should be invited to the summit based on something like Freedom House’s classification system would be problematic. Citing Fiji as an example, she observed “it’s a very big country”. And, they “have no totalitarian government”. Thus, the United States would run the risk of seeing the event “despised” if it excluded its leader on the basis of such an “arbitrary ranking”.
As our conversation drew to a close, Ambassador Seid made a final remark. Almost after the fact, she said the United States government “should allow democracy with different flavors.”
At the summit, the Biden administration will have to cook up something that will please all of its guests — not just their closest friends and allies. Whether democracy and good governance will be on the menu remains to be seen. If included, it will be interesting to see how they are prepared. Because, the experts seem to have surfaced something quite important. Not everyone on the guest list has the same appetite for this sort of thing.
Michael Walsh is affiliated with the Center for Australian, New Zealand and Peace Studies.