Walsh School of Foreign Service
Oceanic Currents

Democracy, Good Governance, and the U.S.-Pacific Island Country Summit

Last week, the Pacific Islands Conference of Leaders (PICL) was convened at the East West Center in Honolulu. The PICL members included the heads of government from independent Pacific Island Countries, Pacific Island Territories, and the State of Hawaii. It not only offered a platform for regional leaders to address shared issues and develop common approaches to their policy challenges. It provided an opportunity for Pacific Island leaders to engage with American subject matter experts and government officials on the increasing engagement of the United States with their countries.

This year’s edition of the PICL helped to set the stage for another major event on the diplomatic calendar. Next week, President Biden will host the first-ever U.S.-Pacific Island Country Summit. According to the White House, the event is designed to bear testament to the shared history, values, and people-to-people ties of the Pacific Island Countries and the United States. Pacific Island leaders hope that it 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 laid out in the Blue Pacific Strategy.

In the middle of the PICL, the 77th session of the UN General Assembly kicked-off at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City. 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 talk, she shared her perspectives on a wide range of issues, including democracy and good governance. We also discussed the upcoming US-Pacific Island Country Summit. That gave me an opportunity to get her take on concerns that have been voiced over who made the guest list.

At the start of our conversation, Ambassador Seid shared her thoughts on the state of democracy in the Pacific Islands Region.

When it comes to Palau, Ambassador Seid sees “a thriving democracy” where citizens are “very politically engaged” and “elections are very well run.” She stressed that 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 watched her confirmation hearing on their televisions. As for why, Ambassador Seid attributed this high level of engagement with democratic processes to the fact that “Palau has a very high literacy rate.” She also noted that one of the major reasons why “democracy took root and thrived” in Palau is that democratic processes happen to be symbiotic with their traditional governance systems. In her words, that helped to make Palau “a very successful case study in the expression of democracy.”

With respect to the wider Pacific Islands Region, Ambassador Seid acknowledged that there are important similarities in the experiences that people have with democracy in different places. However, she cautioned that one must be very careful when “collectively talking” about the state of democracy in the Pacific Islands Region. To give color to this point, Ambassador Seid marked some distinctions between the states of democracy in Hawaii and Palau. Ambassador Seid observed, “Palau is a lot smaller than Hawaii. The people are related and interrelated. In Palau, everyone is indigenous. The links are much tighter.” By contrast, she said “there are local Hawaiians and then there are the imports” in Hawaii. “That dynamic does not exist in Palau. Our leaders are local Palauans. We don’t have that dichotomy.” In spite of this interconnectedness, Ambassador Seid said that corruption is still “very much looked down upon” in Palau. “That is rooted in our culture. The leaders are supposed to be looking out for the people not for themselves. When that is not reflected in the actions of individuals, there is no sweeping it under the rug. It makes the frontpage of the newspaper.” For those reasons, she warned that policymakers should avoid “one shot solutions” for promoting democracy across the Pacific Islands Region. Whenever they do, she observed, “it backfires.”

Next, our attention turned to concerns that have been voiced about inviting certain Pacific Island leaders to the U.S.-Pacific Island Country Summit. These include those who have not been the strongest supporters of democratic institutions within their own country and beyond. Some examples include the leaders of Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, and Solomon Islands.

According to Ambassador Seid, the exclusion of any Pacific Island leader would be a bad idea. “Engagement and dialogue is important for any outcome,” she said. “I don’t think shunning would make the case for democracy – it would do the opposite.” In her eyes, a ban similar to the one imposed on Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela at the Summit of Americas “would be a mistake.” “If you are at the head of state level, you should be invited to the White House,” she emphasized. Moreover, she warned that choosing who should be invited to the summit based on something like the Freedom House classification system would be problematic. Citing Fiji as an example, she observed “they are a very big country.” And, they “don’t have a totalitarian government.” So, the United States would run the risk of having the event “looked down upon” if they excluded their leader on the basis of such an “arbitrary classification.”

As our conversation drew to a close, Ambassador Seid made one final point. Almost as an afterthought, she said that the United States government “should allow for democracy with different flavors.”

At the summit, the Biden Administration will need to cook-up something that is appealing to all of their guests – not just their closest friends and allies. Whether democracy and good governance will be featured on the menu remains to be seen. If they are included, it will be interesting to see how they are prepared. For, the pundits appear to have surfaced something quite important. Not everyone on the guest list has the same appetite for these sorts of things.

Michael Walsh is an Affiliate of the Center for Australian, New Zealand, and Pacific Studies