The US should get real about history and colonialism before China does
Lessons drawn from two events this month should serve to shape U.S. foreign policy toward the Global South moving forward. One is the passing of Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom. The second is the U.S. hosting the Pacific Islands Conference of Leaders.
It is natural to ponder the connection between these two events. But there is more to it than what meets the eye.
On Sept. 13., the U.S. hosted the Pacific Islands Conference of Leaders in Hawaii. Following the meeting, the U.S. announced a slew of measures aimed at increasing cooperation with the islands and highlighted recent initiatives, including increased funding for access to independent media and support for journalists and outlets and efforts to strengthen democratic governance. Through scholarly exchanges, cooperation on climate change and development partnerships executed through different federal agencies, including USAID and the Development Finance Corporation (DFC), the Biden administration demonstrated that it was serious about engaging the Pacific Islands.
Earlier in the month, when Queen Elizabeth II passed away, there was an outpouring of mourning and sympathies from leaders across the world to the royal family. However, historians, anthropologists and citizens of the Global South decided to refresh people’s memories of the brutality of the British empire.
Many pundits in the West downplayed the brutality of the empire and engaged in whataboutery. A few went on to even justify it. Royal commentator Hilary Fordwich, when asked about reparations on Don Lemon’s show on CNN, suggested that one should trace the “supply chain” of slavery. And went on to incorrectly state that the British were the first to abolish slavery (Haiti was the first to abolish slavery in 1804, followed by Cuba in 1824 and Mexico in 1829.).
Panelists on Sky News in Australia went a step further and advocated for the re-colonization of the former colonies.
With Western voices making such erroneous statements and advocating for these horrendous measures, U.S. rapprochement efforts in the Global South and Pacific Islands understandably raise eyebrows. Critics have pointed to U.S. rapprochement as a policy in response to China’s recent overtures in the region.
The Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) and Palau, signed agreements known as compacts with the United States in the late 1980s that gave the U.S. defense responsibilities and the right to military bases in return for economic support. These compacts expire in 2023 and in 2024, in the case of Palau. They are being renegotiated, and there is a growing consensus amongst experts that these island nations could seek China for support should the talks fail.
Residents of these island nations are not naive about America’s recent bonhomie with its leaders. The U.S. conducted 67 nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands from 1946 to 1958, leading to health and environmental consequences that continue to affect residents today. Those tests include the “Castle Bravo” bomb at Bikini Atoll in 1954 — which is the largest thermonuclear detonation ever conducted by the U.S.
Pacific Island nations are at the forefront of climate catastrophe. The West has historically siloed them as tourist destinations, sources of mineral and natural resources, and worse, as a destination for nuclear tests. The Biden administration should change that prism and address the issues that affect the islands the most. Furthermore, the U.S. government should revisit its understanding of history so that it’s not just about what is written from the perspective of the monarchy in England or by the empires, but also by the colonized.
As the U.S. shifts gears and moves its focus to the Indo-Pacific, it needs to alter its approach to foreign affairs. If not, China will take the lead by addressing dormant, and in some cases, active concerns of decolonization in the Pacific Islands. For example, akin to the museums in Washington and in Ellis Island, N.Y., that provide visitors with chilling accounts of atrocities committed on American soil, China could assist in building museums in Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific Islands documenting the atrocities meted out to them over the last few centuries by European and American empires and governments respectively.
To that end, Biden should refrain from militarizing regions of the world to maintain and uphold “spheres of influence.”
While China is no benevolent actor in the region, the U.S. is failing to acknowledge the vital aid and assistance that China offers and the limits of its own engagement. If it views islands in the Pacific as mere strategic assets or buffer zones, it dehumanizes the people on those islands and consequently gives China and other foreign actors a grievance to exploit for their own gain.
President Biden has found success with middle-class voters through legislative proposals such as the CHIPS and Science Act, the Inflation Reduction Act and the PACT Act — all three address policy perils of the last three decades. Biden’s “foreign policy for the middle class” should extend to nations in the Pacific.
In his recent address to the U.N. General Assembly, Biden said “together, we can bend the arc of history toward a freer and just world for all our children.” In that spirit, an inclusive and progressive American foreign policy should be one that does not find justifications for the blots in history, as some conservative pundits and commentators in the media have, but one that brings people together.
The U.S. should address the concerns of the indigenous islanders, whether it be in its own states and territories such as Hawaii, Guam or Puerto Rico or in its backyard among the Pacific Islands, and subsequently extend support to them before an adversary such as China chooses to weaponize history.
Akhil Ramesh is a fellow with the Pacific Forum. He has worked with governments, risk consulting firms and think tanks in the United States and India. Follow him on Twitter: Akhil_oldsoul.