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Biden administration should avoid throwing stones at US-Pacific Island Country Summit

Joe Biden
AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File
FILE – President Joe Biden meets with United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres during the 77th Session of the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2022, at the U.N. headquarters. The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative on Friday, Sept. 23, 2022, released its negotiating objectives for the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, a deal with the 12 nations launched in May. Among them, the U.S. wants the Indo-Pacific countries to improve their labor and environmental standards and ensure their markets remain open to competition, while also taking steps to ease supply-chain backlogs at border crossings.

On Wednesday, President Biden will host the first-ever U.S.-Pacific Island Country Summit. 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, those issues are clearly laid out in the Blue Pacific Strategy. Among other things, that strategy declares a regionwide commitment to the principles of democracy and good governance.

Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to discuss democracy and good governance with Ambassador Ilana Seid of the Palau Mission to the United Nations. During our conversation, Ambassador Seid challenged the notion that democracy and good governance are always better in Hawaii and the United States Pacific Territories than in the Pacific Island Countries. She also warned policymakers against advancing one-shot solutions for promoting democracy and good governance across the Pacific Islands region. Whenever they do, she argued, “it backfires.”

A few weeks earlier, I had argued that the United States government needs to think more systematically about democracy in the Pacific Islands region. I suggested that changes in the states of democracy in one part of the region could lead to significant changes in other parts of the region. Of course, that challenges the notion that a sharp distinction can be drawn between domestic politics and foreign policy in Pacific affairs as it entails that changes in the state of democracy in the Pacific Island Countries can lead to significant changes in the democracy of Hawaii and the U.S. Pacific Territories, and vice versa. The same holds true for good governance.

Sandy Ma, the former executive director of Common Cause Hawaii says that people are not only becoming disenchanted with their state and local governments, they are increasingly disengaged from elections themselves. That is especially true for Native Hawaiians, according to Kuhio Lewis, CEO of the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement. He said, “I think a good number of Hawaiians just don’t connect with the American system.”

Democracy advocates also express concern that recent scandals involving public officials have started to take a toll on public confidence. Some examples include the federal prosecutions of former Hawaii state senator Jamie Kalani English, state representative Ty Cullen, Honolulu prosecuting attorney Keith Kaneshiro, Honolulu deputy prosecutor Katherine Kealoha, Honolulu police chief Louis Kealoha, and Kauai councilmember Arthur Brun.

On the eve of the U.S.-Pacific Island Country Summit, the Biden administration should take note of concerns being voiced about democracy and good governance in Hawaii and the United States Pacific Territories. These sorts of problems weaken the ability of the United States to advocate for policy interventions designed to strengthen democracy and good governance elsewhere. They also carry unintended consequences for the states of democracy and good governance elsewhere in the Pacific Islands Region.

While there are many positive things that can be said about democracy and good governance in the United States, American diplomats and military leaders do not appear to appreciate fully the challenges to democracy and good governance in Hawaii and the U.S. Pacific Territories and their implications for our foreign policy objectives. Until that changes, the United States will find it difficult to engage in “fruitful conflict” on these matters with their counterparts from Pacific Island Countries.

Michael Walsh is an affiliate of the Center for Australian, New Zealand, and Pacific Studies of the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. He served as the chair of the Asian and Pacific Security Affairs Subcommittee of the Biden Defense Working Group during the 2020 U.S. presidential election. The views expressed are his own.

Tags American democracy Biden Biden foreign policy Democracy Democracy promotion by the United States Federated States of Micronesia good governance Hawaii Joe Biden Pacific Island Countries Palau Political corruption

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