America's Lake: Emerging from World War II as the undisputed hegemon of the Pacific, the United States has single-mindedly pursued its goal of permanently dominating the region. Since becoming a party to the UKUSA ("Five Eyes") Agreement of 1946, New Zealand has aligned itself, unreservedly, with all of the USA's key strategic objectives in its own "backyard" - the South Pacific.
THE PACIFIC OCEAN is singularly ill-named. It’s human history is as raddled with blood as any other. More so, perhaps, considering the extraordinary distances its peoples were obliged to travel in order to kill and plunder their neighbours.
The image of the South Pacific which Europeans nurture; of white beaches, swaying palms, and beaming islanders; is the distillation of half-a-millennium of unabashed conquest and exploitation. That this was made more palatable to both conquerors and conquered by the latter’s conversion to Christianity in no way diminishes the reality of Europe’s imperial intervention.
The complex and dynamic histories of Hawaii, Fiji, Tahiti, Tonga and Samoa remain mysterious even to the South Pacific’s unofficial “minders” – Australia and New Zealand. Only the most dedicated anthropologists and historians know their stories. The rest of us make do with the half-truths and platitudes of the travel brochures.
The endemic corruption of the South Pacific micro-states, so obvious to the sharp-eyed Kiwi tourist, is the inescapable legacy of these Spanish, Dutch, British, French, German and American colonial projects.
Co-opting local elites has always been the most effective means of governing people from a distance. The chiefly societies of the South Pacific were thus well-suited to the techniques of imperial governance. Win over the traditional rulers; convert the rest to Christian pacifism; and one’s logistical commitment need extend no further than a handful of colonial administrators dressed in tropical whites and carrying the occasional side-arm.
Unfortunately for the peoples of the South Pacific, their decolonisation (a far from complete process, by the way) coincided with the Cold War. The United States’ determination to transform the Pacific Ocean into an American lake (which had triggered its titanic struggle with the Japanese Empire in the early 1940s) was in no way diminished by emerging from World War II as the region’s undisputed hegemon.
Unchallenged strategic control of the Pacific Ocean remained a post-war priority for the United States. For the newly independent South Pacific nations this could only mean their effective re-colonisation as biddable and unproblematic US protectorates – hermetically sealed against any form of Soviet and/or (God forbid!) Communist Chinese influence.
Crucial to this process was the unflinching co-operation of the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. America had a South Pacific toehold in Samoa, and had inherited the scattered islands of Micronesia from the Japanese at the end of World War II. Nevertheless, it rightly understood that the “management” of the South Pacific’s island states was a responsibility best “contracted out” to its English-speaking allies in the region.
Thus was born the “Pacific Way” – effectively a reconstitution of the ruling-through-elites strategy of Victorian colonialism. In practical terms, this policy of elite co-option ensured that graft, embezzlement, nepotism and political corruption swiftly became the norm in the island states. Not that anyone outside those states cared all that much. So long as the “Pacific Way” kept the Pacific nations “communist free”, the United States and its local enforcers were willing to turn a blind eye to their rulers’ excesses.
With the weakening and fall of the Soviet Union, and the rise of the neoliberal “Washington Consensus”, in the 1980s and 90s, the obvious shortcomings of the Pacific Way finally prompted the South Pacific’s English-speaking minders to attempt a clean-up and, if possible, a clear-out, of the island states’ corrupt governmental systems. Several coups-d’etat, civil wars and fiery riots later, the USA, Australia and New Zealand reluctantly concluded that stuffing the Pacific Way genie back inside its bottle could not be done.
What tipped the balance in favour of corruption was the United States’ policy of self-distraction in the Middle-East. In South Pacific terms, all the Global War on Terror achieved was the Peoples Republic of China moving in to fill the power vacuum created by Uncle Sam’s self-defeating desert excursions. The effects of the vast sums of money which the Chinese poured into the island states were as predictable as they were deliberate. Governance in the South Pacific rapidly defaulted to the highest bidder.
Do the English-speaking powers of the Pacific care? Well, yes, they do – but they’re not about to re-colonise the region. Not when they have the technology to observe and, if necessary, subvert every political and economic decision the morally compromised governments of the South Pacific attempt to make.
The full-spectrum surveillance capability of the so-called “Five Eyes” intelligence alliance means that not a single electronic mouse in the South Pacific can move without spy-bases bearing such cloak-and-dagger names as Jackknife, Stellar and Ironsand registering their every footfall.
Passport fraud, money-laundering, offshore tax havens, the surreptitious purchase of political and economic favours by foreign powers – none of it escapes the Anglo-Saxon panopticon.
That Kiwis continue to play such an important role in keeping the South Pacific safe for imperialism should not surprise us. We always have.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 10 March 2015.