The Blue Pacific’s Organically Progressive Strategic Culture

11 December 2023, 1257 EST

The Blue Pacific is far from monolithic—diverse in its politics, regime types, degrees of sovereignty, and ways of thinking about strategy. Given its bigger-than-continental scale, it could hardly be otherwise. And there are problematic sub-regional cleavages among Micronesia, Polynesia, and Melanesia.

But there’s a stronger imprint here of what I recognize as an organically progressive strategic culture than elsewhere in the world. It’s not that everyone here is progressive or espouses a coherent strategic-cultural perspective—not even close. And patriarchy is a huge problem in some Pacific societies.

But if the average foreign policy establishment in a given country has between 0-5% of its elites thinking about security like progressives do, the rate of such thinking in the Pacific is more like 20-30% (I’m ballparking). Policy elites and prominent intellectuals of the Pacific regularly express ideas about their region that evince the strategic culture I’m talking about, and it’s hard to find something comparable in my experiences with the US and Asia.

A Pacific Strategic Culture

Strategic cultures, for those unfamiliar, are pathologies in thinking about “high strategy” that are peculiar to individual governments (or regions, or societies). It describes a connection between identity and strategic action

China, for instance, is understood to have a defensive-realist strategic culture. North Korea’s strategic culture of “pressure for pressure” is the basis for its brinkmanship tradition. Israel’s strategic culture is the basis for its crassly named “mowing grass” theory of deterrence. And the United States has a techno-solutionist strategic culture that prejudices it toward prescribing militarized solutions to political problems.

Every government evinces a strategic culture. All strategic thinking includes pathologies. And nobody thinks about strategy in a purely rational, objective way (even ruling classes have a standpoint).

But every word in “organically progressive strategic culture” is contestable, maybe even controversial, so let me be clear what I mean.

Organic: it’s not the disembedded design of a handful of people, and it’s not political in the party alignment sense; it is a product of historical experience and accumulated practices. The Pacific was home to a vibrantly progressive, social movement-based politics from the 1960s through the 1980s. Pacific peace advocacy—and opposition to nuclear weapons, militarism, and colonialism—was democratically grounded in the work of activists. The Treaty of Rarotonga itself was the result of movement pressure. And the content of Pacific regionalism—which is heavily grounded in human-security concerns—follows from that legacy.

Strategic: it offers answers regarding what to do with statecraft and how to think about dealing with outside powers.

Cultural: while it’s not reducible to the traditions of Oceanic diplomacy or the “Pacific way” (a term that has fallen out of fashion), those orientations are indicators of and partial content for a Pacific strategic culture. The assertion of a Blue Pacific identity as such is the basis on which to look for coherence in how the region approaches questions requiring “strategic action.”

“Progressive,” though, is a capacious term (don’t I know it). 

By “progressive” I don’t mean political identity or ideology as conventionally understood but rather in the sense of my most recent book—an emphasis on the root causes of insecurity. The idea that peace must come more from public policy and governance than from defense policy is not uncommon…but it is progressive. And that belief is more self-evident in this region than in others I’ve experienced. It’s certainly alien to the Washington way of thinking, which is shot through with the unacknowledged politics of reaction (hierarchy, exclusion, violence).

National Interests Versus Common Good

There is also one other way in which I detect a progressive character in the Pacific. I’ve started engaging with Pacific policy elites the past few years, most recently at a mind-opening Track II in Fiji. This is impressionistic, but nearly every person I’ve spoken with from the region has been hyper-aware that their work gave them a privileged status. That may sound unremarkable, but it cuts a stark contrast with policy-elite cultures I’ve experienced in most other parts of the world.

Foreign policy elites—especially in the global North—tend to have more in common with each other than the people they purport to represent. In their view, nobody “gets it” except other policy professionals. Their tether to “the people” is usually limited to public opinion polls, or maybe trust that their elected politicians are reliable vessels for the public interest even when they’re obviously corrupt. In the US, I even witnessed a growing cultural disdain for the working classes among foreign policy cadre—something I found increasingly alienating.

Yet, it’s not hard to find Pacific representatives relating concerns about everything—even highfalutin “great-power competition”—to the interests of everyday people contra abstract national interests. Edward Said would be proud of their aspiration. Civil society has a negligible presence in either the formulation or implementation of rich-country foreign policies, but it’s at least in the room in the Pacific.

If I were forced to explain why an organically progressive strategic culture exists in the Pacific, I would speculate it’s because, during the Cold War, social movements in the region found some rooting and connection to government policies. In the US and Asia, by contrast, social movements were not just more repressed; their connections to foreign policy all but disappeared over time. Repression went on in the Pacific too, but the opposite trend was stronger than it was elsewhere.

Why does any of this matter? There are at least two related reasons.

One, the Pacific’s regional strategy2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent, is shot through with a progressive understanding of security. As circumstances change, the details of a strategy like this might change, but they’re likely to change in accord with the strategic culture I’m referencing here. Doctrines and strategy statements are the source material for detecting strategic cultures.

Two, the Blue Pacific perspective on strategy is irreducibly incompatible with the “Indo-Pacific strategies” of powers like the US and Australia. Assertions that amount to “US spheres of influence are good, actually” or “nuclear-powered submarines are for the benefit of everyone!” or “we can’t allow self-determination for the non-sovereign Pacific because it might benefit China” are analytically flaccid justifications for hierarchy, exclusion, and militarism—the opposite of that to which the Blue Pacific has long aspired.  

The immense troubles facing the Pacific do not owe to what I’m describing here as an organically progressive strategic culture. They owe to the fact that the Pacific is not able to consistently act on its fundamentally good strategic instincts—autonomy in unity, an allergy to nuclear weapons, and skepticism about military “solutions,” as well as anything that smells of colonialism.

Why can’t the Pacific act consistently on these good strategic instincts? Well, at root, it’s a sphere-of-influence problem, baby.