Making culture central to the plan: building on the past

Is culture really important to regionalism in the Pacific? The track record of regional cooperation suggests that it is. In its review, the EPG wrote that the Pacific Way, ‘however much it evolves to meet the demands of a changing world … will have at its core one unchanging truth: regional interconnectedness, the idea that there is a Pacific way of doing things that is open to, but different from, the way Americans or Europeans or Asians might do things’ (EPG 2004: 14).

The Pacific Way was at the heart of the Pacific Islands’ initial engagement in regionalism, even though that engagement was driven mainly by the security concerns of the metropolitan powers in the aftermath of World War II. For many years, the concept of the ‘Pacific Way’ was used by Pacific Island states to define and differentiate themselves from other developing countries and regions of the world. Coined at the UN in 1970 by Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, the then Prime Minister of Fiji, it came to symbolise a way of doing things specific to the Pacific: a way that emphasised moderation, respect, consensual dialogue, inclusiveness, as well as ‘preparedness to negotiate, flexibility, adaptation and compromise’. It reflected a constructed regional consciousness as well as a gradual approach to modernisation and development. And for island leaders it symbolised a new start based on the assertion of a pan-Pacific ideal. The Pacific Way ideology therefore became a tool for continued cooperation with metropolitan powers and a diplomatic device for maintaining Pacific protocol and approaches (based on harmony and pragmatism) in regional and international affairs. And its general message was that Pacific Island countries were willing to work together with metropolitan countries but that the latter should respect them and not confuse them with Africa or other developing regions.

Today the idea of the Pacific Way is in need of a facelift. As the EPG admits: ‘The Pacific Way is one of the region’s greatest assets, but the concept must evolve and be reasserted if it is to remain relevant.’ As an ideal, the Pacific Way has been damaged by political changes and, in some cases, crises, which have taken place in many of the Pacific Island countries (Fiji’s coups in 1987 and 2000 have no doubt caused damage to the concept). It also has not been given sufficient substance even though the EPG tries to do so: ‘In our view, this concept or style — which is often mentioned but seldom defined — implies honesty, mutual respect and tolerance. It is based on recognition and acceptance of differences, but with an underlying awareness of the need to find unity and consensus. The Pacific Way is guided by a sense of justice, compassion, tolerance and understanding. It is about working together’ (EPG 2004: 20).

Now might be a good time to build on the Pacific Way as defined above and used by Pacific leaders for some 20 years, with the objective of defining a Pacific ‘regionality’ in which Pacific values, concepts and practices become the foundation for further cooperation. This approach is substantially different from including culture and cultural identity as mere token gestures. As Ron Crocombe warns with reference to the current plan process, it is no use highlighting culture only to undermine it through contradictory measures: ‘The leaders emphasize the value they place on the strengthening of Pacific Islands languages and cultures. There are however, potential conflicts between some parts of the documents and others. Double-talk helps no one in the long run. Pacific cultures and languages are to be “strengthened”, traditions and cultures are to be “honoured and developed”. But many other aspects of the documents ensure they will be weakened and marginalized’ (Crocombe 2005: 300).

This paper advocates placing Pacific values at the core of regionalism and building on cultural identity to give regionalism meaning and coherence. As Crocombe reminds us, there are ‘two main bases to effective regional organizations anywhere in the world’:

  1. Material interactions: trade, investment, free movement of people, etc. For the Pacific Island region, these are very low, and account for only a small proportion of the total for almost any country.
  2. Identity factors. It is in this area that Pacific Island regionalism has greater strengths — including feelings of common origins and historical experiences, common elements in value systems, cultural patterns and symbolic representation.

He goes on to explain that the identity factors are particularly important in the region:

In most of the world’s regional organizations both material and identity factors are strong. In the Pacific Islands, however, it is unlikely that the material factors will grow significantly. If regional cooperation is to be promoted, therefore, more emphasis needs to be given to the identity factors. (Crocombe 2004: 300).

At present, the plan misses the points made by Crocombe and the EPG review, namely that cultural identity is what links Pacific peoples, is an all-encompassing feature of life in the Pacific and is what peoples throughout the region have in common. Culture is viewed as an asset; it is a ‘renewed source of wealth’, of confidence and sustenance, even if it does pose many challenges and is complex to grasp. Addressing culture within the Plan by cutting it up into compartmentalised categories such as good governance and sustainable development rather than making it the foundation of the plan is a mismatched approach.