By Van Jackson
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 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 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.
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.
Van Jackson, PhD, is a senior lecturer in international relations at Victoria University of Wellington and host of The Un-Diplomatic Podcast. Van’s research broadly concerns the politics of U.S. foreign policy--especially critical and progressive politics--East Asian and Pacific security, and a critical perspective on the theory and practice of grand strategy. He is the author of dozens of journal articles, book chapters, and policy reports, as well as three books, the most recent of which is Pacific Power Paradox: American Statecraft and the Fate of the Asian Peace, with Yale University Press (2023). His two earlier books, both with Cambridge University Press, were On the Brink: Trump, Kim, and the Threat of Nuclear War (2018), and Rival Reputations: Coercion and Credibility in US-North Korea Relations (2016). His two ongoing research projects focus on the connection between democracy, foreign policy, and global insecurity. One is a book under contract called Grand Strategies of the Left: The Foreign Policy of Progressive Worldmaking. The other, also under contract, is called The Rivalry Peril: How Great-Power Competition Threatens Peace and Weakens Democracy. Prior to joining Victoria, Van taught courses on Asian security, U.S. foreign policy, and Korea and Japan at Georgetown University, Hawaii Pacific University, the Catholic University of America, and the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies. His research has been funded by the MacArthur Foundation, the Smith Richardson Foundation, the Academy of Korean Studies, and the Council on Foreign Relations, and he has held policy research appointments with the Center for a New American Security, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and Pacific Forum CSIS. Before becoming a scholar, Van was a practitioner of U.S. foreign and defense policy, serving in several positions in the Office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense from 2009-2014, as well as the U.S. Air Force, from 2000-2006. During the 2020 US presidential election, he was an unpaid foreign policy adviser to multiple presidential campaigns.