Australia spent years saying no to a central role in the mounting crisis in Solomon Islands. Then, in 2003, Canberra did a huge U-turn and led the intervention that ran for 14 years and ended in June this year.
Here are two interpretations of Australia’s 2003 decision:
Oz academic orthodoxy—Australia was driven by the US alliance and the “war on terror”. Australia’s “new interventionism” was a mix of neo-liberal dreaming about fixing weak states and security fears about the South Pacific “arc of instability”.
Canberra official story—The Solomons was a failing/failed state pleading for help. As regional leader, Australia responded. The Pacific Islands Forum embraced “cooperative intervention”.
The interpretations cover the same ground, but clash. In seeing how Australia thinks about the South Pacific, the regional assistance mission RAMSI is a rich study.
The official story tells some truth while glossing over much. The academic orthodoxy is a bleak understanding, seeing Australia’s South Pacific policy as not actually derived from the South Pacific.
The academic logic is that if 9/11 hadn’t happened to the US, Canberra would have stood back, watching the Solomons slide into hell; no push from Washington, no Pacific action from Oz. Two examples from academic journals:
Dan Halvorson argues that the central driver for Canberra was Australia’s international reputation: “A primary concern for the Howard government was to bolster Australia’s reputation in the ‘War on Terror’ vis-à-vis the USA and the international community more broadly by being seen to maintain order in its regional sphere of responsibility.”
Matthew Allen and Sinclair Dinnen: “We see RAMSI as having been conceived in the global ‘state-building moment’, as accentuated by the events of 9-11, 2001, when there were palpable concerns about the security threats posed by ‘weak’ and ‘failing’ states … The intervention had all the hallmarks of a classic liberal peace intervention…”
“‘Only a few could recall precisely what the mission was initially intended to accomplish, or assess how it might be judged.'”
A superb account of RAMSI (with less orthodoxy) is the review done for Honiara and the Pacific Islands Forum by academics from New Zealand, Fiji and Papua New Guinea. It offers tough judgements about Australia’s performance, but the analysis is grounded in the realities of Solomon Islands that drove Australia and the region. One of the authors, Jon Fraenkel, offers this short account, dryly noting that RAMSI’s 14 years of ups, downs, evolutions and episodes meant that, “only a few could recall precisely what the mission was initially intended to accomplish, or assess how it might be judged.”
Canberra’s official story glibly skips Australia’s hesitations in the five years before intervention, and the trial and error of RAMSI’s long life. The gloss obscures the truth of policy creation: ad hoc responses to cascading events, and indecision masquerading as flexibility while panic rises.
Glibness glides over Australia’s failed policy until 2003: namely, to “intelligently manage trouble” by not getting close to the trouble (a description I got from DFAT secretary Ashton Calvert). As John Howard recalls: “From the late 1990s onwards, my government received numerous requests for assistance of various kinds from the Solomon Islands government. Each time we firmly but politely declined. The response was always that Australia did not wish to become embroiled in Solomon Islands’ internal affairs.”
Each refusal forced Canberra to stare again at the Solomons, which was stumbling fast from failing to failed. Solomon Islands is a classic weak state atop a strong(ish) society—the five years of unrest to 2003 tore society and shook the state.
Life in the villages went on, while in Honiara the prime minister was taken hostage at gunpoint in a coup; cabinet couldn’t convene for fear of armed men barging in demanding money; the new (British) police commissioner couldn’t arrest one of his senior officers who walked into the Treasury demanding money; Honiara had a police force by day that turned into a militia force at night.
Events, not ideology or the international vibe, forced the Howard government to act.
One reason Australia acted: it could. This circular statement points to the regional dimension.
After winning office in 1996, the Howard government learned about Australia’s power in the arc: extended police and military deployments in Bougainville and Timor; Canberra applying maximum pressure on the Chan government that fell in Papua New Guinea’s 1997 Sandline crisis, acting decisively that year to get food to half a million Papua New Guineans hit by drought; imposing the boat-people camps—the “Pacific solution”—on the broke nation of Nauru; helping to rebuild Fiji’s police after the coup crisis of Suva’s parliamentary siege in 2000.
Despite those experiences, Canberra agonised over intervention in the Solomons. Australia couldn’t recolonise the South Pacific, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer argued in January, 2003: “Sending in Australian troops to occupy Solomon Islands would be folly in the extreme. It would be widely resented in the Pacific region. It would be very difficult to justify to Australian taxpayers. And for how many years would such an occupation have to continue? And what would be the exit strategy?”
My response to the “exit” question was one of the more useful lines I’ve injected into the Canberra milieu: You can’t have an exit strategy from your own region. I hammered the exit mentality in a paper to the Menzies Research Centre in February 2003 with this concluding line: “There is no exit strategy for us in the South Pacific. After all, this is where we live.”
RAMSI began on July 24, 2003, after Australia had exhausted its alternatives. The dramatic language John Howard used was cover for ditching failed policy. If you have to U-turn, deploy noise and smoke, then zoom on the new course with fresh flags flying.
Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalism fellow.