BC’s Tales of the Pacific | Checkbook diplomacy or national prostitution?

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A NEW craze is sweeping the Pacific world and it goes by the name Checkbook Diplomacy. 

Nations have practiced it for years, of course, but lately it seems to be the fashionable thing to do here.  In the old days, foreign countries looking for a colony or natural resources resorted to cultural imperialism or even outright military conquest.  But why attack someone who can be bought?

Witness a few recent examples.  China offered to bring technology and infrastructure to the Solomon Islands in exchange for their abandonment of Taiwan, a country who had been helping the Solomons for decades.  When Beijing piled more money on the table than Taipei did, the Solomons quickly switched sides.  Same with Fiji and Kiribati.

Checkbook Diplomacy is taking another form as well.  Nations jockeying for power and position within the United Nations attempt to win over Pacific countries, and thus supportive votes, by investing in Pacific development.

In 2011, Slovenia, a tiny, not-so-wealthy country in Europe, started making donations to Federated States of Micronesia for clean water development, and also sought membership as an observer in the Melanesian Spearhead Group.  It so happened that Slovenia was simultaneously bidding for a seat on the United Nations Security Council.  If FSM and the nations of the Spearhead Group cast supporting votes, Slovenia just might gain a seat at the Big Table.  Slovenia failed, but not for lack of trying.

The year 2016 saw Kuwait spend $620,000 in the Pacific region, with 80% of it going to Vanuatu.  The following year, after winning a seat on the U.N. Security Council, Kuwait spent even more lavishly, committing to developing educational and vocational assets in that island nation.  In 2018, Kuwait sent another $500,000 to help rebuild after Cyclone Hola hit the Vanuatu. 

Since balloting in the United Nations is conducted in secret, it is impossible to make a direct link between money spent and votes gathered.  However, it would be naïve to think there isn’t some back scratching going on. 

“But this happens all the time,” you say.  “Even the United States exerts this kind of influence over Pacific nations. A previous generation called it Dollar Diplomacy.” True enough.  But there is a line between patronage and bribery, a difference between buying in and selling out. 

Together, nations of the Pacific region hold twelve votes in the United Nations.  That is a lot of clout, making it attractive to outsiders who would use those votes to push their own agendas.  Slovenia, Kuwait and others already have, and as the New Cold War (I’m ready to capitalize those even if Washington and Beijing aren’t) between the United States and China heats up, we can expect this kind of backroom political dealing to increase.  The question for islanders is: Where do you draw the line between Checkbook Diplomacy and selling out? 

When a country tells the world that its allegiance is available to the highest bidder, it is committing national prostitution.  They have no principles, no worldview, no idea of good guys and bad guys, and no sense of the big picture.  They are saying they can be bought.

That is not the reputation you want, the one who stands for nothing past his next meal ticket.  That one is a bottom-feeder, a parasite.  Pacific nations have more self-respect than that, don’t you think?

BC Cook, PhD lived on Saipan and has taught history for 20 years. He currently resides on the mainland U.S.

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