There are many ways to respond to a serious crisis, but hyperbole and panic should not be among them. Some commentators have elevated the leadership controversy within the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) to an existential threat to Pacific regionalism. Hyperbole with a touch of panic?
For me, these analyses called to mind Agent Kay’s calming advice to Jay in the film Men in Black about handling an existential crisis. "There’s always an Arquillian Battle Cruiser, or a Corillian Death Ray, or an intergalactic plague that is about to wipe out all life" on earth.
I have worked regularly on the regional architecture for most of my academic career, many times as an adviser to PIF governments. Although not at its formation, I had the opportunity to interview every island leader there on their expectations for the nascent association at the second South Pacific Forum meeting in Canberra in February 1972.
Every decade for the past half a century, it seems to me, there has been at least one "existential threat" to Pacific island regionalism. All too often, if the media had its way, they would be region-busting and involve Australia in some negative way.
It is true that Australia should have done more to prevent the current crisis, which had been brewing for well over half a year. Australia had the resources to help reduce the limitations imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic on the essential face-to-face dynamics of the PIF to assist in brokering a solution to the leadership impasse.
A brief review of the half-century of the "existential" crises that the Pacific island states have survived demonstrates both the robustness and fragility of this system.
Historically, Fiji has been the single most important architect of the modern system. The importance of its leadership role cannot be minimized and certainly should not be overlooked in finding the deep roots of the current meltdown.