Whither the Pacific Islands Forum: Is there an alternative to regionalism?

Updated: Mar 7

The event itself happened quickly enough.

Members of the Pacific Islands Forum elected Henry Puna, former Prime Minister of the Cook Islands, over Gerald Zackios, Marshall Islands ambassador to the United States, as secretary-general, highlighting a rift between the Micronesian and Polynesian subgroups of the organization that has embodied Pacific regionalism since 1971.

Then Micronesia left. The immediate cause: failure to abide by a “gentlemen’s agreement” to rotate leadership among the north and south Pacific sub-groups.

“The process regarding the appointment of the secretary general has clearly indicated to the Republic of Palau that unity, regionalism and the Pacific Way no longer guide the forum,” stated Palau’s Feb. 4 diplomatic note, informing the world at large that it was terminating its participation in the Pacific Island Forum. Papua New Guinea supports Micronesia while calling for continued solidarity. The PIF is, for now, a South Pacific organization, at least in principle.

The Pacific Island Forum, formed in New Zealand in 1971, following a burst of de-colonization throughout Africa, Southeast Asia and much of the rest of the world, fueling widespread optimism about what self-determination could accomplish.

The Compacts of Free Association did not exist; Micronesia was a trust territory while American soldiers slogged through the jungles of Vietnam against an enemy, who quoted their own Declaration of Independence to split from France. Zimbabwe, before the name became synonymous with broken dreams and corruption, was Rhodesia.

The goal: Pacific regionalism, which basically means a diplomatic order that creates institutions around a collective identity within a region and shared sense of identity. The PIF, from its webpage, touts a vision “for a region of peace, harmony, security, social inclusion and prosperity, so that all Pacific people can lead free, healthy, and productive lives,” which is possible through “fostering cooperation between governments, collaboration with international agencies, and by representing the interests of its members.” Sounds great. Does anyone disagree with those principles?