Essay

Reality beyond the whiteboard

In May 2003, a week after President Bush had declared victory in Iraq from the foredeck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, I made my first visit to Washington carrying the embossed green diplomatic passport of an Australian official. Our embassy had meticulously planned out a week's agenda of meetings. Just before I left Canberra, they had emailed to say I had one lunch-time free – was there anyone else I'd like to meet with?

"I'd like to talk to a genuine neo-conservative," I wrote back, and they found me one.

We had lunch at the restaurant in the Watergate Hotel, accompanied by the political counsellor from the Australian Embassy. Stephen Yates was the Deputy Assistant for National Security Affairs to Vice President Dick Cheney. In his early forties, with a precise blonde crewcut and intense pale eyes behind round glasses, Yates carried great influence in Washington foreign policy circles by virtue of working for the most powerful vice president in history.

"The world is a whiteboard. We can't assume there's anything on it that can't be erased and rewritten," he told us. "The United States and its allies have a responsibility to fix things that aren't right in the world. Like you guys did in East Timor."

I explained that East Timor had been a pretty close-run thing. With the fall of the Suharto regime, there was a moment of historical fluidity that offered the opportunity to remove a long-term irritant from the Indonesian–Australian relationship. In his December 1998 letter to Indonesian President B.J. Habibie, Prime Minister John Howard had suggested a gradualist mechanism for determining East Timorese interest in, and capacity for, autonomy.

I told him that Habibie had been angered by Howard's gesture towards the Matignon Accords between France and its colony, New Caledonia, as a possible model. Habibie rejected the Australian suggestion that there should be a long period of preparation – instead, he decided that if the people voted for autonomy, East Timor could be independent by the beginning of 2000. For the rest of 1999, the Howard government faced a crisis spiralling out of control, with murderous militias rampant in East Timor, huge demonstrations in Australia, and tense confrontations between Australian peacekeepers and Indonesian troops. So much could have gone so wrong.

"Surely this was not the model for reshaping the world?" I asked. Yates seemed impatient. He moved the conversation on to the Korean Peninsula and the Taiwan Straits. What needed to be done to resolve these problems? The next ninety minutes' conversation was intoxicating – both exciting and unreal. To engage with Yates required one to assume a certain form of omnipotence that has its roots deep in the Enlightenment. It is a world-view that sees all problems as soluble if we understand them properly and think hard enough about the solution.

It was a heady time to be an Australian official in Washington. One was treated almost affectionately, as an insider, someone who "got it". When I returned to the American capital some months later, it became downright embarrassing, as Australia's interception of the North Korean vessel Pong Su was hailed repeatedly as an early and vigorous example of an ally acting out President Bush's new, aggressive counter-proliferation policy.

 

ONE REGION WE DIDN'T DISCUSS AT THE WATERGATE restaurant was the South Pacific. Australian policy-makers had been talking about Melanesia for years as part of Australia's "arc of instability", but it seemed so prosaic and marginal in comparison to the world's – and America's – arc of instability, stretching from South Asia through the Persian Gulf into North Africa.

Raising the South Pacific would have killed our conversation at the Watergate. It is the region that has always punctured Australian enthusiasm for the malleability of the world beyond our shores. We have worried periodically about hostile powers' incursions into our sphere of influence – the Germans, the Japanese, the Soviets, the Libyans and recently the Chinese – but none except the Japanese has raised Australia's martial juices. Neither have the endemic coups and cronyism aroused our idealistic ire. The Hawke government's chest-thumping against the Rabuka coup in Fiji in 1987 dissipated amidst the farce of an attempted Australian gunboat mission.

Australia had expected the independence of the South Pacific nations to take decades of evolution, but was mugged by the rise of vigorous anticolonial majorities in the UN General Assembly. One can imagine Prime Minister Menzies wistfully shaking his head when he said in 1960, "whereas at one time many of us might have thought that it was better to go slowly in granting independence so that all the conditions existed for a wise exercise of self-government, I think the prevailing school of thought today is that if in doubt you should go sooner, not later. I belong to that school of thought myself now, though I didn't once ..."

Subsequently, Australian policy towards the South Pacific came to be shaped by low expectations. Tourism, diplomats, aid and expatriates were the main modes of engagement with the new states to our northeast. As long as things were basically stable, the process of state formation and development could meander forward at the same bucolic rate as the rest of island life.

The ongoing civil war in Bougainville began to eat into the profits of some of Australia's biggest resource companies, and the 1997 Sandline Crisis in Papua New Guinea brought home how desperate some Pacific governments were, and how accessible globalisation had made mercenaries and cheap, murderous weapons. A few years later, a Solomon Islands government minister had been murdered and an Australian missionary beheaded by followers of the psychopath Harold Keke. Well-armed gangs of rival Malaitans and Guadalcanalese were holding government ministers and officials to ransom for "reparation" money supplied by the Taiwanese government.

Underlying these events was a mounting concern that, despite decades of Australian aid, development and social cohesion were declining across Melanesia. Gordon Bilney, the minister responsible for the South Pacific in the Keating government, voiced Canberra's frustration as early as 1994. Government ministers and officials from South Pacific states in turn raised concerns about Canberra's and Wellington's advocacy of economic liberalisation as the solution to the region's problems. But, despite mounting concerns, the preferred mode of engagement continued to be arm's-length advice and conditional aid. Responding to calls to do something about the rampant criminality in the Solomon Islands, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer wrote in January 2003: "Sending in Australian troops to occupy the Solomon Islands would be folly in the extreme. It would be widely resented in the Pacific region. It would be 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? The real show stopper, however, is that it would not work ... foreigners do not have answers for the deep-seated problems afflicting the Solomon Islands."

Downer's reasoning resonated with both the historical mode of foreign policy thinking about the South Pacific and with the specific approach to foreign policy of the Howard government. John Howard has imbued his government with a particularly conservative approach to governing. It is a world-view convinced of the deep complexity of society. Properly governed societies derive great strength from their complexity by encouraging individualism, reflecting moral character and rewarding social-mindedness. A conservative leader must be mindful of, and work within, the traditions, institutions and values of society, which have evolved and persisted through time because they have demonstrated their superiority over alternatives.

This conservatism is essentially a philosophy of social change, acutely sketched by British philosopher Michael Oakeshott: "An innovation which is a response to some specific deficit, one designed to redress some specific disequilibrium, is more desirable than one which springs from a notion of a generally improved condition of human circumstances, and is far more desirable than one generated by a vision of perfection."

Howard sees the role of government as facilitating changes that are intimated within society, its processes and institutions, and abolishing those institutions that are untenable and carry within themselves the forces of their own dissolution. The Howard government's approach to the South Pacific had been mindful of the complexity of those societies and convinced of the follies of grand schemes for sudden reform.

 

AGAINST SUCH A BACKGROUND, THE GENERAL REVIEW of Australia's policies towards the South Pacific prepared by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in early 2003 seemed uncontroversial. Scrupulous in documenting the region's many problems and the shortcomings of most of Canberra's then policies, the tone of the report was one of resignation: the problems were too complex, but at the same time not serious enough to warrant a major policy shift.

Howard called in Ric Wells, the head of DFAT's Pacific, Middle East and Africa Division, to discuss the report. The Prime Minister wanted a comprehensive review of policy towards the Solomon Islands, including a description of what would be needed to implement a genuine solution to that country's mounting crisis. How many guns on the ground would be required? How many people? What would it all cost? Howard had written the Solomon Islands on to the whiteboard.

As work began on the review, it became apparent that the Prime Minister's shift in direction had liberated new concerns and imperatives among officials and policy wonks. People began to talk about the Solomon Islands as a "failing" state – perhaps similar to Afghanistan in its vulnerability to criminals or terrorists. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute talked of a "petri dish" effect, where the spores of transnational chaos would incubate and spread to healthy neighbours. Aid officials argued that the experience of the 2000 Townsville Peace Agreement and Peace Monitoring Team showed that hesitant and partial responses were ultimately a waste of money and effort.

AusAID Director Bruce Davis took personal charge of a Solomon Islands Task Force. After Solomon Islands Prime Minister Sir Allan Kamekeza met Howard in June 2003 to request an intervention, Wells led a team of First Assistant Secretary level officials from DFAT, PM&C, AusAID, Defence and Treasury to Honiara for consultations on the form and timing of the intervention. Their task was partly to persuade the Solomon Islands government that there would be no intervention to re-establish law and order without agreement to a much broader mandate of state-building and governance reform.

These consultations resulted in a comprehensive intervention package being developed and presented to the Solomon Islands Parliament.

Australia's insistence on governance reform came from the confluence of several experiences and conclusions within the Australian Government. One strand flowed out of two decades of structural reform to the Australian economy, and the universal belief among Australian officials that our current economic strength was the direct result of our own governance reforms. This conviction was sharpened by the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis, which gave rise to the general conclusion that the difference between the strongly performing Australian economy and the floundering regional economies was governance.

A reinforcing strand developed among Australia's development aid officials. During the 1990s, there had been a growing awareness and discussion of what many in the international development community began to call the "aid paradox": that, despite many years of development aid, wealth, productivity and levels of poverty had worsened in a large number of developing states. Spearheaded by the World Bank and the OECD's Development Assistance Committee, development officials began a series of studies and discussions intended to increase the effectiveness of aid. As these considerations progressed, they increasingly focused on the internal governance of developing states, and a growing consensus emerged, culminating in the World Bank's landmark 1997 World Development Report. Generally, it was believed, in a good regulatory environment aid can be a force multiplier, but in a bad regulatory environment, aid is at best wasted, and at worst can do real harm.

A third strand was more recent, dating from the September 11 attacks. Al Qaeda's basing in Afghanistan – a country almost demolished by decades of war – gave rise to the belief that "failing" states were a magnet for terrorists and transnational criminals. The "failed" or "fragile" state lacked the ability to govern adequately its own territory and population, and in these ungoverned areas transnational threats could incubate and transit while exploiting the interdependence of a globalised world to attack developed societies. It simply reinforced thinking that fragile states could no longer be dealt with at arm's length with aid and advice: there was a new imperative for developed states to address the most dangerous sites of state weakness. To this way of thinking, the problem of the Solomon Islands was akin to that of Iraq or Afghanistan: an Australian intervention would be strengthening a weakness in the fabric of global security in an age of transnational threats. To more cynical observers, this was the perfect excuse for the Howard government to pull our diggers out of Iraq just as the chaotic "Phase Four" rebuilding was beginning.

 

AS THE PLAN FOR THE SOLOMON ISLANDS TOOK SHAPE in Canberra, it borrowed heavily from international blueprints for "state-building", as applied in Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor, Afghanistan and Iraq. "State-building" is a relatively new term which has largely displaced the older term "nationbuilding". Nation-building was a task that confronted all post-colonial states: a big, complex and inter-linked project, it implied a shaping of economy, politics and society – often from haphazardly collected ethnic groups – into a cohesive sovereign unit. By contrast, state-building confines itself to the institutions of the state – primarily, the bureaucracy – with a view to increasing their integrity and efficiency and shaping them in way that will have positive effects on the economy, society and politics. State-building sends a strong signal that the project is strictly limited in scope and technical in nature. It advertises the intent that either the intervention will leave local political processes and elites intact, or replace them quickly through a transparent electoral process. State-building denotes both a willingness of the international community to impose peace and oversee some form of conflict-resolution, and a desire to disengage as quickly as possible from political and social processes and focus on the technocratic task of reforming state institutions.

The concept of state-building carries within it assumptions of what a completed state looks like, that in the end all states are constituted and function in the same way. With minor variations in emphasis, state-building frameworks concentrate on what are argued to be the key themes of state function: security and the rule of law; transparent and efficient bureaucratic institutions; the provision of essential services to the population; the operation of democratic processes and norms; and the fostering of the conditions for market-led development. Of course, the "completed" state looks remarkably like ours. There is more than a hint of what Michael Ignatieff calls imperial narcissism, a "desire to imprint our values, civilisation and achievements on the souls, bodies and institutions of other people".

State-building rests on the beliefs that the state as a political form can be transferred across all cultures and contexts and, crucially, that the long and bloody process of state-building experienced in the West can be both truncated and sanitised by those who hold the blueprints of the final product. The philosophy of state-building is that external actors will initially supply what are taken to be the crucial attributes of the state – coercion, capacity, legitimacy and capital – with the intention of transferring these attributes of "stateness" to an indigenous sovereign centre of political accountability over time.

A narrow focus on the technocratic tasks of reforming bureaucratic institutions has the benefit of avoiding, as much as is possible by an intervention, resonances of neo-colonialism. By demonstrating that it wishes to operate alongside an indigenous, representative government – either left intact by the intervention or rapidly constituted through a representative process sponsored by the intervention – the state-building mission sends a clear signal that it is there to render technical advice, not to meddle in the politics of the society. The task of imparting efficient bureaucratic practices and redesigning institutions seems much more achievable than trying to reform the processes of political representation and power in many societies.

While planners in Canberra acknowledged that corruption within the Solomon Islands political system was a major problem, this was not an issue they wanted to tackle directly. It was hoped that if the intervention could deliver an effective and scrupulous bureaucracy, this would act as a buffer against the criminality of the elected officials.

These blueprints were powerfully shaped by changes to the Australian state that had occurred over twenty years. In line with much of the rest of the developed world, Australia has pared back its welfare state to a much more minimalist "regulatory state". The Australian state has withdrawn from the economy and many areas of service provision, shifting the role of government from that of generating social and economic outcomes to that of establishing, through regulation, parameters of acceptable conduct and manipulating incentives, the appropriate conditions for social, political and economic forces to generate desirable outcomes. The state is conceived as separate from the distinct spheres of the economy, politics and society – each of which, in Friedrich Hayek's terms, is seen to be constituted as a "spontaneous order", with an inner, autonomous dynamism. The philosophy of the regulatory state is that government's role is to foster the inherent dynamism within the economic, political and social spheres in positive directions, not to attempt to replace those forces or compete with them in creating desired outcomes.

 

THE BLUEPRINT FOR THE REGIONAL ASSISTANCE MISSION to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) consisted of three overlapping phases. The first phase arrived on the morning of July 24, 2003 at Henderson Airfield, Honiara, in a flotilla of thirteen Royal Australian Airforce C-130 Hercules transport planes and in theHMAS Manoora which had anchored off Guadalcanal Beach before dawn. Three hundred police and seventeen hundred soldiers from Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Samoa and Papua New Guinea deployed in an intentional display of overwhelming force. The objective of the first phase was to restore law and order, disarm the militants who had terrorised the society, and resurrect the justice system to punish violent and criminal elements. RAMSI put its military prowess on prominent display, staging public demonstrations of military manoeuvres involving helicopters, troops and sniffer dogs finding buried weapons. Such intimidation was crucial to restoring calm, encouraging Harold Keke to surrender, and collecting and destroying four thousand guns – including seven hundred high-powered military weapons – by November 2003.

Phase two centred on governance reform. Australian officials, drawn from the Australian Federal Police, DFAT, the Department of Finance, the Treasury, the Attorney-General's Department, the Defence Department, the Australian Office of Financial Management, the Australian Customs Service and AusAID, were placed both in line positions within the Solomon Islands bureaucracy and in advisory roles. It was hoped that placing experienced Australian public servants within the bureaucracy would not only impart administrative skills and culture, but would also lead to enduring institutional links. Because of enduring problems with public service recruitment in the Solomon Islands, Australian officials initially intended as advisers often found they had no counterparts in the Solomon Islands public service, and had to slot into line roles instead.

Australia's assistance focused on the public service, cabinet, accountability institutions, parliamentary processes and the electoral system. Significant emphasis was given to inculcating public servants with bureaucratic culture and knowledge of administrative regulations and role delimitations. Training was provided in merit selection procedures, effective leadership skills, the tracking, monitoring and storage of documents and records, and communicating within the public service and between the public service and Cabinet.

Phase three focused on establishing the conditions for economic development. Initial work was targeted at the economic functions of state. There was a heavy initial focus on budget support and financial management processes. The key areas for reform and capacity-building were identified as budget, audit, treasury, inland revenue, customs, payroll and debt management.

By mid-2005, Australia appeared to have shown the world what a successful state-building mission looked like. The military element had been drastically reduced, law and order had returned to the streets of Honiara, and over five thousand criminal charges had been laid. A nationwide survey conducted by an NGO in July 2005 found over 90 per cent of Solomon Islanders believed RAMSI had been a success and supported it remaining. In October 2005, the International Monetary Fund reported that the Solomon Islands returned year-on-year GDP growth of 5.5 per cent for the two years following the RAMSI intervention. Contemplating quagmires in the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan, the US State Department expressed a growing interest in learning from RAMSI's success.

 

NATIONAL ELECTIONS WERE HELD IN THE SOLOMON ISLANDS in April 2006. The chaotic and opaque process of choosing a cabinet and prime minister resulted in former Deputy Prime Minister Snyder Rini being voted Prime Minister by twenty-seven votes to twenty-three. Despite Rini's party having won more seats than any other in the elections (nine out of fifty), the announcement of the vote led to immediate anger among the crowds gathered at the parliament, many of whom began shouting "Chinese money, Chinese money". The protests grew into rioting that lasted eleven days and left Honiara's Chinatown in ruins.

Among the victims of collateral damage was RAMSI's sheen of success. As calm returned to the streets of Honiara, questions began to be asked about just how much progress had been made in state-building. A succession of post-mortems began to document problems with the progress of the mission that had been accumulating almost since the day RAMSI had arrived. Sorting through these, it is hard to escape the conclusion that RAMSI was flawed not in its execution – there is ample evidence of the talent and dedication of Australian officials involved in the project – but in its design. From this perspective, RAMSI appears to be not the shining example of successful state-building, but rather a case study that has begun to manifest problems which have become all too familiar in other state-building missions.

Ironically, RAMSI's successes may have been a contributing factor to the 2006 unrest. Its program of civic education, intended to increase the demand for good governance by teaching Solomon Islanders democratic principles, probably contributed to the outburst of popular frustration at the persistence of familiar corruption in the selection of Rini for Prime Minister. The RAMSI security presence gave people the confidence to take their anger on to the streets without being intimidated by corrupt and criminal elements allied to the political class. There is also strong evidence that local criminal elements, increasingly constrained and frustrated by RAMSI, gleefully fomented and contributed to the ensuing rioting.

The law and justice program managed to make large numbers of arrests, but this in turn created a massive bottleneck in the judicial system. With over five thousand criminal charges laid since 2003, there is limited capacity to hear these cases or to house the prisoners if they are convicted. There was also growing disquiet that the Western, retributive approach to law and order was depriving the traditional Melanesian conciliatory culture – "where wrongs are often perceived as existing not between two individuals but between families and communities, and imprisoning one individual does not right the wrong" – of opportunities for broader community reconciliation.

In its determination to remain separate from the society, economy and politics of the Solomon Islands, RAMSI consciously pursued a "light footprint" profile: remaining headquartered unobtrusively and following a strict no-fraternisation policy. But, as with other interventions, its presence has sharply increased prices and spawned entire sectors devoted to servicing the needs of expatriates. RAMSI's focus on governance reform has further added to the bloating of a state sector that is already too large for the society it seeks to govern. The boom in Honiara contrasts sharply with the economic stagnation in the rest of the country, leading to more migration towards the capital, one of the underlying causes of tension in the Solomon Islands.

A major problem that had been building for years was the growing rivalry between RAMSI and the Solomon Islands' elected political class for legitimacy in the eyes of the population. RAMSI was greeted rapturously by Solomon Islanders on its arrival, and its rapid successes in reimposing law and order only increased admiration for its abilities. Its performance of functions that should have been the province of the state, and its concentration on issues of governance, served only to highlight the venality and incompetence of the political class. A widespread perception developed among Solomon Islanders that key institutions of state, such as the police, were only acting properly because RAMSI was there to keep an eye on them. Yet RAMSI's widespread popularity meant there was little the elected class could do against its rival for popular legitimacy without further eroding its own.

The growing antagonism of the elected class towards RAMSI eventually brought Manasseh Sogavare to the prime ministership. It is hard to review Sogavare's year in the premiership and escape the conclusion that he has worked tirelessly to provoke confrontation with RAMSI and its major supporter. Sogavare's expulsion of Australian High Commissioner Patrick Cole in September 2006, the appointment of paedophile suspect Julian Moti as Attorney-General, and sacking of Australian Police Commissioner Shane Castles appear to be attempts to draw RAMSI and Australia into what looks like a neo-colonial light. So far, the Australian government has all but complied, although it is not yet obvious that popular sentiment in the Solomon Islands has begun to turn against RAMSI.

 

BUT THE REAL CHALLANGE FACING RAMSI ARISES IN THE LIGHT of Sogavare's repeated requests for some idea of the timetable for the conclusion of the mission. At the outset, RAMSI planners consciously avoided the temptation to design the mission around a results focus, because they realised that giving an early prominence to an exit strategy would undermine the effectiveness of the mission. Its reluctance to define an exit date is reinforced by the broad support of the Solomon Islands population for it to remain in place. Pulled in different directions by the expectations of the population and the elected class, especially after April 2006, Australian officials felt that formulating a clear set of medium– and long-term goals and progress indicators would redress some of this growing controversy about RAMSI's role.

A Performance Framework was developed during the latter half of 2006, designed to enable the Solomon Islands government and RAMSI jointly to assess capacity-building progress and priorities. According to RAMSI's Special Coordinator: "This process will enable us to measure our performance in a systematic way, year by year. This will help us to report our progress to the government and people of Solomon Islands, and to the governments of the region." But the performance framework has not made an exit date any clearer. Some officials have noticed that the unpredictability of the reform process, and the tendency that progress on governance reform on some fronts exposes inadequacies in others, has trapped RAMSI into a short-term focus on fixing immediate problems as and when they arise.

Compounding the problem is a widespread perception that it is only RAMSI that can make things work properly in the Solomon Islands. The phrase, Weitim olketa RAMSI bae kam stretem ("Wait for RAMSI to come and fix it") has become common. With expatriates playing key anti-corruption roles such as that of Accountant-General, Solomon Islanders have begun refusing to take over these roles, fearing the retribution that could be directed at them and their families for playing roles increasingly hated and feared by the country's unreformed political classes.

Ultimately, RAMSI is trapped by the same realisation that binds other state-building missions. From Iraq and Afghanistan to Kosovo and Bosnia, all remain vulnerable to ongoing turbulence in the political and social spheres, despite interventions' efforts to build stable systems of public administration and constituencies for reform. If they withdraw, the unreconciled hatreds in the political sphere, unresolved resentments in the economic sphere, and unreformed traditions in the social sphere will tear apart the externally constructed state frameworks. State-building's intention of remaining aloof from politics, economics and society while concentrating on technocratic reforms has proved unrealistic.

The story of RAMSI is ultimately a parable of a conservative government seduced by a radical belief in the capacity of wealthy, developed societies to remake the world beyond their shores in their own image. If a single thread of failure strings together Iraq and Afghanistan, Kosovo and Bosnia, East Timor and Solomon Islands, it is the misconception that the state is an independent variable, ideally divorced from politics, economics and society. To be sustainable, agreement on the nature of the state must arise from existing social forces and understandings, from real interests and clashes of interest which lead to the establishment of mechanisms and organisational rules and procedures capable of resolving and diffusing disagreements. Rather than treating local politics as the source of political institutions, state-building relies on Western states' political understandings and commitments and their belief in the power of institutions to shape political behaviour, rather than vice versa.

The Solomon Islands, a state of just half a million people, is not a whiteboard picture to be erased and redrawn, any more than Iraq is. Prime Minister Howard, the careful pragmatist, should have known this. But, seduced by a vision of grand intervention in the meanderings of South Pacific history, he now owns a venture that faces many more years of haphazard progress, with little sight of an emphatic conclusion. And what traps RAMSI more than anything is the fear that, despite years of work and billions of taxpayers' dollars, the waters of corruption and social chaos may rapidly close after an eventual withdrawal, as if the grand scheme for change had never happened.  ♦

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review