Solomonic Decisions

28 July 2003

Solomonic Decisions

By Gwynne Dyer

Last Thursday an Australian-led peacekeeping force began landing in the Solomon Islands, to the almost universal relief of the 450,000 people who live in the small island state. Civil war broke out between rival ethnic groups on the main island, Guadalcanal, in 1998, and rebels from the neighbouring island of Malaita staged a coup in 2000. The intervention makes every kind of good sense — and yet there is something peculiar about it.

Violence and insecurity have become chronic in the Solomons, raising fears among the neighbours that it was becoming a classic ‘failed state’. “You are looking at cabinet not being able to meet,” said Foreign Minister Laurie Chan. “We have to go to different locations for it. You are looking at militants shooting at the prime minister’s house.” The region’s response has been sensible, if a bit belated.

Australia reversed its long-standing policy of non-intervention in the troubled Melanesian states that ring it to the north and east and took the lead in organising a peace-keeping force. Smaller regional states — New Zealand, Fiji, Samoa, Papua New Guinea and Tonga — contributed troops as well, though three-quarters of the 2,225-strong force is Australian. The mandate is solid: the Solomons government has officially asked for help and passed a law permitting the peacekeepers to use reasonable force to disarm the militias and restore order.

So why, you wonder, did Australian Foreign Minister Alex Downer feel compelled to issue a chest-pounding statement that “Sovereignty in our view is not absolute. Acting for the benefit of humanity is,” as though Australia were doing this without the Solomons consent. Then you realise that he is actually proclaiming a doctrine of limited sovereignty for the smaller and weaker states of the region. And although this is a classic United Nations-style peacekeeping operation, the UN is not involved — because Australia does not want it involved.

Australia under Prime Minister John Howard’s conservative government has joined the small club of English-speaking industrial countries that have granted themselves the right to act unilaterally, allegedly in the best interests of all. Unlike Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair, who clings to the fantasy that this policy is compatible with a multilateral global order — and quite unlike Canada and New Zealand, which refused to join the club at all — Howard has signed up for the full neo-conservative project that captured the Bush administration in Washington after 9/11. That most certainly includes sidelining the United Nations.

Australian Foreign Minister Alex Downer made a point of bypassing the United Nations in his key speech on the Solomons on 26 June, criticising the UN and the principle of multilateralism in general as “a synonym for an ineffective and unfocussed policy involving internationalism of the lowest common denominator.” What was needed instead, he said, was more “coalitions of the willing” to tackle specific security threats outside the UN framework, like the one that took Saddam Hussein down earlier this year.

The United States, Britain and Australia together accounted for over 98 percent of the so-called coalition’s combat troops in the invasion of Iraq. If you can trust those three governments to know best and always act responsibly, this kind of international vigilantism may be an efficient way of getting the work done, though there is always the risk that they will get the facts wrong. (Weapons of mass destruction, anybody?) But what if one day some other country decided to take the law into its own hands?

John Howard’s New Zealand counterpart, Prime Minister Helen Clark, had a few words to say about this in May, as she tried to counter domestic criticism and US pressure to fall in line with American policy as Australia has done. “It would be very easy for a country like New Zealand to make excuses and think of justifications for what its friends were doing, but we would have to be mindful that we were creating precedents for others also to exit from multilateral decision-making.”

Clark’s point was that sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander: if the US and its friends can launch ‘preventive’ wars whenever they believe there is a potential threat, then so can Russia or India or Pakistan or Japan or — very much to the point — China. “This is the century which is going to see China emerge as the largest economy, and usually with economic power comes military clout. In the world we are constructing, we want to know (that the multilateral UN system) will work whoever is the biggest and the most powerful….Who wants to go back to the law of the jungle?”

There can be severe penalties in today’s world for small countries that speak out of turn, so New Zealand has to be careful. It has contributed troops to the Solomons peace-keeping force, but continues to resist US pressure to send troops to occupied Iraq. So do most other countries. The unilateralist approach to the world has most of the firepower behind it at the moment, but it is far from certain that it will end by destroying multilateralism. We are not back to the law of the jungle yet.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 7. (“The United States…hands”)