As world and US geopolitical attention shifts to the Pacific islands, it’s clear that Pacific thinkers will be increasingly important – people who understand not only Washington DC but the rhythms of 15 genuinely unique Pacific island nations, covering 300,000 square miles.
The late US Ambassador to the Pacific, Steven McGann, was one of these people, serving as US Ambassador to Fiji from 2008 to 2011 – a representation that includes Kiribati, Nauru, Tonga, and Tuvalu.
It’s mildly ironic – with the distance of time – that McGann’s 2008 Pacific appointment by George W. Bush emerged when US and world focus was so tuned to Iraq and Afghanistan – parts of the world, incidentally, McGann was no stranger to after a three decade-plus global diplomatic career.
Geopolitical focus has now firmly adjusted to the Pacific islands – a trend McGann not only urged but anticipated. The recent announcement of a US Pacific Partnership Strategy – the first of its kind – and the US-PNG Defense Cooperation Agreement – inked last month – are illustrative of a White House and Washington DC turning its attention to a region where Beijing has made significant gains, especially over the past decade.
McGann had always known US-Pacific links ran deep, yet were also subject to the mercies of a certain cycle. “Dating from the early days of Yankee whalers,” he wrote, “to our alliances in World War II.” And while Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton were eager – perhaps prematurely – to declare the US a ‘Pacific power’, and despite McGann’s calls “to implement a comprehensive and renewed engagement in the Region”, only now is this cycle returning.
Indeed, from speaking to McGann many times over the past decade, you could feel his momentum change as not only the Pacific islands, but his years of thinking, were aligning with Washington’s focus.
At the start of 2023, when I last saw him, he noted – rightly – that much of Washington’s South Pacific-related planning and rhetoric reflected bold traces of his work, especially since departing Suva. In 2011, rather than simply retire, he took over leadership and faculty positions at the US National Defense University – amid a host of other advisory roles – stepping up Pacific awareness within DC networks, spotting strategic gaps in US engagement, and raising the South Pacific’s profile through thoughtful writing and analysis.
And while he made great gains, and as things move from strategy to implementation, it is a deeply sad irony McGann will not see these elements connect where he knew it mattered most – directly between Americans and people of the Pacific islands.
Certainly, McGann seemed less fussed than others about strategic competition – as critical as it is – but was more eager to creatively use US tools ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ the wire – terms he knew were coming back into vogue – to achieve outcomes on the ground. A 2008 Kiribati INDOPACOM bridge project – which he often cited and helped broker – springs to mind, exemplifying what can be achieved when an individual with his skills brings all the elements of statecraft together.
We will miss not only a great Pacific islands thinker and ‘doer’ but, in my case, a good friend and a great mentor. Vale Ambassador McGann.
Image source: Claremont McKenna