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Culture, national interest & identity in foreign policy


TODAY THERE IS AN UNDERSTANDING that the foreign policy of leading Western powers cannot be understood through considering nation states as selfish actors pursing narrow self-interest.

Since the end of the Cold War, major states have increasingly stressed the importance of ethics and values in shaping international goals and have intervened internationally on the basis of ethical foreign policy concerns such as human rights and international justice.

National interest, a term used to define a country's goals and ambitions whether economic, military, or cultural, is an important notion in international relations.

PNG’s national interest is in question time and again, such as on occasions like Australia's use of Manus Island as a "Pacific Solution" detention centre for foreigners seeking asylum in Australia.

Other notable instances include PNG’s difficulty balancing competing relations with Taiwan and China. When then Prime Minister Bill Skate proposed a deal in 1999 which would have traded diplomatic recognition of Taiwan for a substantial loan, it was a gesture which brought on trade sanctions from China.

When he took office, Sir Mekere Morauta was quick to repudiate Skate's concept in favour of continuing a strict policy of official relations with China, not with Taiwan.

For his part, Sir Michael Somare, on assuming office, seemed to favour more formal trading relations with Taiwan and sent a trade delegation prompting protests by China.

Defending the national interest can be a complex task.

National interest is often associated with political realists who wish to differentiate themselves from idealistic policies that seek to inject morality into foreign policy or promote solutions that rely on multilateral institutions which they see as possibly weakening the independence of a country.

The term is also often invoked to justify isolationist policies or to justify interventionist or warlike policies.

Papua New Guinea, like many other developing nations, has its own national interest that very much tries to reflect its culture and operate in the good of its citizens. A major objective is security and survival.

While PNG’s extensive mineral deposits provide a firm foundation for potential prosperity, about 85% of our people still rely on subsistence agriculture and fishing for survival, sometimes in some of the most isolated spots on the planet.

PNG remains one of the least developed nations on earth and these communities receive little trickle down benefit from commodity exports. The UNDP’s 2006 Human Development Index ranked PNG 139th of 177 countries surveyed, lower than any other country in the Pacific.

Life expectancy at birth is only 55.3 years; the infant mortality rate is 69 per 1,000 live births, and maternal mortality is 300 per 100,000 live births. Only 57% of adults are literate, and only half of all children have access to primary school education.

The last PNG government put in place a Medium Term Development Strategy that pursued export-driven growth, rural development and poverty reduction through good governance and the promotion of agriculture.

As a result PNG is achieving significant real GDP growth.

Responsible fiscal management has resulted in stable conditions including low inflation and interest rates, a stable kina, a budget surplus and a reduction in public debt.

Despite this, PNG continues to face huge development challenges. Current GDP growth is not considered sufficient to keep pace with population growth.

The economy remains vulnerable to external shocks, particularly from sharp declines in world export commodity prices.

Priority issues include insufficient health, education, transport and public utilities infrastructures, major law and order problems, land ownership issues, corruption and inefficient government, and the threat of environmental degradation and unsustainable resource management.

Piling on to these with potential serious consequences for PNG and the region is the rapid spread of HIV/AIDS.  The World Health Organization estimates that 2% (over 100,000) of PNG’s population is HIV positive with another 150 people infected each month.

The government, together with a number of international organizations, is working on the issue. Coping with HIV/AIDS may yet prove the biggest challenge that independent PNG has faced.

Cultural identity plays an important role in the lives and leaderships styles of Papua New Guinean societies and other neighbouring Melanesians nations.

When Papua New Guineans are overseas, they’re very conscious and very proud of their identity. In urban areas, there is probably a much greater sense of belonging to this national entity than in rural areas, where people by and large tend to see very little of the nation and so tend to identify themselves with much smaller groups defined in terms of kinship and language.

People have multiple identities and appear to move adeptly from one to another but there is no doubt that national identity is still very fragile in a place like Papua New Guinea.

This mentality results in people, even politicians and elites, identifying themselves better in groups.

This trend has built up the habit of comfortably working with someone who shares the same language and origin and is likely to be more interested in agreeing to the same principles and strategies for development for the common good.

In deciding the possible strategies for PNG, I believe that cultural understanding and traditional lifestyle norms are of great influence especially in our foreign policy.

Since 1975, when PNG gained independence, our relationship with Australia, our nearest neighbour, has been based on abiding historical, political, economic, strategic and social connections.

Australia is a friendly and sympathetic neighbor and our closest partner in trade and investment, aid support and defence. There are over 7,000 Australians in PNG.

Key aspects of the relationship between Australia and PNG are encompassed in a number of formal bilateral arrangements. Amongst these formal arrangements, the Treaty on Development Cooperation covers what is by far the largest of any of Australia's bilateral aid programs. Australia currently provides more than $500 million in aid to PNG each year.

Papua New Guinea’s foreign policy is also very much influenced by our national interest and cultural identity. Our traditional ways have in one way or another had a huge impact on our foreign relations especially with Australia.

PNG has a unique culture which influences its development decisions for the good of all.

Here in PNG, with Independence Day tomorrow, the streets are painted with red, black and yellow and people everywhere are in traditional attire. So nice, this feeling…

I am proud to be a Papua New Guinean and happy Independence to you all.


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Chris Overland

PNG and, in fact, almost all existing nation states are artefacts of the era of British and European colonial expansion which lasted from around 1500 through to (arguably) the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Very few nation states, especially those that were created by the colonial powers, are "organic" in the sense that their populations are from one cultural and linguistic background.

Thus, to choose but one example, seemingly well established nation states like Belgium, struggle with serious linguistic and cultural differences between population groups. In Belgium's case, the major groups involved are the Dutch speaking Flemish majority and the French speaking Walloons.

Even China, anxious as it is to present one (smiling) face to outsiders, has a very large number of minorities within its borders, some of whom bitterly resent the power of Beijing.

This needs to be borne in mind by PNG nationalists as they struggle to understand, define and articulate a truly national identity.

If it is any comfort, Australia is in a similar position, with its own national identity continually up for negotiation as time and the steady influx of non-Caucasian peoples relentlessly changes the population structure and, with it, the national narrative.

The USA is in much the same boat, with the soon to be White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant minority fighting desperately to maintain their pre-eminence in the face of the rising tide of the Black, Hispanic and Asian Americans.

For the USA, President Obama is not an aberration but a clear sign of things to come and this is what frightens the hell out of the Republican Tea Party and their fellow travellers.

At least PNG doesn't have to manage that sort of change just yet.

Colleen Ambrose

Yes, sometimes PNG's foreign policy approaches don't complement its national interest as per Vision 2050 and other national policies.

In regard to PNG's participation in addressing the asylum seeker issue and resettling refugees in the country, it is good in terms of international relations enhancement but has security implications.

As Pillar 4 of Vision 2050 states, the progress of international relations is to be guided by security.

But then we have to critically analyse why the government makes certain foreign policies, as it is dealing with other states, so it is important to consider their interests as well as PNG's capabilities/power in comparison to them.

Therefore sometimes our foreign policies will breach or not satisfy our national interests.

Adrian Abedi

Yes I agree with the concept of major states role in maintaining peace and security. However, there are still economic challenges that are unfairly ruled out in the international level.

The developing world is confronting pressing economic issues in which the economic situation is entirely attributed to colonial legacy and protectionism on the part of industrialized or leading countries.

Dependency on commodity exports has meant that developing countries have to deal with fluctuation and frequently declining prices for exports. This has caused a decline in terms of trade and economic stagnation.

There’s evidence of the industrialized countries imposing high trade barriers in which the developing world do not have the opportunity to expand their economy.

Though over the past decade, developing and industrialized countries have forged links through trade and financial flows. The developing world growing integration into the global economy has strong growth, success in reducing poverty, and improved living standards overall. The outlook is bright though many challenges remain.

Although some developing countries have succeeded in reducing poverty, more than 1.3 billion people still live on less than a dollar per day; another 2 billion are only slightly better off. And inequality of incomes remains a political and economic concern.

For instance, debt crisis in the mid 1980s; threatened commercial banks that had extended loans to developing countries.

However, financing became conditional on the adoption of structural adjustment programs that involved steps such as reduced public expenditures, devaluation of currencies, and export promotion, all geared to debt reduction.

How has this crisis affected developing countries such as PNG?

The consequences of this crisis have been painful for developing countries. Few public services, higher prices, and greater exploitation of resources have resulted from these programs, causing some countries to abandon the plans, jeopardizing their credit-worthiness and continued access to additional funds.

The poorest countries however, continue to struggle with their debt burdens. These developing nations are paying western donors more than they are receiving in new aid and investment.

How do mainstream financial institutions and major states discriminate against the poor?

They discriminate the poor nations through the adoptions of conditions of structural adjustment programs that involved steps such as reduced public expenditures, devaluation of currencies, and export promotion, all geared to debt reduction.

They advocated debt oriented economic reforms in which access to the financial institutions became conditional resulting in painful consequences faced by the developing countries.

For instance the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development nations. The response or approach of industrialized or OECD countries have often been protectionism and demands for trade reciprocity, which can overwhelm markets in developing countries.

Now looking at China’s new preferred mechanism called “Strategic dialogues” to redefine its relationship with other countries. China uses this mechanism to pursue a strategic cooperation dealing with the United States.

These mechanisms especially economic partnership to promote China’s mixture of economic diplomacy and cultural and ideological appeals to promote its global and regional influence to balance the uni-polar system the USA have.

This assertive dealing marks a new Chinese approach in desire for a more equal relationship as its power grows as an important goal.

Power realities in the international system dictate that US is the only global power country, however, China uses a more moderate means through economic relations as a growing economy to persuade the US for its own national interest.

Another term is Shanghai Spirit, a Chinese strategic partnership approach as part of its foreign policy to seek equality with the United States by being more active in using strategic alliances with other major powers to improve its position in the world.

It used the policy to indicate a high level, bilateral, cooperative relationship with other countries to balance US as a global power pole in which all the systems were monopolized by the west.

Another area where China is deepening its strategic cooperation with Russia is in the joint efforts to use regional institutions to counter or offset American influence.

The Shanghai spirit is a strategy used by China to create a more solid, in dept and core relations for instance, Russia, in terms of shared interests among the both nations. China uses the same strategies to counter its influence in the Asia-Pacific region.

Looking at PNG Foreign Policy there are factors of particular contemporary relevance both in present and generally for instance: the domestic requirements and effects of globalisation; the growing spread and depth of international cooperation and increasing domestic acceptance and application of international law which together affects almost all areas of foreign policy, there are increasingly tight limits on the internal discretion and activities of the government across more and more, aid dependency and the conditions attached to loans from international financial institutions and donors.

Now looking at PNG Foreign Policy White Paper of 1982 proposed an evolutionary approach by outlining the basis for ongoing policy-making. And the Look north Policy.

The new foreign policy is “active and selective engagement”. This policy targets by identifying issues, opportunities which seem likely to be relevant to PNG national interests; selecting those issues and actors (including governments, international organisations, multinational corporations, etc.) which affects PNG which PNG sometimes only with the support of others can affect.

This policy analyses the relative advantages and disadvantages of alternative courses of action or inaction by engaging actively with the issues and actors selected to secure PNG national interests.

The policy made clear by providing guidelines for immediate implementation; it proposed an evolutionary approach by outlining a basis for ongoing policy making (it was intended to generate policy from time to time).

The policy promoted a more outward looking and purposeful posture towards PNG foreign relations that allowed for clear distinctions to be drawn in the development of relations with different countries and international organisations. Look North policy was formulated for PNG’s internal and external support in terms of aid and loan etc from the north.

Now what is PNG’s national interest like if there’s a vast internal and external influence? Or does PNG fully achieve its national interest that reflects its culture and values? Though PNG Foreign Policy is greatly influenced by the national interest and cultural identity.

However from my point of view, I do not see PNG’s unique culture influences its development decisions. I agree with Mr. Yegiora am yet to see a unified national culture with a strong sense of nationalism or patriotism and regionalism.

Bernard Yegiora

Sioni, welcome. You wrote a good piece.

The only way to improve one's writing and analytical skills, including knowledge is to offer critical and constructive feedback.

Please join Mr Roth and other foreign policy commentators in PNG to spearhead a revolutionary move to consistently write about our foreign policy to better educate Papua New Guineans.

Sioni Ruma

Thank you Bernard Yegiora, for your comment and deliberations of Chinese Confucian culture and other Western foreign policies emphasizing parallels to identify what PNG has and its distinctiveness in defining a unified national culture.

First of all, let us agree that foreign policy consists of the internal and external actions taken by decision makers with the intention of achieving long-range goals and short term objectives.

This is what paved way for the O'Neill-Somare reunion (Melanesian culture or more specifically PNG culture).

Frank Bainimarama and Laisenia Qarase did otherwise in Fiji. Leaders have to swallow their pride, to meet their leadership objectives.

On the other stance, the primary influence on foreign policy lies in the goals that policy seeks to achieve, importantly security, maximizing welfare, and preserving and promoting values.

Security is seen as the most critical objective and its search is primary. All foreign policies are influenced by security; whether its Chinese Confucian culture or western foreign policy.

PNG’s stance in preserving and promoting its values is its foremost notion to direct all persons and bodies, corporate and unincorporate, guided by pursuing and achieving for instance Integral human development.

For instance, for every person to be dynamically involved in the process of freeing himself or herself from every form of domination or oppression so that each man or woman will have the opportunity to develop as a whole person in relationship with others.

Our values include self-determination, nationalism, and education system, how PNG does things, etc…

The values of other states may influence leaders to not change things as they and values may have much effect on the methods by which change or no change is sought by negotiation, by peaceful pressures, or by subversion.

However, this suggest some policies may be “revisionist” in the sense that the decision makers aim to bring about change in the relationships among the actors on the international stage, or change in the actors themselves; or they may be anti-revisionist in the sense that decision makers are essentially satisfied both with the number and nature of the actors, and with their mutual relations, which PNG FP and policy decisions

I will write further commentary on PNG’s foreign policy.

Bernard Yegiora

We have a foreign policy in the hope of advancing our national interest in the international arena, or because of our national interest in developing as a nation we have a foreign policy to guide us in how we relate to other countries who have resources we need.

Yes, culture does determine how we behave. At the state level of analysis, one of the levels of analysis use by foreign policy analysts, a national culture of a state influences the type of foreign policy it formulates.

In China, you have the Confucian culture and it's central idea of not intervening into the affairs of another in the hope of ensuring harmony.

This is evident when we analyse China's foreign policy which is based on the 5 principles of peaceful coexistence; mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity; mutual non-aggression; non-interference in each others internal affairs; equality and mutual benefit and peaceful coexistence.

On the other hand, Western foreign policies are centered on democracy and the key liberal belief that 'Democracies do not go to war with other Democracies'.

Thus, it is in the national interest of the US to transform Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq into democracies.

However, in PNG's case, what type of unique culture are you referring to exactly? Do we have a national culture? If so, what is it? Is the O'Neil-Somare reunion case an example of the Melanesian culture of consensus you are referring to?

From my point of view, I am yet to see a unified national culture, such a culture will be the bed rock for a strong sense of nationalism or patriotism.

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