Book reviews –

Book reviews — The United States and the Pacific Islands by John C. Dorrance

Petersen, Glenn

THE UNITED STATES AND THE PACIFIC ISLANDS. By John C. Dorrance. Washington, DC: Center for Strategic & International Studies and Westport: Praeger: 1992. xvii, 192 pp. US$37.95, cloth, ISBN 0-275-94471-9; US$14.95, paper, ISBN 0275-94472-7.

INHERENT in reviewing any book on policy is the problem of separating out one’s views concerning the policies themselves from the author’s portrayal and analysis of them. I should make two things clear at the outset. First, John Dorrance was an architect, advocate, and administrator of the policies he examines in this work. Second, I am among those misguided souls who had the temerity not merely to doubt but to voice opposition to those policies. It is not that Dorrance is uncritical of the American performance in the Pacific islands — he offers numerous criticisms of specific matters — but that he is incapable of providing any objective evaluation of the United States’ overall interests and goals in the area, and thus presents specific policy failures as isolated instances rather than as symptoms of larger problems.

Having stated these initial objections, however, I must then praise this as an unusually comprehensive work, reflecting Dorrance’s long U.S. Foreign Service experience in the Pacific. He considers U.S. relations with Australia, New Zealand, and the South Pacific island nation-states in terms of positions it has taken in its North Pacific territories, and vice versa. I know of no other work in recent years that has explored these relationships on such an extensive scale. American positions on issues such as the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone, fishing treaties, and environmental concerns have largely been shaped with reference to Micronesia, but have in turn had significant impact on American dealings elsewhere in the region. The vulnerability of America’s status as a colonial power, to cite but one example, has shaped its extremely limited responses to French abuses in Polynesia and New Caledonia.

Though Dorrance makes the primacy of U.S. strategic interests thoroughly clear, he somehow manages to forget the nature of those interests whenever he considers the old Soviet Union’s presence in the region. No matter what the activity — be it trade, education, or diplomacy — whatever the USSR undertook was in his view meddlesome and malevolent, while America’s Pacific overtures were invariably altruistic and beneficial.

Indeed, much of the book’s value lies in its stark account of the mindset that has directed nearly all postwar American dealings in the area.

Even though I disagree with so many of the book’s premises, I nevertheless acknowledge the general accuracy of its objective account. One crucial error, however, must be pointed out. The defense provisions of the Micronesian compacts of free association do not “run for fifteen years from 1986” (p. 84). They run until such time as there is mutual agreement to terminate them — i.e., in perpetuity if the U.S. so desires.

As a student of decolonization in American Micronesia, I am particularly grateful for Dorrance’s candid admission that the U.S. had no intention of ever allowing Micronesians to achieve independence. He writes, for instance, that “U.S. negotiators until the late 1970s also asserted that independence was not a political option available to Micronesia” (p. 83). While this sounds straightforward enough, it is not all that it appears to be. Throughout this period the U.S. was adamant in its refusal to admit that this was indeed its position, and American negotiators routinely dissembled on the matter for years. The notion that the Micronesians voluntarily entered into Free Association, which underpins both the moral and legal validity of the compacts between the Micronesians and the U.S., is belied by this admission; Micronesians had no choice other than outright annexation by the U.S. John Dorrance died before this work appeared in print. From my perspective, his greatest legacy is this refreshingly frank chronicle of America’s duplicity in the islands.

Copyright University of British Columbia Spring 1994

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