For a long time, we’ve considered power as brute strength—as this ability that individuals and institutions have to influence people and circumstances. And in international relations, we have measured this by looking at the economic instruments of countries, the military might nations possess and the sheer capacity to do as one pleases (for want of a better phrase).
Now, as someone from the Pacific, with nations that have comparatively small populations, smaller budgets to play around with and, with the exception of a select few, no military, you can see how this definition of power is troubling to me. The implication is that power is something that is out of our grasp, something we are always reaching for, but never quite achieving.
Admittedly, we have come a long way from this way of thinking. We now recognise that there are different types of power and that power doesn’t fall within the exclusive box of might and strength. This is certainly a component of power, but there is so much more to understanding power dynamics than who can write the biggest cheque or who has the biggest tank.
Power is far more nuanced than we like to think.
In the Pacific, we are taught to recognise the value of narratives and stories from the day we are born. So, let me explain the complexities of power, by telling you a story. This is a story my dad used to love to tell and I think it fits perfectly.
Joe—and for the purposes of this story Joe is any one of us—would like to go to the movies with his friends. Joe knows that he’s used his monthly quota for ‘going out’ activities and that he is approaching this request with his mum and dad, very last minute. But he still wants to try, being the brave island kid that he is.
Joe thinks to himself that he has two options—he can, as suggested by one of his mates, play the hard game and say ‘mum, dad, I am 17 years old and I have decided that I will be going to the movies tonight.’ (narrator’s edit—this is a very bad idea.)
His other option is he can play to his strengths. Joe’s friend Ben will also be at the movies. Ben’s parents are good friends with Joe’s parents. Joe also knows that there is cupboard in the kitchen that his mum has been wanting him to fix. So, Joe, as option B, could make an attempt at fixing the cupboard door and use Ben’s good influence as a friend as a leveraging chip.
This story, I should make this disclaimer, is not a ‘how to convince your parents to let you go out’ guide. It shows that sometimes the best way to change peoples’ minds—even people in positions of power—is to do so by gently encouraging them to come to the conclusion on their own.
Using authority and might as a means of control, is power by fear. In those instances, the power is harnessed by making people scared of you. And the moment that the fear-mongering device or institution is removed, the power is lost.
Conversely, using softer methods of exercising power is an opportunity to do two really important things – build relationships and empower all parties. Power shouldn’t be about stripping away the abilities and capacities of others, it should be an empowering exercise. Perhaps even more importantly, long-term investments into relationships and institutions make it more difficult for power to be lost. By reinforcing the notion that our strength comes from working together, we are empowering individuals and peoples to choose this path over and over again.
We know that in the Pacific we face a very particular set of challenges when exercising diplomacy on a global scale
The stark reality of underdeveloped diplomatic machines makes it very difficult for us to operate on an even playing field with states that have the economic capacity to invest in diplomacy on a much greater scale. Diplomatic machines are the instruments by which diplomacy is exercised. These include the investment into foreign ministries, the professional diplomatic corps, overseas missions and embassies as well as the number of trained and qualified diplomatic staff.
Another challenge that we face is representation. The cost of having permanently staffed offices across the globe is realistically too expensive for many of our governments. This has unfortunately resulted in a patchy sense of representation. The third major challenge is the limit of our policy instruments—economic, military and political power. We have therefore had to find diplomatic strategies to compensate for the challenges of being a group of developing countries that do not have the economic, military and political capacity that developed states do.
But, it isn’t all doom and gloom. We understand the constraints that we have and our role now needs to be to alter the rules of the game and ensure that we’re playing on a far more even playing field. We do this by leveraging our strengths. We are 14 individual, member states at international fora, we are collective custodians of the largest, single geographical space in the world—the Pacific Ocean, and we have a shared enemy. If we were forensic scientists, this would be considered our means, motive and opportunity. So, we can use the weight that we have as sovereign nations to influence voting at a global level, harness the resources that we claim custodianship over and ensure that we manage and protect them, and strengthen our Pacific regionalism – through institutions and redefining subregionalism—so that when we stand up to injustice, we do so with the full weight of Pasifika. That is what Pacific Pawa is.
Our challenge now is to find ways of harnessing the collective strength we have as a region.
Ernest Gibson is a youth climate activist from Fiji who currently sits on the 7-member United Nations Secretary General’s Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change as the only Pacific Island representative. Ernest has worked in climate change projects across the Pacific, supporting community-led approaches to Climate Diplomacy and climate policy development. He works as a communications and development professional and has worked for development cooperation agencies like the European Union and INGOs like Oxfam. This article has been written for the Road to COP26 series for the Griffith Climate Action Beacon.