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Book Review: Helpem Fren: Australia and the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands

18 Apr 2023
Reviewed by Dr Kerryn Baker

In this telling of Australia’s long-term assistance mission to the Solomon Islands, author Michael Wesley dives deep into Australia’s foreign policy and the decisions that led the country’s eventual turn from regional observer to regional leader. This is a must read book.

The Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) – an ambitious and broad-ranging state-building intervention that began in 2003 and officially ended 14 years later – was a pivotal era in Australian foreign policy. Yet, as such, it is notably underexplored in foreign policy literature and, as we come up to the twentieth anniversary of the mission’s launch this year, largely absent from Australian public foreign policy debates.

Michael Wesley’s new book, Helpem Fren: Australia and the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands, is the first comprehensive account of the RAMSI mission from conception to drawdown. Wesley, a prominent scholar of Australian foreign policy, has significant access to key players and official documents, and has written a thorough and engaging history of the intervention.

In the opening chapters, the book sets up the western Pacific as the centre of Australia’s geopolitical imagination. It might seem unusual that a book about Solomon Islands begins with a white settler from Queensland landing in Port Moresby, but the first chapter aptly traces the colonial origins of the “arc of instability” discourse that informed Australia’s response to the Solomon Islands tensions. Wesley highlights the striking extent to which the Pacific region shapes Australian foreign affairs and international relations, however much Australian politicians and policymakers have tried to resist this framing.

This sets the scene for RAMSI – a unique and unprecedented intervention. Wesley explores the specific circumstances that prompted such a move, and the distinct motivations on the part of both the Australian and Solomon Islands governments. The early days of the intervention make for interesting reading – in particular, the account of negotiations with militant groups, and the pivotal moment of Harold Keke’s surrender, is fascinating.

Wesley delves into the development of the three pillars of the intervention – law and justice, economic governance, and machinery of government – and analyses where each succeeded and fell short. The structure of the book – thematic rather than chronological – means each chapter stands alone as an in-depth case study. Of the cross-cutting themes of the intervention, anti-corruption and capacity building strategies are given significant attention, but gender less so.

Wesley’s explicit focus is Australia’s lead role in the regional mission, and as a study of this it certainly succeeds. In particular, tracing the sources of Australian insecurity about the western Pacific – what Wesley terms “geopolitical anxiety” – is necessary and very timely. The regional nature of the intervention, however, merits further exploration. More could be said in particular on the formulation and endorsement by regional leaders of the 2000 Biketawa Declaration, as the backdrop to the regional model of intervention.

The book could also benefit from more Solomon Islander perspectives on the mission. Drawing largely on interviews of, and literature by, non-Solomon Islanders of the tensions and the intervention, there is an absence of first-person accounts of what life was like during the tensions, and why popular support for RAMSI was so consistently high throughout its life span, even as support from political elites waxed and waned.

The political and relational challenges RAMSI faced are key to understanding the limitations of its state building approach. The intervention by necessity was designed to be apolitical. Yet, as Wesley demonstrates, state building is an inherently political endeavour. One of the highlights of the book is the interrogation of the political nature of interventionism, and the relationship between RAMSI and what Wesley terms “the political economy of patronage and power” in Solomon Islands. RAMSI’s technocratic approach, while necessary, perhaps was the ultimate limitation in its ability to effect long-term developmental change and tackle what were (and are) entrenched, complex, and above all political issues around governance in Solomon Islands.

The 2006 post-election riots were a real turning point for RAMSI, and the causes and consequences are recurring themes across the book’s chapters. As Solomon Islands scholar Tarcisius Tara Kabutaulaka has observed, the riots were an expression of the public’s dissatisfaction not only with the decisions of their elected leaders but with the suitability of their political institutions. Imported Westminster political traditions clashed with Melanesian political cultures, and were eventually co-opted by elites to their own ends. Reform of such institutions was outside of RAMSI’s remit, but the 2006 riots – and subsequent riots in 2019 and 2021 – are a stark reminder of the limits of institutional solutions to inherently political problems.

One absence in the book is consideration of RAMSI’s soft power impacts. Perhaps it is too soon to tell; perhaps the political minefields RAMSI encountered also limited its impact in this realm. Yet, one effect of the sheer scale of RAMSI is the number of Australians – police, military, and civilians – who now have experience living and working in Solomon Islands, many of whom brought their families with them. These people-to-people links fostered by RAMSI are likely underestimated.

RAMSI is an inexplicably forgotten part of Australia’s recent foreign policy history, and a clear critical juncture in Australia’s relationship with the Pacific – from positioning itself as an external observer to a regional leader (and now, as part of the “family”). In Helpem Fren, Wesley has made a significant contribution to the literature on RAMSI in thoughtful analysis of its successes and shortfalls. Hopefully this is the beginning of a new focus on the intervention, with contributions from Solomon Islander and broader regional perspectives to complement this important account of Australia’s role.

This is a review of Michael Wesley, Helpem Fren: Australia and the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (Melbourne University Press, 2023)

Dr Kerryn Baker is a Fellow in the Department of Pacific Affairs at the Australian National University. Her research focuses on elections, electoral reform, and women’s political leadership in the Pacific Islands. She is the author of Pacific Women in Politics: Gender Quota Campaigns in the Pacific (University of Hawai’i Press, 2019).

This review is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.