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Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs

Strengthening U.S.-Pacific Island Country Partnerships with Former Ambassador C. Steven McGann

Combating climate change was at the forefront of the historic U.S.-Pacific Island Country Summit, which was recently held in Washington. It resulted in an important new declaration signed by leaders of 14 Pacific Island countries and the United States. Steven McGann, former U.S. ambassador to Fiji, Nauru, Kiribati, Tonga and Tuvalu, joins Annelise Riles to talk about the summit, the human security concerns facing these countries and United Nations sustainable development goal number 13: climate action.

Background reading:

  • Read the declaration on the U.S.-Pacific Partnership from the White House
  • Watch a video of McGann and Riles at a Buffett fireside chat
  • Find out more about the Stevenson Group

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Read the transcript of this show below

Annelise RIles [00:00:03] Welcome to the Breaking Boundaries podcast. I'm Annelise Riles, executive director of Northwestern University's Roberta Buffett Institute for Global Affairs. The Northwestern Buffett Institute is dedicated to breaking through traditional silos of expertise in geography, culture and language to surface novel solutions to pressing global challenges. Today, we're talking about United Nations sustainable development goal number 13, which is climate action. Combating climate change was at the forefront of the historic U.S.-Pacific Island Countries Summit, which was recently held in Washington. It resulted in an important new declaration signed by leaders of 14 Pacific Island countries and the United States. And to talk to us about this is today's guest, Steven McGann, former U.S. ambassador to Fiji, Nauru, Kiribati, Tonga and Tuvalu. And he's also the founder of the Stevenson Group, which is a consulting firm focused on strengthening public private partnerships. Steven, welcome to the show and thank you so much for joining us.

Steven McGann [00:01:13] Annelise, thank you for having me.

Annelise RIles [00:01:15] So, take me back to the beginning of your career as a Foreign Service officer. Stephen, what made you decide that you wanted to pursue a career in public service?

Steven McGann [00:01:23] Well, I think I've always had an interest in international affairs. And when I was an undergraduate student, my professor mentor said to me, well, Steve, if you don't know what you want to do, you can always join the Foreign Service, which I always thought was a big reach because you just can't always join the Foreign Service. But it so happened that as I continued in graduate school, the State Department became more and more interesting and I took the exam, passed it, and the next thing I know, I was being whisked off overseas. 

Annelise RIles [00:01:55] Fast forward, you've had such an incredible career across the Pacific, including working in Taiwan with New Zealand and Australia as well. For our listeners who maybe are not as familiar with the Pacific. Can you say a little bit about what is different or special about life in the Pacific and how it's different or special to be a diplomat in that region as opposed to other regions of the world?

Steven McGann [00:02:20] Well, I think we have to begin with the fact that the United States is a Pacific nation. Our engagement in the Pacific just didn't start with World War Two. We had Yankee whalers. People who read Moby Dick don't realize that they're in the Pacific. When we have missionaries. We've just had engagement across the region through most of our history. I think what makes the Pacific special, though, is the relationship we have with the people of the Pacific countries. Their election to be pro-American is important. Their engagement with us has continued to be friendly, continue to be warming, outgoing. And I think that for us as a nation, we've a lot of times taken that for granted. We take it for granted that there is essentially a continent called Oceana in between the United States and Asia, and we're a part of that continent. And so when we engage with Pacific peoples, we have to realize that they don't feel divided from us. They feel connected to us because of the ocean. And that's, I think, a difference in our approach. Different understanding, human relationships, and most importantly, a difference in why and how people want to engage.

Annelise RIles [00:03:30] We had planned you coming before we knew that the Biden administration hosting the first ever U.S. Pacific Island summit with leaders of Pacific Island nations from across the region. There was an important declaration that came out of that on climate change and regional security. Can you tell us a little bit about the context of this, the significance of this summit and what you think is behind it from a geopolitical?

Steven McGann [00:03:58] Well, I think as early as 2007, we became aware of the fact that there was going to be greater and greater competition with China in the region. The Chinese were being a great deal of resources there, particularly on development issues. And in 2007, we actually, in conjunction with the East-West Center, had a meeting on the Pacific Island Conference of Leaders in Washington. Was not a White House meeting, as you can well imagine, are disappointed because we pointed out that vice presidents had served in the Pacific: Kennedy, Nixon, Ford, Bush, Ronald Reagan made movies about the Pacific. So there were that there was awareness. But I think part of the problem for the U.S. was not that we took the Pacific for granted, but we always thought that the status quo would remain. And didn't understand what the nature of Chinese competition in the region would be. Now, mind you, the Chinese had no idea that the Belt Road Initiative was going to end in the Google of them. That was the point. The point still goes back to the competition for. Japan recognition with Taiwan. And that's that was a first, I think, spurring of Chinese interests in the region. Then the Chinese started saying, oh, wait a minute, there are U.N. votes here. There are other areas that we can build alliances with. And then also, we have to move away from the strategic interests of China, the United States and big regional partners to the very particular human security concerns of the people of the region. And the Chinese were able to address those issues much faster. The meeting that we just recently had in Washington, I think, was a first attempt to understand that U.S. national security concerns have to meet the human security concerns of the people of the region. So that meeting was hopefully a starting point of a new dialog with the civic leaders not to return to business as usual where we, you know, build a few climate change resilient houses and then walk away. I think there has to be a real commitment to the region.

Annelise RIles [00:06:10] Can you tell us a little bit about the climate emergency? The Pacific island countries are facing now and what can be done about that.

Steven McGann [00:06:19] In the United States? When we talk about climate change, we associate climate change of global warming. We talk about the reduction of a carbon footprint for Pacific island countries. They talk about what are the negative impacts of climate change. They're not contributors to global warming. They are, in fact, the victims of global warming. And so when they think about climate change, they see greater weather incidents, more cyclones. Of course, they see sea level rise. In some islands, it may mean total loss of their populations moving elsewhere. When they think of climate change, they think of what would be the impact on their culture. Will their cultures be able to survive? Where will they go? What will they do? You know, these are the questions that Pacific Island countries are grappling with. They're not really grappling with. We just really going to have to reduce carbon. We really have to do something about global warming. But it doesn't take much for sea level rise to affect a Pacific island country. Tarawa, the main island Kiribati is only six feet above the surface of the Pacific Ocean. Tuvalu is already rapidly sinking. There are fishing villages in Fiji, for example, that have to move further and further inland. So these are real issues these people are grappling with. Yes, they're existential, but they're not abstract. They're very clear. They're very real. And that's what I think the summit in Washington began to address. And I like to say this a lot, that, yes, the United States has national security and strategic interests in a region, but the people of the Pacific have human security concerns that are equally as important and in a very many ways more viable when it comes to their own existence. Without that viability, they have to maintain themselves as a people, as organized structures of government. Then they fail to exist. And that's not existential.

Annelise RIles [00:08:14] Can you say a little bit more about what you mean by human security? You've talked about the fact that the region faces all kinds of other problems, as well as economic development and so on. What are some of the aspects of that human security that Pacific Island nations are hoping to get support from the United States and other countries? Well, I.

Steven McGann [00:08:33] Think we talk often about economic diversification. That's important. What am I? Areas that I like to focus a lot on is health care infrastructure, but there's more to it in places like Papua New Guinea. We need to address gender based violence, gender based violence, for instance. So Papua New Guinea is going to be one of the leading causes of ongoing instability. That's a real human security concern. A woman of Papua New Guinea is assaulted every one minute and 30 seconds. How can we call ourselves Partners to the Pacific if we don't engage in these types of issues? Migration is always going to be an important part of the Penelope of Pacific issues. Why? Because, again, this is linked to economic diversification. If there are not enough jobs, if there are not enough employment, then Pacific Islanders have to be trained to work elsewhere. And we're not talking about agricultural schemes where you have workers coming every three months to pick fruit or what have you. We're talking about real jobs that contribute to the global economy. These are the types of human security concerns that have to be met. Fisheries protection is one of them. We start looking at these lists of issues. We find that there are much more tangible issues. They're not abstract. They're not existential. They're real. Once we start categorizing these issues, they also seem to be delivered more achievable and coming up with solutions.

Annelise RIles [00:09:55] So let's talk geopolitics for a second. This summit did take place in the context of some competition perhaps between the U.S. and China in the region. I don't know if you would call it that, but could you talk a little bit about the geopolitical context and how you see the U.S. position in all that?

Steven McGann [00:10:15] Well, I always like to begin with what are Chinese intentions? China's primary intentions have always been the competition for diplomatic recognition with Taiwan, and that has been the generator of more misguided assistance to the Pacific in terms of economic and development assistance than anything else. And what happens is that China has the ability to put resources more quickly into play than the United States and its partners. It only takes a decision over two weeks to say we're going to build a new clinic outside of Suva and the Chinese get it done. If the United States said we wanted to build a new clinic outside of Suva, it would take 36 months. So the Chinese have a way of filling gaps or vacuums that the United States has and its allies have inadvertently created their ability to expeditiously engage Pacific Island countries and their populations on issues that are concern to them back to human security. That's where they have the edge, and that's what we have to focus on in order to not just compete with China, but to understand ways in which we can develop partnerships in the region so that the Chinese aren't our competitors, per se. I mean, they're always going to be engaged in in the region, are always going to have their own strategic interests. So I don't want to sound Pollyannish about that, but I do think that if we're looking at what's going to benefit the region as a whole, as how do we reconceive Oceana, that we're going to have to figure out ways to work with regional partners, and that includes China.

Annelise RIles [00:11:49] Do you see particular issues that you think are especially ripe for cooperation between China and the U.S. in the Pacific? 

Steven McGann [00:11:56] Well, we can start with education. If you look at the Chinese declaration of cooperation with Pacific Island countries, education was number one on their list. They are willing to bring back Pacific Islanders to universities. They put that upfront. Physical infrastructure is something that the Chinese offer. And as I mentioned earlier, you need a clinic, you need a bridge, you need a road. We can do that. The Chinese say we can do that and we can do it quickly. So we have to identify what are those areas of collaboration that not only do Pacific Islands prioritize, but also other partners in the region. What resources are they going to bring to bear and how can they be channeled correctly? And I think to that type of engagement, to that type of dialog, we can forge a partnership of sorts with China as opposed to having a competitive relationship. But again, that's going to take real work. It's going to take more than just talking about China needs to be our partners, but how do we make that happen and how do we make that happen in a way that's constructive for all parties?

Annelise RIles [00:12:56] So it's a really complex set of questions is a complex region with a lot of different interests, complicated history. What advice do you have or maybe are you giving right now to U.S. diplomats as they think about how to move forward beyond this summit, to expand this relationship?

Steven McGann [00:13:15] I have been a long advocate of doing more for the University of the South Pacific. We don't do enough. I have been a long advocate of us contributing more to the Pacific community, otherwise known as the Secretary of the Pacific Community. The United States is a charter member of the Pacific community. There have been four director generals who were Americans, three in the early stages. The most recent one was from Guam. But the United States only contributes roughly 17 to 18% of the overall budget of the Pacific community. But yet here is an organization that's trying to harmonize development, deal with climate change issues, deal with these other issues concerning migration and health care, and again, gender based violence, fisheries protection. It's right there in front of us, but we don't use it. We need a rethink of the tools that are available. We need a rethink of how we engage our partners. It's important that Australia and New Zealand and the United States work closely together. But nothing at all can substitute for American leadership. We can't outsource leadership in the Pacific. The United States has to be engaged. And if we are not going to outsource leadership, that means we also have to confront in a constructive way our competitors and that confrontation. Is that, again, something that's a reflection of animosity, but that confrontation has to be this is the right way to do this. This is how we're going to work together and be very clear in those issues. But most important, be clear on those issues because we're in constant dialog with the peoples of the Pacific Island countries and that's what's been missing, their lack of dialog.

Annelise RIles [00:14:50] You've talked about the fact that there are many Pacific Islanders living in the United States and in fact that remittances from the United States are an important part of. Many Pacific Island economies. What opportunities does that understanding of the migratory relationship between the U.S. and the Pacific present as we think about the diplomatic issues? 

Steven McGann [00:15:14] I think this goes back to our earlier comment about the relationship with the University of South Pacific and other educational institutions in the region. What are we doing to prepare Pacific Islanders who are likely to be economic migrants for jobs that make them strong contributors to the societies in which they're going to live in, as well as sending remittances home that are of substance. That that means something. I mentioned in previous times that 80% of the monthly revenues that come into Tonga actually come from labor remittances. Tonga is, by the way, like Tonga, they don't necessarily want to move from Tonga. But in terms of opportunities, there are elsewhere. One of the things that, for instance, we had to grapple with some time ago was the relatively high rate of young adult suicide in Pacific Island countries. That's a result of frustration. I've often said that poverty in paradise is not fun. Just because we like to go to the beach. Living on the beach, feeling stranded on the beach does not present a future that someone wants if they want to make a contribution. So we've got to, again, focus on the fact that there's not going to be a sufficient economic framework within these small countries to build a future. So therefore, we have to help them build their future. So it's not just a matter of where are we going to put the files from the Ministry of Finance when the islands sinks? What are we going to do with the people? What are their contribution is going to be? How do we train them to be able to do things? We have yet to grapple with that in a serious way.

Annelise RIles [00:16:50] I want to ask you about your current work also, because since retiring from government service, you've started your own firm, the Stevenson Group, which is focusing on strengthening public private partnerships to address issues in the Pacific and elsewhere around the world. Can you tell us a little bit about what you do in that work and what you've learned from that that might be relevant for us as we think about how to strengthen public private partnerships to further the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Steven McGann [00:17:21] I think much of the work that I focus on in building public private partnerships actually stems from the time I spent prior to retirement at National Defense University, where I was deputy commandant of the Eisenhower School for National Security and Resource Strategy. Now, that's a very long way of saying how do we bring private sector entities together with government entities to achieve our goals, particularly in a situation where the United States has a horizontal way of doing things as opposed to China, which is very vertical. We have to now look at what is the relationship between security cooperation and development assistance? Who can best achieve those two issues? It's quite clear because of legislative restraints, executive requirements, that the United States is not equipped to move quickly on key issues. And so what we try and do is look for ways in which either working with civilian agencies and or with the US military and relevant combatant commands to look at how we can bring resources together. And the military calls is contracting, but it's a very simple way of looking at things. The military understands it needs bases and facilities, but it also has to build an economic development scheme for the people surrounding those bases. The military says we're not equipped. Who do we go to? Our job is to serve as a group is try and make those right matches and to fill the gap that, as I said, can't be filled by U.S. civilian agencies. It's just a matter that the civilian agencies take too long.

Annelise RIles [00:18:50] Let me ask you finally a question that I ask all my guests, which is, as you think about the near future, what do you worry about the most? What keeps you up at night and what gives you the greatest amount of hope? 

Steven McGann [00:19:04] Well, the things that I worry about the most is probably what I do when I'm not thinking about the Pacific. And that is I actually work on gender equity inequality issues. One of the things that I did when I was at National Defense University, I introduced women, peace and security as a policy issue into the curriculum at NDU. That's followed on to my working with the Women's Refugee Commission on its board, and I really focus more on how do we protect women and other vulnerable populations because the situations that we face globally aren't going to get better. We take time to focus on, as we should, Ukraine, but we forget about Eastern Congo, we forget about Ukraine, we forget about the situation with the Rohingyas. We forget about the Burmese who are in refugee camps in Thailand. So what keeps me awake more is how do we address adequately the needs of vulnerable populations. What gives me hope is that there are people like myself, I think, who believe that there is a way out. We can achieve these things that we aren't so myopic and still fight, that our only concerns are what's best for the United States. But we have a global view. And that global view, I think, is also reflected in the fact that finally this administration has adopted sustainable development goals for home use for us. That actually helps to intertwine the priorities of the world with the priorities of the United States. So that's what gives me hope.

Annelise RIles [00:20:41] Well, Ambassador McGann, thank you.

Steven McGann [00:20:43] Well, thank you, Annelise.

Annelise RIles [00:20:48] For more information on this episode and on the Northwestern Buffet Institute for Global Affairs, visit us at