Dispatches from Honolulu

Hawaii is gearing up for the APEC summit. Not everyone is happy about dignitaries descending on the island.

A few random closing observations as I departed the Hawaiian Islands to return to my real world of New England…Honolulu is frantically preparing for the week-long Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit scheduled to kick off in Waikiki on November 7. I had a rude introduction to the APEC workups. On Monday, it took me about half an hour, and much weeping and gnashing of teeth, to circle around my hotel to find the parking lot. Turns out a preparatory meeting had just taken place there to plan events for the summit. The attendees were leaving at just the wrong time for my jetlagged self. Small wonder some of the locals are fretting over the dislocations likely to result from the event.

Meanwhile, road crews are working feverishly on Ala Moana Boulevard, one of the main thoroughfares linking Honolulu International Airport and downtown Honolulu with the resort area. The city has an ambitious agenda to all appearances. Crews are tearing up and resurfacing the road and replacing water mains, some of which date back a century. Given the scale of what they’re attempting – and the short window they have to accomplish it – I wish them luck. Landscaping crews are ripping up what looks like perfectly good grass and replacing it with fresh sod along the beach adjoining Kalakaua Avenue, the main drag through Waikiki. Always immaculate, this upscale tourist zone is becoming…immaculate-er. White limousines are everywhere, presumably carrying VIPs hither and yon on errands crucial to the peace and prosperity of the Asia-Pacific region.

But not everyone is eagerly anticipating the summit. The city council approved the installation of 34 new security cameras, worrying civil libertarians. Honolulu witnessed a legal tussle between protesters and the local authorities a decade ago, when the Asian Development Bank convened in Waikiki. The government, the American Civil Liberties Union, and protest groups are negotiating the terms under which demonstrations can take place. Beyond that, some local residents have voiced misgivings about the event, citing the disruptions common when heads of state, their entourages, and their security details descend on a site for high-profile gatherings. It’s hard to gainsay such complaints. During the Clinton years, Bostonians used to dread the news that Vice President Al Gore was coming to town for an alumni event at Harvard. Gore’s motorcade invariably snarled up traffic on already congested roadways connecting Logan Airport with Cambridge. On Thursday, reports the Honolulu Advertiser, the city released a list of traffic restrictions, security zones around meeting zones, and the like. The story ran under the headline ‘APEC: Expect Delays’. Sound advice.


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The Honolulu Academy of Arts is my favourite small art gallery and indeed one of my favourites, full stop. Two years ago, I happened to be in town when the academy was exhibiting Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, collections of woodblock prints from 19th-century Japanese artists Hiroshige and Hokusai. The museum excels in this area because author James Michener donated his collection of 5,400 such ‘ukiyo-e’ (‘pictures of the floating world’) prints in the early 1980s. A selection of Hiroshige’s woodcuts of birds and flowers is currently on display. Other exhibits include a small but excellent sampling of French art, including one of Claude Monet’s Water Lilies canvases and two of Paul Gaugin’s paintings of Tahiti. One room has a series of Rembrandt’s etchings, including some of his memorable self-portraits. Fittingly, the Honolulu Academy has loosely organized its galleries to accentuate the interplay between Eastern and Western artistic traditions—interactions to which Hawaii is no stranger, given its position as a maritime crossroads. The academy shouldn’t be missed.


The US Army’s Fort DeRussy is a waterfront property in Waikiki that’s home to a resort, as well as a museum recounting the military history of the islands. A historical marker explains that the army ‘acquired’ the 72 acres comprising this former coastal defence fort in 1897. In a sly bit of historical commentary, someone circled the offending word ‘acquired’ and added a question mark. This wag was doubtless calling attention to the circumstances under which the United States annexed the Hawaiian archipelago (along with other Pacific and Caribbean islands). Congress considered a bill to annex Hawaii in 1893, only to see it nixed by President Grover Cleveland. Cleveland suspected that some skulduggery was afoot.

Advocacy from popular figures like Theodore Roosevelt and Capt. Alfred Thayer Mahan, the second president of the US Naval War College and a renowned sea-power theorist, couldn’t sway public sentiment. It took victory in the Spanish-American War to open a floodgate, sweeping away popular and elite scepticism toward the United States’ imperial project. Congress and the William McKinley administration finally enacted an annexation bill vis-à-vis Hawaii in 1898, ushering in what historian Samuel Flagg Bemis memorably termed a ‘great aberration’ in US diplomatic history and historian Walter McDougall calls America’s ‘crusader state’ phase. In McDougall’s view, the United States’ crusading age endures to this day. Geography may not be destiny, but its geographic position, alone in an empty expanse of water astride important sea lanes, fated the Hawaiian archipelago to play an important part in world affairs.

James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the Naval War College and co-author of Red Star over the Pacific: China’s Rise and the Challenge to US Maritime Strategy, an Atlantic MonthlyBest Book of 2010.  The views voiced here are his alone.