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  • By Dr. Robert A Underwood

The end of Micronesia

The bonds that used to bind Micronesians are weakening. Micronesia as we know will be little more than a description of a part of the island Pacific.

Micronesian leaders join CNMI Gov. Ralph and Lt. Gov, Arnold Palacios during their inauguration in Koblerville, Saipan on Jan. 14, 2019. Photo by Jonathan Perez

In the latter part of the 20th century, the Eastern Communist bloc fell apart. In this century, the European Union is falling apart. Under President Trump, America’s role in the world is shrinking due to a leadership that dislikes immigrants and foreigners. Micronesia is undergoing a substantial re-formulation as an area with meaning and a role in the future. We may be facing the end of Micronesia.

Micronesia used to be a coherent concept. Historically, it has been used to cover the geographic expanse that we live in and includes Micronesian indigenous cultures. This includes Nauru and Kiribati, island nations with which we have limited contact. It also includes Palau, Yap (main island) and the Marianas which are culturally not “true Micronesians.” The origins of the latter three island groups are not in the same migration that populated the rest of Micronesia.

Micronesia also had colonial meaning as when it was part of the “Spanish lake” centuries ago and in the 20th century, when Japan and the U.S. carried out their imperial designs. In the 21st century, colonialism is passé’ although imperial urges are not. There will always be interest by Pacific powers like the U.S. and China in exerting coercive influence (when necessary) over these islands. Outright colonialism cannot be defended so we are inventing new relationships (covenants, compacts) and funding packages (domestic programs, trust funds) in order to accommodate what previously would have been achieved with a couple of war ships and some paperwork signed by the “head” man under duress.

For most of my life, Micronesia had a coherent regional meaning due to the post-World War II development of the American lake in the middle of the Pacific. American influence drew these islands together through transportation networks, regional educational institutions like the University of Guam and regional business interests with Guam as a kind of metropole. We had joint workshops, established regional organizations and professionals worked together. Of course, all of this was under an American umbrella for which military-strategic interests were paramount.

Ironically, almost everyone in the region understood Guam’s role and the nature of the region except for the people of Guam themselves. Guam, except for a few leaders and professionals, was blissfully unaware of the meaning of Micronesia, its importance or potential. Most people from Guam felt closer to San Francisco or Honolulu than Yap or Chuuk which are only 300-400 miles away. Guam’s leaders are not interested in taking political or economic leadership. The last Governor of Guam to understand the region was Carl Gutierrez and I believe I was the only Guam Delegate to ever fully pursue relationships with our geographic neighbors. Perhaps I Maga’haga as Lou will use her Bank of Guam regional experience to great effect and stronger leadership.

Guam has to wake up to the fact that we are part of a vibrant region that needs partnership and that we can engage in mutually beneficial relationships. Despite all the protestations to the contrary, we are not really part of America unless America says we are. To most Americans, we are not part of the American body politic. We are a legal appendage in which our geography is America’s greatest motivator and in which our “appendedness” is the price we pay for association and domestic programs.

Because of this price, nobody addresses the great disruptor of “migration” as a serious issue. Thousands of islanders move around in a system that is neither managed by the migrant or the receiving society. Instead, the decisions are made in Washington DC and all of Micronesia (Guam included) actually likes it that way. We can simultaneously complain about it and blame somebody else. We take no responsibility and everyone can point to Uncle Sam as the source of the problem. More money, not a different policy seems to be the preferred solution. Our “appendedness” continues. The word “Micronesian” has almost become an epithet in Guam and Hawaii.

Today, over 30 students annually go to China from the FSM to attend a university. They learn Mandarin and within 10 years it is easy to see that there will be 300 FSM’ers working the bureaucracy and running enterprises for which Chinese is a second or third language. The State Department is concerned, but in the current climate, not much counter-effort is being exerted. The Interior Department is responsible for navigating the relationship, but they spend more time worrying about federal lands in the Western U.S. and mining regulations. The Defense Department is also worried, but their solutions involve military assets and community projects, not a changed relationship.

In short, the prognosis for Micronesia as a recognizable entity working together when possible just does not seem good. We like to talk about it in a romantic sense. We like to say that we are all islanders who navigated the oceans. We then have meetings, discussions and communiques. But the relationship does not change and the bonds that use to bind us are weakening. Micronesia as we know will be little more than a description of a part of the island Pacific.

It can be more, but it should be a new Micronesia based on mutually planned and beneficial projects. It should feature working directorates and organizations which influence investment, environmental policy criminal justice, energy independence and cultural revival. We can turn Micronesia into a Micronesian Lake which will be friendly to the U.S. although not controlled by it. Leadership and mutual understanding will facilitate a healthier, more self-reliant and self-confident island region. In the future, we can proudly say that we are Micronesians.

Dr. Robert A. Underwood is a Guamanian educator, who served as Guam’s delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives from 1993 to 2003. He was the president of the University of Guam from 2008 to 2018. "The End of Micronesia" was originally published in the Turning Points: Global Agenda 2019, published by the Pacific Island Times under the New York Times Licensing Group)

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