A hard landing for soft power
One year, a niece in the throes of adolescence gave me a birthday card in the form of a piece of construction paper torn in half with “HBD” scribbled on it. If you’re not even going to write “Happy Birthday” then just don’t bother. It cheapens the whole idea of a greeting. It could have been worse. It could have just said “HB.”
The same goes for “H.E.” As in the inevitable abbreviation when certain elected officials carry the moniker “His Excellency.” Or “Her Excellency,” as the case may be.
H.E. shorthand sounds cheap. It makes the honorific, and inevitably the holder of that office, seem hollow if not flat-out fake.
A video that has been making the rounds on various social media this month recently crossed my path. The recently elected president of the Federated States of Micronesia, Wesley Simina, arrived on his home island of Chuuk to much fanfare and pageantry.
The welcome banner proclaims “Chuuk State Welcomes H.E. President Wesley Simina,” because "president" is not enough.
What struck me most about this video, however, was that after walking down the ramp and being festooned, he sat upon a throne that was then hoisted upon the shoulders of the attendants who carried him walking in step, quite impressively I might add, to the receiving line.
I’m not aware of any Micronesian tradition where anyone of prominence would be transported in an elevated sedan chair. Not that there’s any reason why I would be, mind you, but I haven’t seen it. That is to say, out of the political kowtowing that I’ve witnessed, I have not personally observed an elected official being lifted in a chair onto the shoulders of sedan-bearers.
I’m familiar with sedan chairs in other places, such as Imperial China, where chair-bearers would hoist a dignitary onto their shoulders to scurry them through the streets so as to avoid, yet be noticed by everyone.
And thus, the current diplomatic soap opera of soft power in the Pacific confronts us, playing out on YouTube of all places.
In case you don’t know the term, soap operas are television dramas that networks would air during the day, traditionally to bored housewives, rife with conflict that will never end, thanks to plots that always twist. Originally radio dramas with soap company sponsorship, the resolution of one conflict creates the next, presented through deeply desirable yet unmistakably flawed characters.
Kind of like Korean dramas, but with more advertisements for household cleaning products.
As for “soft power?” The idea comes from Joseph Nye, a political scientist who defined it as a nation’s ability to get what it wants through attraction to its ideals rather than payments or coercion. Soft power means that other nations see you as legitimate.
The latest soft power soap opera twists around whose vision of cultures, values and foreign policy will win the hearts and minds of The Blue Pacific Continent. The U.S.? Or China?
The U.S., with its rules-based Indo-Pacific Partnership, or China, with its ability to actually do things like build roads?
To thicken this plot, to the west Palauan President Surangel Whipps, Jr., in an Oct. 13 interview with Palau's Island Times talked of strengthening solidarity with the U.S., despite the slowdown in promised funding and concerns of its citizens that more American troops and radars might make Palau a Chinese target.
Military access is the price of money and open immigration, after all.
Into this sat President Simina, on the shoulders of his supporters, quite literally as he got off the plane. Recently taking the post previously held by letter-writing David Panuelo-- who in such a letter advocated for FSM alliances with Taiwan and warned of Chinese interference in the region-- Simina has been open about his fondness for China.
Then again, His Excellency The President’s sky-borne chariot was none other than a Boeing 737. As the aircraft turned, you could clearly see “United” emblazoned on the fuselage. This is to say that despite any pomp surrounding the arrival, the return of the head of state was accomplished on the United Airlines Island Hopper, a regularly scheduled commercial flight on an American airline.
Whose vision is more attractive? Which country is legitimate? It might be time for a soap ad.
For now, I shall avoid titles. I still have a valid Chinese visa, after all.
Gabriel McCoard is an attorney who previously worked in Palau and Chuuk State. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.