Does size matter? The ‘smallness trap’
When larger powers attempt to control 'small islands'
Let’s be honest. “Does size matter?” is a question that preoccupies many. There are meggai lalåhi who have sat in their rooms at night pondering this perpetual question. For me, however, this question matters when it comes to the future of the islands.
Last month, I focused on the way the world views islands. In this column, I hone in on the idea of “smallness,” which has become a trap for islands. The narrative of our size has been used to trap us (or at least attempt to) into predetermined paths. I call this the “smallness trap,” where our perceived smallness is used to ensure that islands are controlled by others. If the trap is an album and great powers and even islanders themselves are the songwriters, let’s listen to two tracks.
The most popular song on this album is “Size Ain’t Just a Four-Letter Word.” In this track, we hear about how islands are too small to either govern themselves altogether or govern themselves effectively. This is a common chorus of the smallness trap, especially heard in Guam when it comes to political status.
Free association and independence are often countered by referencing Guam’s size, a.k.a. “We are too small to be sovereign.” Yet, size alone is not a determining factor in whether one can be sovereign or govern oneself well.
In terms of landmass, there are countries geographically similar to or smaller than Guam such as Nauru or Barbados (where Rihanna hails from). There are also countries with a smaller population than Guam such as Palau, San Marino, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Tonga and Grenada. This shows that being too small does not mean one cannot be sovereign.
One could debate, rightfully, regarding the problems that geographical size can bring (large countries and small countries both have weaknesses because of their size). Yet, to use smallness as a trap to shut down political status aspirations or to argue that islands should uncritically give in to the will of larger powers is intellectually lazy.
The way that size is utilized as a nail in decolonization’s coffin is often overplayed. We can have a real conversation about the impacts of size on a country’s power potential, but we should not accept the “Guam is small thus Guam cannot amount to anything” argument at face value. We must remember that our smallness is often exaggerated by a political agenda.
Our brothers and sisters in Micronesia help show the agency of island states. Recently, Palau hosted the Our Ocean conference with representatives from multiple countries coming together to discuss the state of the world’s oceans and protection of marine resources.
Island countries such as Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, and the Maldives are at the forefront of advocacy for global action on climate change. The Marshall Islands has similarly fought hard on the world stage for nuclear justice and has even served on the UN Human Rights Council. Islands can fight above our supposed “weight-class” and do so successfully. We only need to look at the ocean around us to find inspiring examples.
Another track on the album is "Too Far Away To Care.” The lyrics of this track take the exaggeration of our smallness and throw in the role of distance. Our distance from continental landmasses feeds into the narrative of our purported helplessness. This is where borrowing from geography can be helpful. There are two types of distance: topographical distance and topological distance. Most who say that islands are too far from the “rest of the world” are referring to topographical distance, or the distance that more closely resembles geographical distance.
However, I think that paying attention to what geographers call topological distance is more important when thinking about islands. Topological representation of distance helps show the role that technologies, infrastructure, and other forms of connection can have in making places more connected than their geography on a map would make it seem.
Take for example, the military building of infrastructure in Guam via runways, docks, and hangars. Although built for military purposes, this infrastructure does not only allow for military forms of interaction with the rest of the world.
Today, we also have Guam’s involvement in global initiatives such as the Sustainable Development Goals, technology, tourism, and other forms of connection to the world. Topologically, then, Guam is anything but isolated from the world. It is intimately connected with it. They often say, “no man is an island,” but in that vein, many islands are not “islands.”
If we define island as a small landmass in the middle of the ocean pretty much disconnected from the world, then Guam is certainly not an “island” in this respect. “Islands are small and isolated” should no longer be used to justify the agendas of larger powers.
There are real problems associated with geographical size, but the exaggeration of smallness is a poisonous Kool-Aid many of us still fill our cups with. This “smallness” trap is used to make us believe that our size cements our futures. Small islands are “meant” to be globally inferior. Yet, through technology, infrastructure, and connections we have made around the world, islands are more connected to the world than we think.
So, does size matter? Well, yes and no, but the old wisdom is still true, “it is more about how you use it.” Remember, it is not the size of the wave, but the motion of the ocean that may matter more.
Kenneth Gofigan Kuper is assistant professor of Political Science, CHamoru Studies, and Micronesian Studies at the University of Guam and is director of the Pacific Center for Island Security. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org