Micronesia? What’s that?
When I announced to friends in 2016 that I had joined the Peace Corps and been assigned to Yap to provide marketing services for the 2018 MicroGames, they responded with either a quizzical half smile, or blurted, “Oh! Indonesia! How exciting!” No, I said, MICROnesia, not INDOnesia. “Where’s that?” they asked next with a blank look.
The lack of knowledge about Pacific island nations is frustrating but no longer surprising to me. Anything west of Hawaii and north of the equator is a black hole for most Americans. Forget about explaining the difference between the South Pacific and the North Pacific.
And that includes the mainstream U.S. media despite the conflict between the U.S. and China that continues to foment.
Now and then, a handful of journalists are assigned to write stories about some of the islands that are scattered far and wide in that great expanse of ocean crisscrossed by massive freighters, a few pleasure boats steered by intrepid adventurers, and military ships.
On Oct. 17, the Washington Post’s editorial board finally woke up and announced, “U.S. finally looks to the Pacific after years of neglect.”
Not exactly news to those who live on Guam or the other islands where the U.S. military is busily preparing for a potential conflict.
The mainstream media is just as guilty in their inattention and ignorance of the islands and people who live on them despite some having offices and staff assigned to cover the region. But most of that assigned staff is focused on Australia, Japan, Korea and China. Getting the suits in the main office interested is a tough sell. If the editor in Australia pesters them enough, they might get reluctant approval to see what’s out there. But when they do get the budget to fly out for a few days with a photographer in tow, the articles tend to focus on the big picture to the exclusion of the impact on the people who live on the islands.
This lack of awareness presents challenges to the elected representatives who serve in the House of Representatives and the embassy staff that serve in the United Nations.
Meanwhile, the U.S. embassy folks assigned to the FSM and other offices throughout the Pacific islands do what they can to inform the Department of the Interior and State Department staff about what’s going on. But it often seems to fall on deaf ears.
Back in 1947, Norwegian sailor Thor Heyerdahl set sail on the rickety raft Kon-Tiki from South America to Polynesia. His book about the expedition resulted in two Academy Award-winning films. Suddenly, the U.S. knew something about Polynesia beyond the honeymoon destination of Hawaii, albeit in romantic terms of fighting the ocean currents and storms, catching fish for sustenance, swaying palm trees, white sand beaches and beautiful “native girls.”
But Micronesia and Melanesia remain largely unknown except to those who served on Guam, the FSM, and the other islands throughout the region during World War II. Most of them wanted to forget that harrowing experience.
An “introductory essay” published in March 2023 by the National Bureau of Asian Research titled “Beyond Presence: What Can the United States Do Better in the Pacific?” states that it “provides a framework for thinking about the Pacific Islands for audiences based in the United States."
The purpose of this introduction,” it notes, “is to raise awareness of Pacific Island realities for U.S. policymakers unfamiliar with the region.”
Lotsa luck. Congress is focused on other internal issues at the moment, and while the White House has been paying attention to some degree, the Pacific region remains largely unknown and of little interest to the majority of Americans, including those who serve in that august Washington D.C. body.
One well-intentioned essay is not going to have much impact.
The essay “draws heavily on the Pacific Islands Strategic Dialogue convened by the National Bureau of Asian Research in May 2022 in Tamuning, Guam, with support from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency Strategic Trends Research Initiative and with partnership with the University of Guam.”
That event brought together “25 officials, regional experts, practitioners, and scholars representing a diverse set of countries, territories, and freely associated states from Micronesia and beyond.”
The discussion focused on “what security concerns exist among governments and citizens in Micronesia, whether those concerns align with U.S. national security interests, and how Micronesian governments are dealing with the consequences of strategic competition. Many of the discussions in that dialogue highlighted unique Micronesian perspectives. However, some viewpoints were reflective of larger debates among Pacific island countries in Melanesia and Polynesia.”
Naturally, among the points discussed was the impact of climate change on the low-lying islands. But do mainlanders know or even care about those small, scattered islands with fewer inhabitants collectively than a metropolitan city?
“Credibility means many things,” the essay continues, “but in the Pacific, there are two crucial concepts for establishing credibility: presence and trust. The former is much easier to realize than the latter.
“In Micronesia, the United States is both literally and figuratively present, with U.S. territories in the North Pacific—Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands—and through Compact of Free Association agreements with the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Republic of Palau.”
I have yet to meet anyone among the common citizenry who knows that the U.S. has compacts with those Pacific island nations, let alone where or what those nations are. And what is a compact anyway?
This past week, having moved back to the mainland after five years in Yap and two years in Guam, I went to the Department of Motor Vehicles to get a new driver’s license. The customer service representatives looked at my Guam license, turned it over, peered at it again, and refused to believe me when I said it was an American license. One of the supervisors who has worked at the DMV “for 30 years” informed me that I would need to take a driving test since it was not a U.S. license. I replied that Guam is just like Puerto Rico – a U.S. territory. “Oh,” she said, “I know Puerto Rico. Ok, then you don’t need to take a test.”
As a former public relations executive, I suggest the islands pool their individual tourism budgets and embark on a worldwide education campaign to 1) create awareness of the importance of the islands on the world stage and why China wants to gain control (think tuna, seabed minerals and strategic location); 2) promote sustainable tourism collectively to encourage travelers to go beyond the well-known and promoted destinations of Tahiti and Fiji for their vacation experiences; and 3) offset the ignorance among DMV staff members and other government officials about the full array of U.S. territories other than Puerto Rico, where they probably spent their last vacation.
Granted, they’ll run up against the lack of geography taught in schools these days, but a robust social media campaign could help overcome the overwhelming ignorance about this historically important, culturally rich, strategically situated region above the equator.
Joyce McClure is a former senior marketing executive and former Peace Corps volunteer in Yap. Transitioning to freelance writing, she moved to Guam in 2021 and recently relocated back to the mainland. Send feedback to email@example.com