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Journal of Political Ecology: 
Case Studies in History and Society

 

 

VOLUME 6 (1999)

 

Remaking Micronesia: Discourses on Development In a Pacific Territory, 1944-1982. By David Hanlon. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, (1998), xv, 305 pp.

 

Reviewed by E. Robert Statham, Jr., Political Science Program, University of Guam and Harley I. Manner, Geography Program, University of Guam

Remaking Micronesia, by David Hanlon, is a post-modern history of the Caroline, Marshall, and Northern Mariana Islands in the Western Pacific. Hanlon's intention is to frame his account of the region within the context of American imperialism/colonialism, which allegedly took the form of efforts at economic development that were ultimately about transforming in dramatic and total fashion a people who occupied real estate deemed vital to American strategic concerns (p. 19). Central to Hanlon's history is his theoretical-conceptual orientation rooted in understanding the past in terms of power, dialectical-material, international class struggle, and ethnographic multi-culturalism (pp. 7-13). Thus Hanlon state

The remaking of Micronesia and Micronesians is, in part, about the way dominant systems of power preserve themselves. Micronesians have much in common, then, with other groups of people who have had modernity thrust upon them and who have experienced the consequent normalizing, controlling pressures behind programs of capitalist cultural development that seek at once to indict and obliterate difference in favor of efficiency, conformity, and gain (pp. 19-20).

Remaking Micronesia is an attempt at getting beyond development as a discursive strategy of domination and control via a recognition of other ways of knowing, being, and living that recognize development as part of a larger colonial project which disavows racial, cultural, and historical difference (p. 20).

In his account of American foreign policy in Micronesia between 1944 (the close of World War II) and 1982 (the approximate end of the American trust territory- TTPI's), Hanlon understands American efforts at rehabilitating the island region as a disguise for the promotion and service of U.S. strategic interests (p. 23). This theme permeates the entire work. Indeed, Hanlon views American policy in Micronesia contemptuously to the extent that he does not note a single positive aspect of U.S. efforts during the time period in question. Hanlon's history is a story written with a pre-existing ideological agenda (i.e., the utilization of "discourse" to strategically create or recreate a past reality): Anti-Americanism. It might be noted, for example, that he even connects the meaning of the term "Micronesia" with the term "Indian" in order to suggest that the label (created by outsiders) was invented for manipulable, self-serving, imperial interests when in point of fact, the term Micronesia simply refers to a region comprised of scattered tiny islands, an indisputable physical- geographical fact (p.21).

In attempting to tell a story about colonial prescriptions for economic development as a discursive strategy designed to promote the transformation or remaking of a people under that alien, indiscriminate, and totalizing term, Micronesia, Hanlon demonstrates little comprehension of U.S. foreign policy (past or present) (p.63). For example, his account is not empirically tied to the actual American national and global conditions of the Cold War-Nuclear Era. There is no thorough account of U.S.-U.S.S.R. global bi-polarity. Hanlon's ideological agenda brings him to view American nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands as racially motivated: It is no accident that atmospheric nuclear testing took place in an area remote from the North American continent and among people who were not white (p. 188). This of course ignores the fact that the United States tested nuclear weapons extensively on the North American continent among civilians who were predominantly white, some of whom also suffered from the effects of nuclear radiation and fallout (Southern Utah, Southern Nevada, New Mexico). Also omitted is the extent to which nuclear arms build-ups during the Cold War Era have created serious environmental and health threats within U.S. national borders, particularly on military bases and sites, in the form of high and low level radioactive waste derivatives (Statham 1996).

Remaking Micronesia is an historical caricature. The fundamental thesis of the work, the neo-Marxist contention that the United States attempted to develop the devastated, post-war Western Pacific in order to remake Micronesians in an image and likeness, if not substance, that served an American society at whose cultural core rest the principles of capitalist economics (p. 235) while somewhat accurate, is only partially so. American economic culture is, granted, largely capitalistic (rooted in Lockean principles of the private ownership of property as a result of individual labor, etc.), the United States military and Federal Government have seldom been motivated by such cultural norms. Hanlon is correct in asserting that American interests in Micronesia were (and arguably still are) strategic. He errs in assuming that the American pursuit of strategic interests was ever intended to be accomplished by way of an inculcation of capitalism. In fact, the Federal Government treated post-war Micronesia the same way that it treated the American domestic problems of homelessness, poverty, racism, etc. (Johnson‚s "Great Society" programs): with money and supplies. Hanlon notes this U.S. Federal aid (p. 167-176) but fails to see the extent to which the motivation behind the assistance (which was paid for, of course, entirely by tax-paying U.S. citizens who were, in all likelihood, unaware of where their tax dollars were being spent by their representatives in Washington, DC) was the naive desire to solve quasi intractable problems with money and resources. American foreign policy in Micronesia is in many ways similar to American Federal domestic policy at the time. The key descriptive- explanatory term for understanding America's policy in Micronesia is "Welfare," not "Capitalism." And, to the extent that the U.S. Federal government attempted to develop Micronesia economically, it did not succeed, but failed miserably.

Interestingly, nowhere throughout the book does Hanlon offer a definition of economic development. A critique of the American attempt, and for that matter, any of the other (colonial, imperialist, or otherwise) attempts at economic development requires such a definition. Whether this omission is intentional, is unknown. However, the absence of a definition saves Hanlon from the difficulty of offering alternative, practicable strategies and solutions for the development of Micronesia and from subjecting himself to further and future criticism. In any case, Hanlon's analysis does not reflect the past and future geopolitical-strategic realities of the Pacific, Micronesia, Asia, the United States, and an ever-increasing global political economy. As Crocombe has noted: "...the US hegemony is being challenged mainly from Northeast Asia, and to a lesser extent from Southeast Asia. This competition is overwhelming in trade and investment, major in political and security interests, minor in belief (but with a potential for a strong challenge in the area of religion, philosophy, ideology and values)" (1995:10).

There is no doubt that the United States has obtained and maintained colonies outside of its borders (a fact that most Americans are largely unaware of), but it can also safely be said that the United States has been a pathetic, weak, ineffective capitalistic colonizer (all of its off-shore territories, including the former Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands are poorly developed economically). What the United States has created in Micronesia (and in its other off-shore territories) is economic dependency. Did the United States deliberately attempt to make Micronesians dependent upon Federal aid and assistance in order to maintain strategic control of the region? This is an interesting line of inquiry. The unfortunate fact is that Micronesians are indeed dependent upon the United States for such assistance.

Hanlon is on safer and solid ground in his discussion of the negotiated political status of free-association that each of the former TTPI's chose in order to effectively end U.S. administration of the region. "Free-association" (is an international compact (treaty) between a sovereign nation and former colonies or quasi colonies in movement toward ultimate sovereignty, but which effectively neither secures outright independence, or unification with the sovereign power) is a form of political status which culminates in a continuation of colonization (p.227). Indeed, any political status which does not secure either complete independence (sovereignty) or complete unification and assimilation (which in the case of the United States is semi-sovereignty via Statehood) is bound to produce a continuation of dependency (See E. R. Statham 1997).

It is not, therefore, that Hanlon's history of Micronesia (1944-1982) does not have explanatory power. The essential problem with the effort is Hanlon's a priori attempt to superimpose an ideological-theoretical construct (postmodern, pluralist, multi-cultural power theory and neo-Marxism) upon the Micronesian past, which distorts the phenomena under scrutiny. Of course, as Karl Popper has pointed out, a truly complete and meaningful history is impossible to write (as the subjective account of every individual who experienced the past would need to be expounded-included (K. Popper 1950), but arguably, the best historical accounts attempt to understand others as they understand themselves to the extent that this is possible (See L. Strauss 1953). This Hanlon fails to do as his ideological-theoretical approach is predominantly Western-European (continental). Ironically, whereas Hanlon utilizes the insider (local)- outsider (mainlander-continental) paradigm as a foundation for his historical discourse, he is, in actuality, writing from the perspective (ideological, theoretical, and subjective) of an outsider (for example, he superimposes an ideological bias toward equality of result upon the Micronesian past when such a concept is foreign to the region and its people since equality is a predominantly Western-European-American concept) which is evident in his discussion of race, class, and gender (pp. 17, 185).

The best scholarship, whether historical, economic, or political, is driven by a specific motive: the quest for knowledge or understanding. When an inquirer begins with a pre-supposed answer to his/her question, this distorts the subject matter under observation. Of course, the inquirer will find some of what he/she is looking for, but it is what is not found, and not looked for that is problematic. Where Remaking Micronesia is historically descriptive and explanatory, it is usually for the wrong reasons.

References Cited:

Crocombe, Ron.

1995. The Pacific Islands and the USA. Honolulu: Institute of Pacific Studies, Rarotonga and Suva, and Pacific Islands Development Program.

Popper, Karl.

1950. The Open Society and Its Enemies, I. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Statham, E. Robert Jr.

1996. Nuclear Waste Disposal in Micronesia: A cross-cultural analysis. Asian Cultural Quarterly 24(2): 1-19.

Statham, E. Robert Jr.

1997. The U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands: A paradox of independent dependency. In D. Denoon, ed. Emerging from Empire? Decolonization in the Pacific, Canberra: Australian National University Press, pp. 90-101.

Strauss, Leo.

1953. Natural Right and History, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.