Federated States of Micronesia – Tosiwo Nakayama and the founding of a regime

Typically social scientists think of regimes as being the product of underlying structural forces that shape institutions and subsequent political practices. However, David Hanlon’s recent biography of the inaugural president of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), Tosiwo Nakayama, reminds us that the nature and character of a regime is rarely preordained.[i] Rather, it is the product of a negotiated settlement between human actors; individuals can and do make history.

The 1975 Micronesian constitutional convention brought together delegates in Saipan from all corners of the then United States’ administered United Nations Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands to debate the region’s future political status. Today, we refer to these island-nations as small states but, as Hanlon reminds us, while their population and landmass may be small when compared with other countries, the region they inhabit is vast and diverse (more ‘Macro’ than ‘Micro’). Given 90 days, they were tasked with drafting and agreeing on a constitution. From the outset, logistical challenges combined with the competing interests and agendas of each delegation worked against unity. The people of the Northern Mariana Islands had already entered into separate political status talks with the United States. Furthermore, the announcement that parts of Micronesia stood to gain financially from continued United States military involvement in the region meant that the Marshallese and Palauan delegations were increasingly convinced that they would get a better deal if they negotiated alone. Despite the odds being stacked against a unified constitution, agreement was reached at the 11th hour. Throughout, Hanlon describes Nakayama, the president of the convention, as humbly, persistently and strategically building consensus through compromise and concession.

Nakayama was elected unopposed as the inaugural president of FSM. In my last post I discussed the background profile of those who hold this office. In many ways Nakayama conforms to that portrait. Born to a Japanese father and a Micronesian mother, Nakayama followed a path well trodden by leaders of his generation, first to the Pacific Islands Central School and later to the University of Hawaii. This trajectory aided the work of the convention, as many of the delegates were his former classmates. He worked for the Trust Territory administration, entered politics via the Truk District legislature and later the Congress of Micronesia where he made his mark as Senate President, thus showcasing his talents and building support for his presidency of the convention. A modernist and a quiet but forceful critic of United States rule, Nakayama was a vocal advocate of Micronesian unity.

The FSM that Nakayama brought into being did not include all of the states present at the 1975 convention – Marshall Islands and Palau ultimately did decide to go it alone – but four remained; from west to east they are Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei and Kosrae. The concessions required to gain agreement for the constitution – the main concern of delegates was that the new national government would overwhelm its constituent states – meant that significant power remains with the states and as a result the federation has been described as ‘loose’ with national government subject to ‘all checks and no balances’.[ii] Certainly, Nakayama’s two terms in office (the maximum number allowed for by the constitution) were marked by increasing tensions between state and national government. There are no political parties in the unicameral Congress with members drawn from their respective states who, when electing a president, tend to vote in blocs. As a result, Hanlon illustrates, the president’s most important constituency is the Congress who puts them in power.

Negotiations about the distribution of power between the states and the national government have continued since 1975. There have been two subsequent constitutional conventions – 1990 and 2001 – in which agreement was sought for changes that would ease conflict between the two levels of government. However, no amendments were passed. One interpretation is that this supports the orthodox view that once instituted the rules of any regime are virtually impossible to change; they rarely bend but must be broken and a new regime founded (and rumblings of succession persist in FSM). The other is that it endorses the work of the 1975 convention and the constitution it created. In either case, as Hanlon maintains, without Nakayama it is highly unlikely that these institutions would exist in their current form.

[i] Hanlon, D. (2014). Making Micronesia: A Political Biography of Tosiwo Nakayama. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

[ii] Underwood, R. (2006). “Micronesian political structures and US models: lessons taught and lessons learned” The Journal of Pacific Studies 29 (1): 4-24

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