Trapped by Empire
The specter of geopolitical violence looms anytime Washington turns its attention to the Pacific.
In 1898, the Treaty of Paris ended the Spanish-American War and transferred Guam and the Philippines to the U.S. empire. In the Second World War, the United States focused on the Pacific not just as a theater of war but also as an avenue to reclaim colonial territories. In the early Cold War, the Pacific had fleeting importance to policymakers as a site for nuclear testing. And during the Vietnam War, the United States used its Pacific territories—in particular Guam—to stage large-scale bombing and counterinsurgency campaigns across Southeast Asia.
As America’s rivalry with China has accelerated in recent years, U.S. moves in East Asia tend to draw the most attention—including expanded military base access in the Philippines just announced this February. But the United States has begun focusing on the Pacific once again too. In May 2022, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited eight Pacific nations during a ten-day tour that sought (but failed) to secure a region-spanning “Common Development Vision.” In classic one-upmanship, the White House answered by hosting a U.S.-Pacific Island Summit four months later.
As official policy, the United States seeks a “free, open, and inclusive” region. In practice, it seeks to preserve and expand the U.S. sphere of influence in the Pacific to preclude China from doing the same. That intention is evident not just in its explicit warnings to Pacific nations against cutting deals with China, but also in the guest list for the summit. The White House invited twelve countries but Guam—one of the world’s seventeen remaining territories denied self-governance—was not on the list. Instead, its governor was part of the U.S. delegation. And in the “Pacific Partnership Strategy” the White House issued in parallel with the summit, Guam was mentioned only once, in a list of U.S. territories.
The obvious reason for this is that the United States is Guam’s colonizer. To this day, the U.S. military occupies roughly one-third of Guam’s landmass. And the Pentagon has plans to expand that presence further still.
Guam exists as an imperial relation within U.S. liberal internationalism—a key node in what historians call America’s “pointillist empire.” Guam’s relative absence from how the White House portrays the Pacific is a politically convenient blind spot. Exclusionary control of Guam is logically incompatible with the claim that the U.S. government is defending a “rules-based order”—the very claim it uses to justify rivalry with China. But it is essential to U.S. strategic machinations in Asia.
Unfortunately, Washington’s narrative erasure of Guam has also trapped the territory in an existential Catch-22. The Chamorro—the indigenous people of Guam—are actively seeking self-determination. The government in Guam has appointed a Commission on Decolonization (some version of which has existed since 1980) to advise the country on its options ahead of a plebiscite to determine its future, which is hard to schedule without confidence that the United States would allow Guam to decide its own fate. But the ongoing practice of “empire without imperialism”—preserving formal empire-like control without a formally imperial ideology to justify it—has saddled all of Guam’s strategic choices, including the status quo of indefinitely deferring self-determination, with substantial downsides.
U.S. law designates Guam as “foreign in a domestic sense” and “domestic in a foreign sense.” That is, while Guam is geopolitically important enough to make U.S. influence there worthwhile, U.S. legislators have neither permitted self-governance in the territory nor extended to the Chamorro full democratic enfranchisement as part of the U.S. federal system. In American history, white supremacy has been both an excuse to colonize new lands and a reason not to expand the frontier of American federalism. Guam’s situation is an enduring legacy of that duality. Unlike Hawai’i, with its large U.S. settler colonial population and entrenched U.S. corporate interests, Guam was not granted statehood.
Since the Organic Act of 1950, Guamanians have been granted U.S. citizenship. That enables them to enlist in the U.S. military, which they do at a rate higher than people in almost any other part of the United States, and to move to other parts of the country. But as part of an “unincorporated organized territory” without statehood, they do not have representation in Congress. And Guam has no head of state. Prior to the 1968 Guam Elective Governor Act, Guamanians could not even elect their own governor—an intermediary who oversees not just Guam’s local laws but America’s laws in Guam, and who must issue an annual report to the Secretary of the Interior detailing all of the “transactions of the government of Guam.”
American defense officials are convinced that this mundane administrative colonialism benefits them immensely. Guam is optimally situated as a base for U.S. power projection into East Asia, the conceptual core of U.S. Asia strategy. U.S. policymakers believe that the credibility of their alliance commitments and their ability to maintain primacy depend on America’s readiness to prevail in hypothetical wars—and every conceivable warfighting scenario in East Asia would require the large-scale mobilization of U.S. forces from outside the region through the Pacific. The large basing infrastructure the United States maintains on Guam would facilitate that mobilization.
U.S. control of Guam also makes its forward-basing in East Asia more politically sustainable by easing the burden on sovereign allies. This was the essence of Richard Nixon’s “Guam Doctrine,” which sought to downsize America’s East Asian military outposts by retrenching U.S. forces along the Pacific periphery in places that were seen as more controllable and less politically unpredictable.
That strategy continued into the twenty-first century. The George W. Bush White House reached an agreement with the Japanese government to relocate the Okinawa-based III Marine Expeditionary Force to Guam as part of a “United States-Japan Roadmap for Realignment Implementation.” By moving thousands of Marines and their dependents to Guam, that deal was supposed to alleviate some of the sociopolitical burdens that Japan endures as a U.S. ally, such as protests by Okinawa residents who see the U.S. military as an occupying presence and the source of crimes and accidents committed by Marines.
Unlike Australia, Japan, and South Korea, Guam has no Status of Forces Agreement constraining the terms of the U.S. military presence on their territory. Accordingly, there was little recourse for Guamanians to oppose the base-building required to house the influx of troops from Japan.
The move from Okinawa to Guam was delayed partly because Washington and Tokyo haggled over who would pay for which parts of the shift. The Environmental Protection Agency had also judged in 2010 that the project would “significantly exacerbate substandard environmental conditions on Guam.” Nevertheless, construction on a fifty-nine-acre live-fire training range complex is already underway. The expansion of the U.S. military’s footprint promises to destroy hundreds of acres of forests and coral reefs. And because a version of these relocation plans is still scheduled (updated figures project 5,000 Marines and 2,400 dependents arriving around 2024), Guamanians have no political framework to challenge the preferences of the Pentagon. From the U.S. perspective, this is the point.
Washington’s relationship with Guam remains incontrovertibly imperial—an arrangement it exploits to manage the frictions that inevitably arise in America’s security alliances with sovereign nations.
The most morbid value that Guam has in U.S. strategy makers’ fever dreams is its role as a shock absorber during war. If U.S. officials once sought to make Japan America’s “unsinkable aircraft carrier”—a phrase attributed to Japan’s Prime Minister Nakasone in 1983—they are now making Guam its human shield: a priority target because of its strategic value to the United States.
The Japanese empire bombed and invaded Guam as part of its multi-country offensive in December 1941 (which exists in the popular imagination only as the bombing of Pearl Harbor in Hawai’i). One occupier displaced another. Today, Guam’s people are subject to the same kind of existential threat, and once again it is not of their own making. North Korea has had plans to strike Guam with nuclear warheads since at least 2013, because the U.S. nuclear-capable bombers often fly out of Guam. During the nuclear crisis of 2017, the North Korean military warned it would fire missiles meant to land directly adjacent to Guam—proving it could strike Guam at will without technically doing so—and its leader Kim Jong-un suggested he was ready to nuke Guam if the United States followed through with threats to conduct “bloody nose”—preventive, not retaliatory—strikes against the North. As I wrote at the time, nuclear war was a real and growing risk and Guam would have been among its first victims. Today, America’s conflict with North Korea over its nuclear weapons remains unresolved, in almost every respect worse than in 2017. And that means Guam remains something of a nuclear hostage.
The threat of annihilation facing Guam isn’t limited to North Korean crises. As University of Guam political scientist Kenneth Gofigan Kuper lamented, Washington’s think tank industry is confident that China’s People’s Liberation Army would target Guam with missile strikes very early in any conflict with the United States. Defense intellectuals know that one of the deftest blows China can deal to the U.S. military is to launch a salvo of ballistic and cruise missiles at U.S. bases in Guam. In response to this hypothetical, Washington is planning for an expanded missile defense architecture to make U.S. operations from Guam marginally more survivable, though its facilities and runways will ultimately remain vulnerable to attack. Ratcheting up military capacity for a marginal combat advantage only increases the risk of a clash in the real world. For the Pentagon, in the context of war, a few warheads landing in Guam is preferable to landing on Hawai’i or the U.S. mainland. For Chamorro society, as Kuper stresses, a few warheads could destroy everything that matters.
The hegemonic aspirations that endure in U.S. foreign policy put Guam at risk by design. Unless or until the United States revises its fundamental approach to the Asia-Pacific, that risk must be borne by someone. As Senator Lindsey Graham confessed amid the North Korean nuclear crisis, “If thousands die, they’re going to die over there. They’re not going to die here.”
Despite the obvious downsides to Guam’s importance to the U.S. national security state, getting free is not so easy.
When Guam lobbied the United States for commonwealth status in the 1980s, Congress rebuffed the idea because it would have prevented “the U.S. Government and U.S. Military from taking any action in Guam without mutual consent of the people.” Since then, the government of Guam has sought to put its peoples’ fate to a vote: seek statehood and fully merge with the United States (like Hawai’i), seek national independence (like the Philippines), or seek a euphemistic “free association” in a U.S. sphere of influence, through which Guam would maintain autonomy over its domestic affairs but would formally outsource foreign policy and national security to Washington (like Palau, the Marshall Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia). The plebiscite to decide Guam’s political status remains unscheduled, caught in U.S. judicial red tape and lacking any indication from the U.S. government that it would respect the results. But weighing these strategic choices is more than a thought experiment; it prepares Guam for the moment that self-determination becomes possible.
Guam could elect to become America’s fifty-first state. With all of the rights and obligations of any other state in the U.S. federal system, Guamanians would also have voting representation in Congress. Statehood would expand Guam’s options for managing its economy through financing and federal programs. And the option is compatible with an existing strand of American patriotism in Guam due to high rates of military service.
But statehood has a price. Assuming Congress would admit Guam as the newest state—which is exceedingly unlikely in the current conjuncture—it does nothing to alleviate the geopolitical dangers Guam faces. The U.S. military would still remain, but no longer as an occupying force.
There is also a problem of cultural preservation in the face of assimilation, and the unintentional legitimation of colonial history. Shifting from invisible imperial relations to overt political authority consummates the process of American takeover of Chamorro life and could set back justice-based demands for the indigenous population.
Alternatively, Guam could choose to become an independent nation-state. Guam has its own history, culture, and language. There is no moral reason why the Chamorro should not declare independence, giving Guam full formal sovereignty and empowering its political leaders to negotiate (or expel) the U.S. military presence in a manner that does justice to Guam’s people and environment. Nationhood would allow Guam to decide whether it wants to accept the geopolitical risk of being a U.S. ally or whether it would rather take itself off the target list of America’s enemies.
But nationhood is not cost-free either. Breaking away from the United States does not guarantee Guam’s safety in an international political environment that has become increasingly perilous. True independence reduces the risk of North Korean nuclear attack, but a Sino–U.S. war could well engulf small nations like Guam regardless of its desire to sidestep power politics. Moreover, if an independent Guam wanted an independent military, it would have to raise substantial new debt to train and equip it, which would be a drag on economic development.
Guam’s political economy depends disproportionately on America’s gratuitous military spending. Booting out U.S. forces would cause near-term economic harm. Therefore, even an independent Guam allied with the United States would have limited ability to veto, authorize, or adjust America’s military footprint.
In between statehood and nationhood is free association, a musty, imperialistic concept that permits formal entry into a sphere of influence. Through the “Compact of Free Association” (COFA), the United States permits Palau, the Marshall Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia a form of political independence that is circumscribed by Washington’s role as their security guarantor.
Under free association, residents of Guam could still serve in the U.S. military while achieving a greater degree of freedom in managing their domestic affairs. Guam could claim formal sovereignty while giving up what it already lacks: the right to conduct foreign policy as it sees fit.
Yet the free association option actually incurs higher military risks than either of the alternatives; it would formally make Guam not just a nuclear target of America’s enemies but also an object in Sino–U.S. competition. One of the features of great-power rivalry is the securitization of everyday politics and diplomacy. As a client in a U.S. sphere of influence, Guam would be subject to the jockeying and cross-pressures of the great powers. As it does with the COFA nations, the United States would be able to exercise a de facto veto over any decisions by Guam’s government that it deems to have “national security implications.”
Guam’s strategic choices are freighted with steep costs and risks, products of the conditions that the United States has imposed on the Chamorro.
Guam’s subordinated political status, a useful instrument for U.S. policymakers, is a stain on the values they burnish in speeches and summits. While hypocrisy is nothing new in U.S. foreign policy, we must bring to light America’s disenfranchisement of Guam and the structural violence it has imposed—conditions that Washington makes invisible. We should also challenge the grim fantasies that sustain the idea of Guam’s vital role to U.S. national security. Washington’s approach to power-politicizing the Pacific rests on a feeble intellectual construction that improves nobody’s security and makes more likely the very nightmare of war that it prepares for.
Van Jackson is a senior lecturer in international relations at Victoria University of Wellington and most recently the author of Pacific Power Paradox: American Statecraft and the Fate of the Asian Peace (Yale University Press).
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