34th General Assembly of the Association of Pacific Islands Legislatures (APIL)

US-RMI Relationship

Ambassador Thomas H. Armbruster at 34th APIL meeting
Ambassador Thomas H. Armbruster at 34th APIL meeting

The bottom line, for me, is I remain an optimist about the future of the RMI.

Before going into the challenges, we should note that this is a region at peace, where democracy functions, and where we can concentrate on health, education and economic development, rather than insecurity from terrorism and regional conflict.

Our goal at U.S. Embassy Majuro is that every RMI citizen is healthy and educated and ready to contribute, either at home in the RMI or in the U.S. as is their right.  To what extent can international partners assist?

This is a personal observation about diplomacy.  In a war, one country can turn another country 180 degrees.  A completely new direction.  But in peacetime, one country, at the most can only nudge another country about ten degrees.  That is not scientific, but its my experience.  Embassies, NGO’s, the UN, the international community have an effect, a positive effect, and even 10 degrees can make a lot of difference over time, but the host government and people really determine the direction the country will go.  That said, every country needs friends, especially small remote countries, so my advice is to keep making those long trips to Washington, and Tokyo and elsewhere to cultivate relationships and development partners.

There is no doubt we all have a lot of work to do still.  We are still at the base of the pyramid of needs.  So, sewer and water, food security, health care, education, those basics still need work, but we can reach higher in the pyramid and also work on economic development.

There are a lot of people in this room who know the history of the U.S.-Marshall Islands relationship better than I do, so I’d like to focus on the future.  It’s a future we believe in.  2023 is close by, and of course that is a huge marker for us, as that is when Compact sector grants end.

First, some easy predictions for 2023.

The relationship will be strong.  Not just because of the Army base on Kwajalein, but let’s start there.  The Space and Missile defense work will still be important.  We will still have potential adversaries and Kwajalein has a strategic value that is reflected in a long term lease that runs until 2066 with an option to extend.  The new U.S. Air Force project Space Fence is another facet of US Army Kwajalein Atoll’s mission and that means more engagement, more jobs, and more visibility in Washington.  Also more crowding and more challenges in Ebeye, where already the schools are overcrowded and housing is inadequate.  USAKA is the number two employer in the RMI and will continue to have strong job growth.

RMI young men and women will still find the US military to be a pathway to success and will not only join the Army, but also attend service academies like the Coast Guard and they will come home and put new maritime skills to work.  I would like to see a Marshallese young person in the Coast Guard academy every year.  Its one of the benefits of the Compact and we’ve had two enrolled so far.  I’d like to see more.

Other easy predictions.  The Trust Fund will not be enough.  It will be a good addition to RMI revenues, but it will not replace Compact Sector grants.  The rules for Trust Fund disbursements will probably also have to be rewritten to allow for regular, predictable payments, not based entirely on how the market is performing.  Governments can’t run on unpredictable revenues and the Graduate School has done a good job identifying that as a potential problem that can be addressed now.

The RMI diaspora in the United States will enrich the RMI, not just with remittances, but with new ideas, and they will be enriched when they come home and reconnect with Marshallese culture.

Other U.S. Government agencies will play an increasing role.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture, potentially Peace Corps, FBI, Health and Human Services, USAID, all of these agencies have interests in the region and there is no reason they cannot play a part post 2023.

The RMI Ship Registry will play a bigger role in RMI government revenues.  The ship flagging business was started with an eye towards providing a revenue stream outside of Compact sector grants.  With the RMI on its way to becoming the number two ship registry in the world, more of that money will be directed to the RMI government.

Those are the easy predictions.  The fuzzy predictions…

Tourism will play a bigger role in the economy.  (Well, it can’t play a smaller role.)  Development in Ailinglaplap, and dive tourism in Bikini could be big.  Here is where enabling legislation can make a difference.  Investors need to know that their investment is safe.  When that’s a question mark, investment isn’t likely.  What is not in question is just how rich the marine environment is.  I swim 3 or 4 times a week and am never disappointed.  The marine environment is beautiful and offers more than places like Hawaii, which I understand does pretty well in the tourism business.  Luckily, we have some models to follow, with great projects in the FSM and of course Palau’s booming tourism industry.  The RMI’s Shark Sanctuary is of interest to the Discovery Channel.  Their producers have been here and are looking at doing a big program that could put the RMI on the map.  We’ll see.

Marshallese sailing canoes are now a huge draw for the academic community.  We’ve had scientists from Harvard, University of Hawaii and a university in the Netherlands in Majuro to see Marshallese canoes (Riwut) in action.

I’m still banking on evidence being found of Amelia Earhart crash landing in Mili.  If that is established, every cruise ship will have to make a stop in the RMI.  Finally, on tourism, the yachting community, including superyachts, have discovered the Marshalls and they like it.  That’s another economic opportunity and perhaps a harbinger of more tourism.

Fish.  We could talk about fish all day.  The prediction is fuzzy because we don’t know if sustainable levels of fishing can be maintained, if there will be the self discipline in the industry and law enforcement necessary to protect the resource.  But there is no question, small island countries can get more of the pie through canneries, domestic fleets, and other means of being involved in the supply chain.  And we don’t know what climate change will mean for fish stocks and migration.  I do like the idea that the FAS countries are not “small island countries, but big ocean countries.”  That is the truth.

Hard predictions:  Will the Compact be extended again?  Don’t know.  The first time I heard that issue raised was during a July 4th toast by the Minister of Health, hinting that the RMI will request an extension.  Again, I would say cultivate friends in Washington now, who can learn about your issues and become advocates.

Energy.  I would think the RMI will be well on its way to energy independence by 2023.  Will it be solar, or wind or OTEC, I don’t know.  But the renewable resources are there.

Deep Sea Mining:  Not ready yet, but interest is growing, be sure you get the environmental guarantees you need and your share of the revenue.  And proceed with caution so you don’t harm your marine environment, especially so outer islands can thrive on a traditional lifestyle, as opposed to the more urban environments of Majuro and Ebeye.

The nuclear testing legacy will always be part of our relationship and the Department of Energy has a range of ongoing health programs that will continue long into the future.  I’m pleased DOE is providing science scholarship for Marshallese young people, so they can learn more about nuclear issues to take on future policy questions like resettlement of Rongelap.

Climate Change. At just one meter above sea level, the Marshalls are ground zero for the threat posed by climate change and sea level rise.  Fittingly, the RMI has produced a great environmental poet, Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, who performed at the United Nations and received a rare standing ovation for her poem to her baby, “Dear Matafele Peinem,” promising to keep Matafele from harm from sea level rise.  The Embassy nominated Ms. Jetnil-Kijiner to showcase her talent and underline our commitment to the region on the issue of sea level rise and climate change, something Admiral Locklear, the Pacific Commander called the greatest threat in the region.  Do I know how this will play out?  No.

Regional and global developments make up the trade winds or head winds that the RMI has to navigate.  An international conflict could take our attention away from long term threats like climate change, so could a worldwide recession.  WWII taught us that no country is an island.

Whatever is happening in the world, affects us in the FAS, another reason it is so important that people are educated and can be trained for new skills as new economies come to the fore.  But you are all great navigators, so I for one am optimistic!

As Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell said in 2010 in his testimony to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, “Our identity as a Pacific power was, in many ways, forged on the beaches of the Pacific during World War II.”

Assistant Secretary Campbell also referred in his testimony to the “significant moral, historic, and strategic links with the island nations of the Pacific.”

It’s up to all of us to ensure that the links remain strong.