In recent years, US Pacific experts have put forward numerous proposals for institutional reform that would better enable the US government to identify, mobilize, and husband its resources for the Pacific and to do so more carefully, collectively, comprehensively, and, above all, expeditiously. The most salient of these reform proposals was that outlined by Alan Tidwell in an earlier volume of Oceanic Currents, in which he called for legislative establishment of an interagency working group on the Pacific. In another piece, Cleo Paskal proposed that the National Security Council name a Director for Oceania. We would go half a step further by urging an even stronger institutional approach through legislative establishment of an interagency and multi-disciplinary Commission for the Pacific. We also reiterate our earlier calls here, here and here for the appointment of a Special Envoy to the Pacific (SEP). This Special Envoy should chair the Commission.
The US presently does not have a nimble enough policymaking framework with which to respond in timely fashion to the needs, priorities, and expectations of the residents of the US-affiliated Pacific Islands (USAPI). The USAPI consist of the State of Hawaii, the unincorporated US territories of American Samoa, Guam, and the Commonwealth of the Mariana Islands (CNMI), and the Freely Associated States (FAS), comprised of the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI), Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), and the Republic of Palau. A newly created framework anchored by a US Pacific Commission would link these entities in a more coherent, cohesive, and coordinated architecture better designed to discern, articulate, and pursue regional priorities.
The USAPI are located throughout the Pacific—North, South, West, and Central—but the North Pacific is the primary locus of US interest and influence and the lens through which Washington views and interacts with the Pacific. Most of the polities in this region are ethnically Micronesian, but the State of Hawaii, formerly a Polynesian kingdom, is unquestionably America’s Pacific hub and should serve as the home of the Pacific Commission.
One of the principal difficulties for the USAPI is finding the right office in the US government to direct their various concerns. The Pacific Commission would provide a single stop. This would be a standing interagency commission, staffed by representatives seconded from the plethora of US agencies with equities in the Pacific, informed by representatives from nongovernmental organizations, academia, the private sector, and other non- or sub-state actors, organized in a country team fashion and chaired by the SEP, a presidential nominee confirmed by the Senate. The SEP should be someone of singular attainments with significant Pacific Island experience and accorded the precedence and authority necessary to guide the interagency framework for working with the USAPI and other Pacific Island Countries (PICs) and territories.
That framework today is convoluted, fragmented, duplicative, sclerotic, and somewhat ineffectual. It is intrinsically complicated by the political and cultural diversity of the polities involved, the shifting nature of interests in the region, and the sheer number of international and US agencies, jurisdictions, and other stakeholders. Most of the framework is a legacy from the Second World War and subsequent creation of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands (TTPI), administered for the United Nations by the US from 1947 until 1994. The islands comprising the TTPI eventually devolved into separate unincorporated US territories and the FAS, all of which are sovereign nations in free political association with the US.
For many years, the US Department of the Navy led the management of our trusteeship and other relations in the Pacific. The US Department of the Interior (DOI) inherited much of this mission. Its Office of Insular Affairs administers and oversees federal assistance under the Compacts of Free Association. These Compacts explicitly guide the US relationship with the FAS. They continue to demonstrate their immense value to all parties, but DOI’s leading role in their administration is anomalous and increasingly anachronistic. The FAS naturally question why they must deal with a USG domestic agency regarding Compact issues rather than with the Department of State. The short answer is that DOI has the expertise, and State does not. State is responsible for managing our foreign relations, as well as our diplomatic missions abroad, but does not have authorities with which to manage the budgets and programs necessary to meet US obligations under the Compacts. Those budget and program authorities, along with relevant staff, should be transferred to the Pacific Commission, and the core of that staff drawn primarily from DOI and the USAPI, including the FAS.
The SEP would represent the unity and breadth of USG interests, not just the perspectives of a single agency. The SEP should coordinate closely with US Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) in Honolulu. The SEP also should preside over the annual Joint Economic Management Committee meetings with the FSM government and the Joint Economic Management and Financial Accountability Committee meetings with the RMI government, which govern Compact spending.
With few specifically enumerated exceptions, the SEP would neither supplant nor replace the authority of existing federal departments and agencies; rather the SEP’s role mainly would be to coordinate their efforts, providing for more comprehensive planning and decision making. The SEP would have no reprogramming authority but would help participating agencies integrate their efforts, identify resources, minimize redundancies, and otherwise find ways to balance risks and economize. Our ambassadors in the Pacific would continue to shoulder chief of mission authority. The SEP would, however, contribute directly to these ambassadors’ annual performance evaluations, preferably as Rater. With the help of a small secretariat, the SEP would also furnish comments to assist represented agencies in their evaluations of all commissioners.
The disparate treatment accorded the FAS and other USAPI in regional intergovernmental organizations impairs Pacific solidarity. This was demonstrated by the 2021 rupture in the Pacific Island Forum (PIF), when this leading Pacific policymaking body passed over the Micronesian candidate for its leadership, precipitating the exit of the entire Micronesian bloc of nations. The 2022 Suva Agreement is a roadmap for PIF reorganization that should resolve the issue by allowing greater Micronesian inclusion in Pacific policymaking. While this also should ameliorate some of the second-class treatment suffered by the USAPI in regional fora, such mistreatment is unlikely to end altogether so long as the PIF, the Pacific region’s premier political and economic policy organization, continues to operate without the membership of the greatest political, economic, and military power in the Pacific — viz., the US. A US Special Envoy to the Pacific, accredited to the PIF and all other agencies comprising the Council of Regional Organizations of the Pacific (CROP), would help to compensate for this conspicuous weakness in Pacific regional architecture by serving as a strong champion for the interests of the US and USAPI.
Like the PIF, the Pacific Community (SPC) is a member of the CROP. The SPC is an international development organization founded by the US and five other countries after the Second World War to provide the PICs with technical and scientific advice, and to act as a conduit for development funding. As Washington’s representative to the SPC, the SEP would attend its plenary sessions, ideally first caucusing with the FAS delegates and directly coordinating with the American Samoa and CNMI delegations, actions that now seldom take place. The SEP should accord Hawaii observer status as part of the US delegation.
Other countries are streamlining their processes in order to address Pacific concerns. Australia has established an Office of the Pacific within its Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. In February, Beijing named Qian Bo, previously its ambassador to Fiji, to its newly created position of Special Envoy to Pacific Island Countries. For years we have advocated that Washington create a similar position. Amb. Qian’s new station imbues him with greater status as he leads Beijing’s efforts to increase Chinese influence in the Pacific and woo the handful of PICs who persist in recognizing Taipei as China’s legitimate government. Nonetheless, it is worth noting that a US special envoy who concurrently leads a concentrated, whole-of-government effort systemically focused on the Pacific would be in a position to more than match Amb. Qian in gravitas. Though not directed against any third party, such institutional backing also would vest the SEP with the ability to mobilize USG resources with a speed rare for democratic government, giving the USG the potential for operating inside Beijing’s decision-making “OODA (Observe-Orient-Decide-Act) Loop.”
Vying with Beijing for influence among the PICs is not a zero-sum game, but it is a competition. Washington can win it by listening to Pacific Islanders and helping them address their needs sooner.
The comparative advantage of democratic societies vis-à-vis more authoritarian models is the sense of legitimacy and buy-in they derive from broad consultative processes designed to reflect the will of the governed. This is why, despite the vituperative nature of US partisan politics, US policy toward the Pacific has been remarkably consistent through several administrations and congresses, grounded on shared bipartisan understandings of transcendent geopolitical realities. The occasional gaffe or policy dispute cannot far detract from the initiatives undertaken by this and previous administrations, which are now beginning to bear fruit through greater congressional appropriations, new embassies, high-level visits, and renegotiated Compact terms. We can build on this renewed attention to the Pacific by better shaping our institutional processes to achieve such desired outcomes.
The Pacific Commission would be the central civilian focus for pursuing the objectives of our national security strategy in the Indo-Pacific, providing civilian symmetry and institutional ballast to USINDOPACOM’s mission and largely mirroring domestically the role of the CROP regionally. It would help spur interagency policy formulation, integrate policies, and rationalize the management of resources. Most importantly, it would enable the USG to respond with greater agility and celerity to the needs of the USAPI, thereby helping to safeguard US interests in an increasingly competitive environment.
Among his numerous roles, Steven McGann was the US Ambassador to the Republics of Fiji, Nauru, Kiribati, the Kingdom of Tonga, and Tuvalu. Ambassador McGann passed away in May 2023. Richard Pruett is a former career U.S. Foreign Service officer who served as Deputy Chief of Mission to six Pacific Island countries. He last served the U.S. Department of State as Senior Advisor in the Office of Australia, New Zealand and Pacific Island Affairs.