- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 1, 2003

Congress will soon consider renewal of a little-known treaty that, in its own way, embodies the best of U.S. diplomacy in support of American strategic policy. Ronald Reagan was president and the Democrats controlled Congress in 1985, when a bipartisan majority in both Houses approved a joint resolution ratifying the Compact of Free Association between the United States and two Pacific island micro-states.

The treaty of free association with the Republic of the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia ended, on friendly terms, more than four decades of direct U.S. rule in the islands under a United Nations trusteeship. These new nations, under new flags, then became members of the United Nations and staunch U.S. allies.

Not only was this a good model for decolonization of dependent territories, but the compact also preserved U.S. strategic interests in the islands. Under the treaty, an area of ocean as large as the continental United States, with strategically located islands stretching from the mid-Pacific to the Asian rim, remains foreclosed in perpetuity to the military forces of any nation other than the United States.

The first post-World War II strategic use of the islands was for weapons tests early in the atomic age. From 1946 to 1958, a critical phase of the arms race, the U.S. conducted 67 atmospheric nuclear weapons tests at Bikini and Enewetak in the Marshall Islands.

In addition to nuclear testing, Kwajalein Missile Range in the Marshall Islands was perhaps the most vital facility in the U.S. intercontinental ballistic missile development program, a centerpiece of U.S. nuclear deterrence that prevented our worst Cold War nightmares from coming true. Renamed the U.S. Army Ronald Reagan Missile Test Range, Kwajalein has played an indispensable role in the U.S. national missile defense program, contributing to meaningful disarmament and an end to the Soviet Union itself.

The U.S. nuclear testing program in the Marshall Islands was a strategic success, but it also left a legacy of injury, illness and contamination of homelands that is still being resolved through a claims settlement process authorized by Congress. Amazingly, the islanders suffered greatly, but consider themselves survivors rather than just victims, U.S. allies rather than just an injured people with damage claims.

To preserve the compact’s success and the underlying strategic interests, U.S. defense rights and economic assistance provisions of the compact must be renewed by Congress. The Bush administration consulted with Congress about renewal terms in a bipartisan spirit and has negotiated agreements that address concerns raised by GAO about fiscal accountability for the island governments. The renewal agreements also tighten controls on migration between the islands and the mainland. Finally, the U.S. lease at strategically vital Kwajalein does not expire until 2016, but the Marshall Islands has offered to extend U.S. base rights for decades in support of U.S. strategic programs.

Free association is based on separate sovereignty, nationality and citizenship, and is free because any party to the compact can terminate it in favor of full independence at any time. Thus, it is not some screwy scheme of commingled nationality or neocolonial entanglement. Indeed, the whole point of free association is that it continues as long as it serves the mutual interest of the parties.

In addition to our strategic partnership, the islands have been good friends internationally, reliably voting with the United States in the United Nations on important issues. Under the compact, islanders also are eligible for service in the U.S. military, and both Marshall Islanders and Micronesians have fought in Kuwait, Afghanistan and Iraq as comrades-in-arms with American soldiers.

This is an alliance that represents the best of American diplomacy, and the compact also demonstrates that America deals honorably and constructively with small nations that share our democratic values. Congress should renew the Compact of Free Association in a timely and orderly way, thereby sustaining a bipartisan foreign policy and national security success story.

Ambassador Fred. M Zeder was director of territorial affairs in the Ford administration and the personal representative of President Reagan for territorial status negotiations.

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