For decades, the United States has maintained special relationships of free association with the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, and the Republic of Palau. These special relationships were brought into existence by international agreements called Compacts of Free Association (COFAs).
Under these international agreements, the Freely Associated States are recognized as sovereign states with the authority to conduct their own foreign affairs. However, the United States has authority for their defense and security. It also has the power to limit the conduct of their foreign affairs with respect to defense and security matters. Separately, most of their citizens have the right to a special class of immigration privileges in the United States, as well as the right to serve in the armed forces of the United States. In addition, the United States has an obligation to provide economic assistance to the Republic of Palau until fiscal year 2024, to the Republic of the Marshall Islands until fiscal year 2023, and to the Federated States of Micronesia until fiscal year 2023.
Over the next few years, the United States is expected to start renegotiating the terms of these special relationships. The executive branch should take this opportunity to redefine the relationship between Free Association activities and the vital interests of the United States.
First, the executive branch needs to develop a National Free Association Strategy. This strategy should represent a single coordinated effort to harmonize the full range of activities that are to be carried out across the United States government in order to achieve the strategic vision of the National Security Strategy through free association agreements with other sovereign states.
Second, the executive branch needs to establish a governance model to execute the National Free Association Strategy. This governance model should establish a dedicated mechanism for coordinating the full range of Free Association activities across the United States Government. This dedicated mechanism should also be tasked with monitoring the extent to which the stated objectives of the National Free Association Strategy are being realized by the United States government.
Third, the executive branch needs to establish an overarching policy on Free Association activities. This policy should not only assign responsibilities and stipulate procedures for the execution of Free Association activities with Free Association Partner entities. It should also establish a common definition for Free Association Partners and Free Association activities to be used by executive agencies.
Fourth, executive agencies need to establish specific policies on Free Association activities that fall under their mandates. These policies should align with the National Security Strategy and National Free Association Strategy. They should also mandate the use of the common definition for Free Association Partners and Free Association activities within their agencies.
If the executive branch makes these strategic investments, then the United States government will be in a better position to renegotiate the economic and programmatic assistance that it provides to the Freely Associated States. This will also put the relevant ambassadors and country teams in a better position to determine the bilateral policy goals and program priorities at each of these overseas posts.
Michael Walsh is a Research Fellow in the Department of Southeast Asian Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. The opinions expressed are his own.