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Ambassadors galore now gracing the previously neglected Pacific islands

These Islands By Robert Underwood

In the middle of the international attention to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the freely associated states seem to be finally getting the attention they deserve. The Biden administration has filled two important diplomatic positions.

Ambassador Carmen Cantor has been nominated by President Biden to be assistant secretary for Insular Affairs, the last vacancy to be filled at the Department of the Interior.

She is an SES (senior executive service) civil servant in the State Department and currently the U.S. ambassador to the Federated States of Micronesia. She was appointed by President Trump, but it does not appear to be a political appointment per se. She awaits confirmation by the U.S. Senate for the assistant secretary slot.

The second is Ambassador Joseph Yun, who has been appointed the special presidential envoy to complete the negotiations with the freely associated states for the expiring provisions of the Compacts of Free Association.

These talks with the FSM and the Marshall Islands have languished. Before Yun, there was no American official of sufficient authority and status to negotiate with the Marshall Islands and the FSM, whose economic provisions are set to end next year. Also up for negotiation are Palau’s economic provisions, which will expire in 2024.


Yun brings 33 years of diplomatic experience, including service as the ambassador to Malaysia. He is acknowledged as a leading expert in North Korean issues. His appointment was characterized by Reuters and the South China Post as being made to “counter China’s influence.”

What they share in common is that they are both from the State Department. At one level, this demonstrates the importance of the positions in terms of ongoing American policy. Attention from the State and Defense Departments generally outweighs the involvement of the Department of the Interior, which administers the compacts through the Office of Insular Affairs.

This is generally the case in any interagency meeting in the federal government, even when insular issues are the topic. Interior is usually the least powerful agency in these meetings.

It would be easy to say that Interior is a net loser in these March appointments. None of the old Interior hands involved with insular policymaking nor anyone with professional familiarity with insular issues has been selected to lead the discussions.

While there may not be a lot to choose from, there are dozens of possibilities. Bureaucratic infighting and exertion of power are not very exciting, but insular policy management is slipping away from Interior. Some say it’s about time. I am not so sure that this is a good trend.

Neither Yun nor Cantor is a Pacific Islander. While one has some experience in the Pacific as the ambassador to the FSM, neither one has any personal tie to the Pacific islands. To be fair, no one really expected a Pacific Islander to be named as the U.S. chief negotiator with our island neighbors in Micronesia. This should be seen as a high-level executive diplomatic position. Ambassador Yun certainly fits that bill.

We don’t really know the details behind the scene that influenced the selection process. Perhaps Ambassador Yun was coaxed into it after others turned it down.

It doesn’t matter now. What matters is the team that the ambassador will put together. Whom will he be consulting with? Will he just pick up a set of instructions just to get it over with and move on to another assignment? Will he understand that this is a pivotal point for Micronesians and not just another box to check in the move to strengthen America’s strategic posture? We know that the words will be there. We hope that there will be concomitant action and funding.


As for the position of assistant secretary for Insular Affairs, this should be held by a Pacific Islander or someone from one of the insular areas, namely, the Virgin Islands, Guahan, the Northern Marianas or American Samoa.

I don’t know how many times we have heard the Biden-Harris administration promise to make the government “look like America.” Generally, we understand this to mean involving more minority groups along several lines such as racial, ethnic and gender considerations. It would be incongruous for the assistant secretary for Indian Affairs not to be a Native American, especially in light of “the Biden commitment.”

There are many similar positions across the federal government that could be evaluated in terms of this commitment. But apparently, it was not strong enough to consider for the position of assistant secretary of Insular Affairs.

This is not a criticism against Carmen Cantor. She should be evaluated on her qualifications now that she has been nominated. I wish her well.

It is just disappointing that no one in authority could find an equally qualified candidate from any of the U.S. territories under the mantle of Interior. One can say that Ambassador Cantor is from the territories. She is from Puerto Rico, which is a large territory that falls outside the purview of Interior.

At any rate, ambassadors galore now grace the Pacific Islands.

There is also a deputy director of Intergovernmental Affairs Office in the White House assigned to deal with the territories. This was touted as the Biden administration’s ground-breaking initiative. Gretchen Sierra Zorita, also from Puerto Rico, was appointed to this position. She was a founding member of the National Puerto Rican Agenda. I hope this position is being fully utilized by small insular governments besides Puerto Rico.

Keone Nakoa, deputy assistant secretary for Insular Affairs, is a Pacific Islander. He is a Harvard-educated Hawaiian.

There is also the appointment of Betsy Hildebrandt as a senior advisor for Insular Affairs. She is an experienced bureaucrat, who previously worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Geological Survey.

Competence and commitment are not necessarily measured by ethnicity or personal and professional ties. We will interact with these individuals with confidence in their goodwill.

Islanders have always had to deal with what is in front of them. We have to educate as well as negotiate. We have to explain as well as advocate. We have to interact as well as draw the line. It is hard work.

Let’s move forward and assist each other whenever possible. Islanders galore have to work together to deal with ambassadors galore.

Dr. Robert Underwood is the former president of the University of Guam and former member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Send feedback to

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