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 Bespoken compacts among equals or between vassals and the overlord?

These Islands By Robert Underwood

As we await the passage of the Compacts of Free Association, there are always underlying perceptions and avenues of thought that frame how these compacts with three Micronesian nations are seen.

It is no secret that even though the nations are sovereign entities that sit as members of the United Nations, many of their Pacific island brethren see them as extensions of the American nation in the Pacific. They certainly have more autonomy than U.S. territories but they also seem more constrained by the American relationship than “normal” independent nations.

Trying to describe this relationship has been a tricky proposition since the arrival of foreign powers in the Pacific islands. Like the territories, these COFA relationships are the end product of imperialist machinations among the great powers. First Spain, then Germany and/or Japan and now the United States. After the end of World War II and the defeat of totalitarianism, it seemed incongruous to continue imperial holdings.

Consequently, the new United Nations (under U.S. pressure and leadership) gave the world non-self-governing territories and trust territories. Areas under the management of the losers in World War II were given trust territory status.

Guam became a non-self-governing territory since it was governed by a winning nation. The former Japanese mandate in Micronesia was given to the United States as a trust territory. However, the U.S. managed to create a “strategic trust” in this system that allowed American nuclear testing and military uses, which were specifically prohibited for other trust territories.


Historically, these relationships have been defined as “protectorates,” “possessions,” or “territories” (trust or otherwise). This was all reformulated by the creation of “free association” status as defined by the United Nations.

The Danish Institute for International Studies identifies five states that claim this status and each has a relationship that “bespoke” of a relationship with a former colonial power. Three are with the U.S. and two with New Zealand.

“Bespoke” means that the terms are defined by the parties involved. The U.S. has typically defined free association as being without U.S. citizenship. The New Zealand variety includes New Zealand citizenship. Membership and recognition by the United Nations of any of them mean that they are accepted as sovereign entities.

If there is a gap between the bespoke part and the sovereign status, I guess we will find out eventually. Maybe in the current geostrategic competition, the precise nature of the relationship will be spoken about loudly.

If the bespoke part was really mutual, then some would argue that the U.S. and the Micronesian nations add up to four compact states. The United States is also a compact state that is obligated to carry out certain functions.

Is the U.S. obligated to promote economic development or economic dependence? Is the U.S. supposed to guarantee the fiscal standing of the entities? Are these obligations bespoken, unspoken or even acknowledged?

In exchange, are the compact states parting with some of their sovereignty? Is the “bespoke” part an unspoken series of agreements regarding facilities and access that are discussed openly and in keeping with the democratic processes of each political entity?

If a U.S. facility was being planned in Yap, is it just up to Yap to agree to that? Does it go before the FSM Congress? Is it just an exchange of memos between U.S. and Micronesian officials combined with a handshake and some great pictures? The complexities seem to emerge and perhaps parts of the population will now become outspoken.

In international diplomacy, we understand that some nations are stronger than others. We realize that some nations can be bullied or subjected to such pressure that they lose freedom of movement.

Can this be voluntary, a feature of genuine self-interest or just part of the realities of strategic competition? The urgency of this question is upon all of us in the island Pacific and especially in Micronesia. The intensity of the China-U.S. competition has altered the landscape and seascape considerably.


Some say that there are four compact states with the U.S. being one of four with reciprocal relationships. But if we just consider power, the U.S. is not a compact state. The others are subservient. 

Some would argue that there are three vassal states with one superpower. I am not quite sure that this is where we are. After all, there is the possibility that someone chooses to be a vassal state.

I wouldn’t characterize Palau, the FSM or the Marshall Islands as vassal states. At one level, they are extraordinarily clever sovereign entities that use their unique status to obligate the United States to levels of assistance not thought possible. They may have bargained their way to this dependent status. At times, they are the mouse that roars.

But why are we always focused on the Micronesian nations themselves? What is the general purpose of the United States as an imperial power in the past? Is it to continue the empire under another name? Is it to underwrite the empire through policies designed to create economic dependence? Of course, it stands for a free and democratic island Pacific for freely associated and fully sovereign states. The territories are another matter.

The unspoken (or bespoken) part is that the islands need to exercise that freedom in a way that advances American interests.  Happy New Year!

   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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