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Fairness for Ambassador Yun


The Marshall Islands and the United States signed new agreements under the Compact of Free Association at the East-West Center in Honolulu HI. Pictured from left, Carmen Cantor, assistant secretary of insular affairs; Joseph Yun, presidential envoy to compact negotiations; Jack Ading, RMI’s trade and foreign affairs minister; and Phillip Muller, RMI’s chief negotiator. Photo courtesy of RMI Port Authority via Facebook

By Howard Hills

 (The following opinion piece is in response to aarticle by Jonathan Guyer, reporting that Joseph Yun, presidential envoy to the Compact of Free Association negotiations with freely associated states, had major conflicts of interest. The article was published in Jacobin and  The Lever.-- The Editor)

Journalists serve freedom by exposing ethical corruption in government, but in doing so have a duty to uphold journalistic ethics.

One hesitates to lend the presumption of plausibility to reporting that lacks substantiation. This commentary is prompted by concerns about both fairness and how inaccurate characterization of Ambassador Yun’s work might affect perception and implementation of the recently ratified COFA law. 

As a critic of some COFA features that I thought should have been improved, I find gratuitous speculation to attack the integrity of the treaty-making process without verifiable grounds. It does a disservice to the people of the COFA partner nations. 

But once published, reports falling beneath the standards of responsible journalism sometimes need to be debunked. Jonathan Guyer's report regarding Ambassador Joseph Yun, the special presidential envoy for COFA negotiations, is the focus of this critique— not as an apologist or defender of the Asia Group or any of its associates, in or out of government. I comment here without prior, present or potential future connection to Asia Group or Ambassador Yun as an Asia Group associate. Rather, my contention is based on the article's content or lack thereof. 

This failed attempt at what seems to be a scandal fabrication does not rise to the level of credible journalism. Unless the unsubstantiated presuppositions of the article are backed up with specific and material facts and applicable legal and/or ethical standards, the report cited above can and should be regarded as an unwarranted and groundless editorial opinion. 

I know enough of the facts and the law relevant to the content of this attack piece to believe that without evidence it conspicuously lacks, this is a bogus narrative.  

Having been asked to come out of retirement myself to work on COFA renewal, as I understood to be the case for Joe Yun, it is naive not to know he was subjected to intense scrutiny, reporting and compliance at all times. 

The misplaced arguments the author makes about the need for federal officers to quit "day jobs,” while invoking the material participation/particular matter standard, conflates those false assertions with conflict of interest rules, unfairly disparaging ethically legitimate business interests public servants may have outside the scope of their federal service. In doing so, this erratic analysis jumbles lobbying disclosure laws with conflict rules in an incoherent and irrational manner. Notice there is no single example given of an actual conflict or non-compliance with any specific identified law or regulation.  

Unless a fact-based example of actual ethical or legal misconduct can be documented and substantiated, this arguably borders on actionable libel, recklessly and maliciously impugning the integrity of a veteran diplomat the U.S. and its treaty partners were most fortuitously benefited to have assigned as chief negotiator.  

The facts speak for themselves, as the author concedes the negotiations begun in 2019 had reached a dead end by 2022.  With a 2023 deadline before the expiration of treaty provisions sustaining a 75-year strategic alliance from which all parties derive significant mutual benefit, Ambassador Yun had both the professional technical and substantive policy skills, as well as political management and statecraft leadership ability, to turn around a mission failure. Within a year, the parties produced the framework for the agreements signed in October 2023.  

Ambassador Yun was able to establish trust-based relationships with all stakeholders. He gave both friendly assurances and tough love when it was needed to the island governments, badly rattled by China's political warfare aimed at disruption of COFA renewal.  And he shrewdly did the hand-holding and diplomatic intervention needed to talk down from the ledge officious U.S. State Department prima donnas who had for a decade put defense of flawed policy and bureaucratic subculture “equities” above the U.S. national interest at stake in the negotiations.  

Perhaps most impressively, he was able to answer with articulate wisdom the important questions asked of him on the record by congressional leaders, who, by the way, would never get one vote back home for working on the ratification of this very complex treaty package.  

Yun earned the confidence of key members of the House and Senate and committee leaders, who had a lot to distract them but took the time to do the work on a bipartisan and bicameral basis that was needed to do what was right for the nation and our allies in the Into-Pacific. He envisioned and led the effort that culminated in the ratification of the vital agreements under U.S. law last month.  

Ambassador Yun creatively renewed and strengthened a 75-year strategic alliance, which was at risk of being eroded and gradually, or perhaps even suddenly, deconstructed due to China's corruption of these and other vulnerable small nations.  

The author’s assertion that the free association political status model is an “imperialist” regime reflects historical and political illiteracy. The free association model conforms to U.N. resolutions for self-determination by formally non-self-governing dependencies.

The falsehood that the U.S. has “absolute veto” of COFA partner government actions might be wishful thinking for some State Department or Pentagon lawyers. But the truth is the COFA governments can unilaterally terminate the bilateral “defense veto” rights that serve mutual security purposes, not U.S. hegemony.  Simply stated, the author doesn’t know what he is talking about.  

The flawed article has the optics of smoke and mirror rumor-mongering apparently based on grudge grinding by a presumably disgruntled former associate of the Asia Group. 

Public servants who work for our nation have a right to make an honest living outside of their professional commitments and obligations. Both Republicans and Democrats as well as professionals who have no pronounced partisan affiliations have a right to affiliate with professionals as well as non-profit enterprises outside the scope of government employment duties, as long as no actual ethical or regulatory non-compliance occurs.  

The article does not establish any actual non-compliance by Ambassador Yun.  It does not lay a glove on him.  If the author’s purpose is to highlight the potential for conflict of interest without specifying any actual breach of ethics and professionalism, he should say so. Otherwise, he should move on.   

Howard Hills was counsel for COFA negotiations in the Executive Office of the President (1982-1986)  counsel for Interagency Affairs, Office of Freely Associated State Affairs, U.S. Department of State (1986-1989); senior advisor to the assistant secretary of the Interior for Insular and International Affairs and special presidential envoy for COFA negotiations (2020-2023).  Opinions expressed are those of the author and are not attributable to any other person or organization.  All information sourced in public record communications 2020-2023.


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