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Israel and US to Marshall Islands:   Thank you!

The Marshall Islands' indispensable role in developing missile defense systems deployed on April 13, destroying 300 hundred Iranian missiles and drones outside Israeli airspace, follows decades of the Marshall Islands-supported U.S. strategic success in the Cold War and War on Terror 

  By Howard Hills

The people of the Marshall Islands endured Japanese militarization during World War II, which ended in a bloody and devastating U.S. invasion. 

Then came the U.N. trusteeship and the U.S. nuclear weapons testing at Bikini and Enewetak during the Cold War arms race, a strategic success, but, both then and now, a human tragedy for Marshallese communities.  That was followed by the peace-keeping success of the U.S. ICBM, missile defense, and space-based strategic missions at Kwajalein.  


Since 1946 U.S. deterrence of aggression against freedom for all nations and peoples has depended on military capabilities materially augmented from 1946 to 1986 by U.N. Security Council authorized U.S. strategic military operations in the Marshall Islands.  That U.S. operational capability has been carried out since 1986 in alliance with the Marshall Islands under the Compact of Free Association (COFA), just renewed under bilateral agreements approved by Congress in 2024.


Simply stated, without 67 nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands the U.S. could not have succeeded in its Cold War deterrence strategy.  The fall of the Russian empire (aka USSR) was due in large part to its inability to match much less surpass the U.S. in strategic weapons tested at Kwajalein. 

The contributions of the Marshall Islands to strategic stability in the world were demonstrated anew on April 13, as the world watched Israel and the U.S. target and destroy hundreds of Iranian missiles and drones before they reached Israel’s border.  


The 1986 termination of the U.N. trusteeship, and with the USSR's ability to interfere as a U.N. Security Council member with American strategic operations at Kwajalein, was made possible by the Marshall Islands agreement to the COFA alliance. That enabled the U.S. to promptly implement the U.S. Army’s strategic defense initiative at the Ronald Reagan Missile Range at Kwajalein Atoll.  COFA made it possible for the U.S. to develop and deploy defensive as well as offensive missile, with military capabilities Israel also acquired and developed into five missile defense systems used to good effect on March 13.  


It is worth noting that in 1986, Marshall Islands leaders and U.S. congressional leadership supporting COFA ratification understood that ending the trusteeship in favor of the COFA alliance would enable U.S. access to Kwajalein for expansion of the SDI missile defense program.  That would end further delays in the strategic defense initiative due to U.N. Security Council trusteeship oversight regarding U.S. activities at Kwajalein.  

To many who understood the stakes in the missile defense race as an alternative to “nuclear freeze” preserving the Cold War offensive arms race status quo, it seemed no coincidence that Israel, facing its own existential missile threats, was the first nation to establish diplomatic relations with the Marshall Islands after COFA entered into force.



In 1986, before the USSR could position itself to oppose or threaten a Security Council veto of trusteeship termination based on COFA, the U.S. unilaterally declared the U.N. trusteeship terminated as to the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia and the Northern Marianas.

That allowed Israel, the U.S. and the Marshall Islands to make a common cause in the missile defense development program. It also gave the U.S. time to complete COFA negotiations with Palau, and as a formality concur in U.N. recognition of trusteeship termination for Palau, the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia and the Northern Mariana Islands in 1994.      


Now, in 2024, the Pacific island nations and indeed all democratic nations and peoples striving for freedom and the rule of law continue to partner with and rely on U.S. leadership in deterring the evils of war, dictatorship, neo-imperialism and cross-border transnational terrorism. The U.S. and the world owe recognition, respect and gratitude to the people of the Marshall Islands and their government for helping to keep the peace to the greatest extent possible, and prevent a World War III, so far.

Meanwhile, in alliance with America and as a member of the U.N. the Marshall Islands has tried to play a responsible role in regional and global affairs.


And, yet, at best, the social, political and economic development of Marshall Islands has been steady but too slow. Imperfection in governance is not excused but understandable.  The well-being of the Marshallese in their homeland still suffers from the effects of eight decades of enduring their unlikely role in global strategic affairs.  


It is in that context that the COFA Section 177 settlement on U.S. nuclear testing claims remains inextricably linked to the entire history of U.S. military and strategic operations in the Marshall Islands from WWII to the present.  

That nuclear testing legacy continues to impact adversely the people and environment of the Marshall Islands.  Failure to meet U.S. obligations and address needs under the nuclear testing settlement can directly threaten the Marshall Islands' support of U.S. strategic interests in the future.  


That was why the last pre-condition to COFA implementation in 1986 was the settlement of $6.5 billion in nuclear testing claims by the Marshallese before the U.S. courts under mutually agreed terms. The settlement provided funds to end the court cases based on compensation to claimants that could be increased by mutual agreement based on outcomes of radiological surveillance, remediation and resettlement of contaminated homelands, health care and food security measures for victim populations.  

The U.S. courts upheld the settlement on condition that it did not expire. Until additional mutually agreed compensation ended, the courts would retain jurisdiction to determine if the settlement was “just and adequate” as required by its terms.     


The U.S. saved hundreds of billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars by relocating nuclear testing, ICBM, the strategic defense initiative and space-based strategic programs to the Marshall Islands. It was therefore fitting that the Marshall Islands rejected the economic package initially offered by the U.S. during the negotation from 2020 to 2023. The original offer not only reduced federal programs and grants, on which the Marshallese relied for decades, but also sought to revive a 2003 State Department policy denying additional funding to address the U.S. nuclear testing legacy.  This proposal was concocted by U.S. State Department career staff, who asserted that any additional compensation under COFA Section 177 would create unspecified "litigation risk” that might “reopen” settled court cases.  


To the contrary, the Section 177 Agreement expressly allows additional compensation consistent with the full and final settlement of all court cases past, present and future. The State Department's refusal to keep U.S. commitments under the Section 177 settlement led the Marshall Islands to adopt a “No Nuclear - No Compact” position and suspend COFA renewal negotiations in 2020.    


Fortunately, a bipartisan, bicameral coalition of U.S. Congress members had become concerned about stalled COFA renewal negotiations, based on a broad spectrum of fiscal and policy issues in which Congress had a direct historical interest and commitment. This led to calls by Congress supporting the request already made to the White House in 2021 by Surangel Whipps, the President of Palau, for the appointment of a Presidential envoy to lead the U.S. COFA team.  That request was approved by the White House in early 2022, with the appointment of U.S. Ambassador Joseph Yun as Special Presidential Negotiator for COFA Negotiations.  


Under the new U.S. Chief Negotiator, agreements were reached with Palau, FSM and the Marshall Islands in 2023.  However, the delay caused by the U.S. State Department's position on the Marshall Islands nuclear test claims meant core COFA provisions expired on Sept. 30, 2023.

After scrambling to correct that temporary mission failure by the State Department, the U.S. Congress approved the COFA agreement on March 8, followed by the March 9 signature of the President, making COFA renewal agreement U.S. law for America, Palau, FSM and the Marshall Islands.  


Honoring U.S. commitments, the COFA renewal agreement includes a targeted $700 million contribution to the COFA Trust Fund to be distributed over time to address the needs of Marshall Islands citizens impacted by U.S. military operations in the Pacific country since 1946, primarily including the nuclear testing program from that ended in 1958.  

The U.S. appoints the chair of the bilateral COFA Trust Fund Committee, but the funding must be used for purposes determined by the Marshall Islands. State Department insisted the words “nuclear testing” did not appear in the agreement, but non-meritorious disinformation by U.S. State Department career staff lawyers, misrepresenting law to retain policy control, did not prevail against the clear meaning of COFA provisions confirming justice for the Marshall Islands and mutual security interests of both nations.             


Howard Hills served as counsel for Trust Territory Political Status Negotiations, Executive Office of the President (1982-1986); counsel for Interagency Affairs, Office of Freely Associated State Affairs, U.S. Department of State (1986-1988); senior adviser to assistant secretary of the Interior, COFA Negotiations (2020-2023) and senior advisor to special presidential envoy for COFA negotiations (2022-2023).   All opinions are the author’s and all information public record sourced.    


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