Changes in U.S. Government Affect Island Affairs|
by Maradel K. Gale, Director, MSPP
In February discussions by some members in the U.S. Congress to abolish
the position of assistant secretary of the interior for territorial and
international affairs were preempted by a move by the department itself.
Assistant Secretary Leslie Turner announced the closure of the Office of
Territorial and International Affairs (OTIA) and the discontinuation of
the position of assistant secretary. The remnants of the pool of experts
on island affairs are now located in the Office of Insular Affairs in the
Secretary of the Interiors office.
Other agencies of the U.S. government are also diminishing their presence
in the Pacific. The U.S. Information Agency recently closed its U.S.
Information Service office in Fiji, leaving the region devoid of U.S.I.A.
representation. Fiji was the last outpost since the closure several years
ago of the Pacific Islands Programs Office in Honolulu. Similarly, in
recent years the U.S. Agency for International Development Office in Fiji
There remain embassies in Fiji, the Federated States of Micronesia, and
the Marshall Islands. However, these are staffed by foreign-service
personnel, who are assigned to a post for only two years before moving to
another location. While this policy encourages the maintenance of an
outside perspective on the part of the chief of the delegation, it also
means there may be little long-term understanding of the culture and
issues of the country in which the U.S. is represented.
Within the Pacific Islands Affairs office of the U.S. Department of State
in Washington, D.C., the personnel turnover is also rapid. In one year,
three out of five staff members have been assigned to other regions.
This quick turnover and phasing out of offices is problematic as it
weakens the collective memory of United States-Pacific Island
relationships and development programs. Some continuity had been supplied
by knowledgeable staff members in OTIA, which, as discussed earlier, has
been greatly diminished. It would be interesting to know the reasons
behind this rapid reduction of U.S. interest in the Pacific. Perhaps it
is due to the diminution of strategic importance of the region as the
Cold War came to an end. If that is the case, it is a sad commentary that
the United States is turning its back on the region and people who
suffered so during World War II and for which so many American servicemen
and women died. The United States became a very active influence in the
development of the islands of Micronesia through the establishment of the
Trust Territories of the Pacific Islands. The abruptness of this
withdrawal, before the conclusion of the terms of the Compacts of Free
Association, is unfortunate. It is a disservice to the people of the
region and to the hard work and efforts of the many people who served in
this region during the trusteeship.