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Letter to the Editor Pacific Islands Report

President Clinton's remarks Nov. 23 in Guam on the Compacts of Free Association merit close attention. He spoke positively about strengthening US ties with RMI and FSM "in the new century," and said the US hopes "we can renew these (expiring) provisions." (Text from italics added.) Mr. Clinton garbled some names and dates, but he expressed a clear underlying judgment in favor of extending the basic Compact arrangements.

Taken at face value, the President's words advance US policy. They constitute a 'yes' response to the question posed but not answered at the US Congressional Hearings last October 1 by Assistant Secretary of State Roth. He asked: "First, should the US Government continue to provide financial assistance and/or government services to the FAS?"

Assuming the mutual interest expressed by the President does apply, the focus should be not whether, but how to renew assistance under the Compacts. It is high time to address the second set of questions put by Mr. Roth: how much US assistance; for how long; on what terms?

Up to now Governments have largely avoided specifics in public. Part of the reason may be tactics. But hidden agendas also obfuscate the dialogue. In Washington there is an abiding mistrust of the islanders' ability to forge clean governments that will efficiently and honestly use any future aid. And in the islands there is often resentment of Washington's efforts to make over the islands in its own image as well as frustration that the US Congress has the de facto power to make unilateral Compact changes if and whenever it might desire to do so.

And only additional fog will come from more loose pronouncements about 'economic self-sufficiency.' Although used often in the October hearings, the phrase has little meaning without quantifying the standard of living at which it is to apply. For this, it remains incumbent on FAS citizens to articulate their own vision of their own future. Riches a la Guam and CNMI grew on a base of US military presence absent from RMI (not with-standing Kwajalein) and FSM. Can the two FAS states define a realistic future --inevitably smaller in per capita GDP than their western neighbors, but hopefully sustainable and satisfying in their own perceptions?

There is no simple way to set appropriate levels and terms for US financial assistance. A rational discussion has to come to grips with such aspects as targets for economic growth, goals and forms of US government services, benchmarks for island government reform, accountability guidelines, and migration opportunities. So far little light has been shed on these conundrums. More private sector contributions would help --concrete ideas from academics and business people on how to solve specific problems and design better programs for future US assistance.

Past failure was not so much a result of the Compacts themselves as it was a function of the humans who implemented them. Future success will hinge in large measure on a better understanding by both sides of goals and processes. Comparison of the Congressional hearings in September 1996 with those of October 1 shows little progress over two years in articulating the necessary new framework. One hopes the President's forward lean in Guam --"we can renew"-- will not only speed up the process, but get it more out in the open.

M.J. Wilkinson Hilo, Hawaii Nov. 30, 1998

NOTE: M. James Wilkinson is a retired U.S. Ambassador and former Head of Delegation to the UN Trusteeship Council.

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