Articles - March 2016

Dean of the Washington Diplomatic Corps, Longest-Serving Ambassador

By Roland Flamini

Ambassador Hersey Kyota of the Republic of Palau has been attending the State of the Union address along with other foreign chiefs of mission for the past 18 years. But in January, the arrival in the chamber of this diplomat from one of the smallest countries accredited to the United States was, for the first time, singled out for a special announcement by the deputy sergeant-at-arms. What had changed? Ambassador Kyota is now dean of the Washington diplomatic corps.

The job goes to the longest-serving ambassador, and Ambassador Kyota presented his credentials in 1997. He succeeded Ambassador Roble Olhaye of Djibouti, who died in the summer of 2014 after nine years in the post. These days, the duties mainly involve representing the Washington diplomatic corps at major functions like the State of the Union address. Olhaye's tenure was nowhere near the record set by Guillermo Sevilla Sacasa, ambassador of Nicaragua, who was dean for 21 years from 1958 to 1979. Because the chiefs of mission of larger European countries tend to have a tenure of no more than four or five years, few of them remain in Washington long enough to fill the post. Thus, the last French ambassador to become dean was Paul Claudel, the Catholic playwright, in 1933, and there hasn't been a German dean since 1903.

Palau, a Western Pacific nation consisting of a group of more than 200 volcanic and coral islands with a total population of 21,000, gained its independence from the United States in 1994. By special agreement, called a compact, the U.S. remains responsible for the security of the tiny island nation that has no military. Some 500 citizens of Palau serve in the U.S. Armed Forces, including two of Ambassador Kyota's children. The ambassador heads a mission consisting of himself and one attache. His wife, Lydia, "helps out," as the ambassador puts it.

In an interview with Diplomatic Connections in his miniscule embassy a block away from the White House, Ambassador Kyota talked about modern Palau. He spoke of how the tourist paradise is threatened by global warming, which is flooding some of the low-lying islands, and the dilemma of becoming too popular with visitors from mainland China (Palau is one of the few countries that recognizes Taiwan). Other issues touched upon span his efforts to secure financial aid given by the U.S. government but held up in Congress for years, the challenge faced by a small country trying to gain the attention of the world's superpower and what it means to be dean of the diplomatic corps.

Diplomatic Connections: You have been the ambassador of Palau in Washington since 1997. Are you your country's first ambassador to the United States?

Ambassador Kyota: Actually, yes I am.

Diplomatic Connections: Palau is described on your embassy website as an independent country "in free association with the United States." What does that mean?

Ambassador Kyota: It means that Palau is independent. We are responsible for our foreign affairs. Palau is a member of the UN, but we have a compact of free association with the United States permitting the U.S. to establish bases and to use our territorial waters in return for economic assistance.

Diplomatic Connections: And are there U.S. bases in Palau?

Ambassador Kyota: No. The U.S. maintains a civic action team.

Diplomatic Connections: How did Palau gain independence from the United States?

Ambassador Kyota: We had a referendum to choose our political status. We had three options: closer ties with the United States, independence or a commonwealth of Pacific Islands, like the Commonwealth of the Mariana Islands. We chose independence with free association with the United States. We negotiated this document called the Compact of Free Association and then we voted on that.

Diplomatic Connections: But wasn't there some delay in your evolution towards sovereignty, in other words reaching agreement with the U.S., compared to, for example, your neighbors the Marshall Islands and Micronesia?

Ambassador Kyota: We had seven successive referendums [over a decade] to approve the Compact of Free Association with the U.S., and each time it failed to reach the 75 percent required by our constitution. The sticking point was a provision in our constitution prohibiting nuclear power, nuclear weapons and nuclear waste, which the U.S. wanted changed, but the people didn't. Eventually we realized that 75 percent was beyond our reach. So we amended our constitution to allow nuclear-powered ships and submarines to call at our ports, but the rest of the prohibition remained.

Diplomatic Connections: And that cleared the way for independence and free association with the United States...

Ambassador Kyota: Yes.

Diplomatic Connections: What role does the U.S. play in Palau today?

Ambassador Kyota: The compact covers everything from A to Z. For instance, we're a small country. We have no military, so security and defense are the responsibility of the United States.

Diplomatic Connections: You have no military?

Ambassador Kyota: No, but our sons and daughters are serving in the U.S. military as volunteers. It's rather hard to get an exact number, but I would estimate about 400 Ð 500, which per capita tops every state in the U.S. Some of them have been killed in Afghanistan and Iraq. My two oldest children are in the U.S. military. My son is in the U.S. Army and my daughter in the Air Force.

Diplomatic Connections: What kind of financial assistance does Palau receive from the United States?

Ambassador Kyota: On October 4, 1994, Palau became independent. Our agreement called for a review every 15 years. So in 2009, the U.S. and Palau sat down and carried out this review, and negotiated a new financial plan to provide further assistance until 2023. That agreement was submitted to the U.S. Congress for approval in 2010, and it's still there. I've tried everything to move it forward. I met the people at the State Department and Congress. They still haven't come around to approving it.

Diplomatic Connections: Firstly, how much is it, and when it does go into effect will it not be retroactive?

Ambassador Kyota: It's a drop in the bucket – around $150 million and it's supposed to be over 15 years, so there are eight or nine more years left. Retroactive? That still remains to be seen. It's not clear from their [the U.S.] side, but I'm pushing for that. It was not our choice to have it delayed. We did our part. Some members of Congress agreed with me that this is a treaty obligation of the United States, but so far nothing.

Diplomatic Connections: So it hasn't started yet.

Ambassador Kyota: It hasn't started yet, but we're fortunate because our economy is doing very well. When the first compact was signed, a trust fund was given to us, and we haven't started drawing from it yet.

Diplomatic Connections: In your 18 years here, you've seen three presidents: Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and President Obama. How has doing business in Washington changed for you over this period?

Ambassador Kyota: Basically, it hasn't really changed a whole lot, but we're a small country and the United States has its hands full with dealing with larger countries with major issues. Over the years I've established some contacts and I can network. Now that I am dean of the diplomatic corps, I have more access. When I request a meeting I get a quicker response than before. But again, it hasn't really changed. As a small country, you don't count a whole lot. On one occasion I had an appointment with an assistant secretary at the State Department, and he was late for the meeting. When he arrived, he jokingly said, "If you start building a nuclear submarine we'll pay more attention
to you." He was joking, but there's some truth in what he said.

Diplomatic Connections: Can you talk about being dean of the diplomatic corps – what your duties are, how it affects your bi-lateral work and so on?

Ambassador Kyota: I had met my predecessor Ambassador Roble Olhaye of Djibouti and was sorry to hear of his passing, and I take this opportunity to offer my condolences to his embassy. When I received the note from the State Department, I researched my responsibilities. In an unfriendly country if an ambassador has issues with the government, the dean would step in and act on his or her behalf. But in a friendly country like the United States, there's much less to do. I've been to some functions. For example, when the pope came, I represented the diplomatic corps in the welcoming group. And then when I attend the State of the Union address now I get to be publicly announced. I receive courtesy calls from newly arrived ambassadors, who ask me advice. I tell them I'll be here if you need anything, and I can assist.

Diplomatic Connections: Presumably, it has increased your workload, and yet you are still a staff of one?

Ambassador Kyota: It has. I spoke to our president and minister of foreign affairs because being dean has added work.

Diplomatic Connections: Have you so far had to deal with any serious situation where you had to make the final decision?

Ambassador Kyota: Not so far. I've not been asked to speak on behalf of the diplomatic corps. You know, the diplomatic corps in Washington is very different from the UN where ambassadors from different countries meet frequently – in committee, at the General Assembly and so on. Over here, we tend to be more regional. For example, I spend a lot of time with the other Pacific Island representatives.

Diplomatic Connections: Your country has been occupied by several foreign nations. How does history explain this?

Ambassador Kyota: There was Spain, Germany, Japan and after the war, the United States. The islands' strategic importance had something to do with it. Spain brought the missionaries. Spain sold Palau to Germany – not just Palau, but the rest of the islands in the region. The League of Nations gave Palau to Japan.

Diplomatic Connections: Is there any trace, cultural or otherwise, of the German occupation?

Ambassador Kyota: The Germans possessed this island for such a short period of time, and according to tradition the Germans were the first to establish agriculture in Palau.

Diplomatic Connections: And now Palau has a parliamentary system with a president, but also something called "traditional government." Could you spell out your country's government?

Ambassador Kyota: We have a bi-cameral legislature, and a president elected by the people. Then there's the traditional government. There are 16 villages in Palau. We now call them states, and each state has a traditional leader. Since they controlled the country for so long, it's only fair to give them a role. They're what we call the council of traditional chiefs, which is an advisory body to the president on traditions and culture.

Diplomatic Connections: Palau consists of more than 200 islands. Is that a challenge to administer?

Ambassador Kyota: There are only nine larger islands that are inhabited.

Diplomatic Connections: The second language, after Palau, is English or Spanish?

Ambassador Kyota: Under the constitution, Palau has two official languages, Palau and English. The laws are written in English. The older generation in their 80s also speak Japanese. The Japanese were there until after the Second World War. They established schools, taught trades – and brought baseball.

Diplomatic Connections: Which you play.

Ambassador Kyota: I used to be an avid baseball player, but no longer. I'm still a baseball fan, but now I play golf. Can you include that I would do anything to play golf with President Obama? As dean, I think I have a shot.

Diplomatic Connections: Talk about the Palau economy.

Ambassador Kyota: Our bread and butter is tourism, and there's tuna fishing but we're changing that. Our president has proposed a marine sanctuary. We were the first country to declare our waters a shark sanctuary and banning the killing of sharks. Most of the tourists come to Palau for the SCUBA diving, and sharks are part of that. Now we're expanding to eco-tourism in the jungle and bird watching, and so on.

Diplomatic Connections: What is your relationship with your neighbors in the region? For example, are The Philippines "Big Brother" around here?

Ambassador Kyota: We have a good relationship with The Philipines and with Australia, New Zealand and Japan.

Diplomatic Connections: What about China?

Ambassador Kyota: We do not have diplomatic relations with China. We're one of the few countries in the world that recognizes Taiwan. The Taiwanese have an embassy in Palau and we have one in Taipei.

Diplomatic Connections: Do you get any complaints from Beijing about that?

Ambassador Kyota: Actually not. In fact, in the past two years we've had an influx of mainland Chinese tourists, and they are now the largest national tourist group coming to Palau.

Diplomatic Connections: From your point of view is this a good thing?

Ambassador Kyota: Well, yes and no. We were not prepared to receive this influx of tourism all at the same time. Palau was overwhelmed, and our president created a task force to look into how we can manage the tourism industry better. You'll be surprised, but I think we are one of the few countries in the world that tried to discourage tourists from coming to Palau.

Diplomatic Connections: How did you do that?

Ambassador Kyota: We don't have regular flights from China, but we have charters from Hong Kong. So they go to Hong Kong and they come to us. Our government reduced the number of charter flights in order to control the flow of tourists.

Diplomatic Connections: In other words, the number of Chinese tourists was too great for your infrastructure to cope with.

Ambassador Kyota: Yes. The Chinese are leasing properties left and right, and their presence in Palau is being felt. We had to do something about it. Seriously do something about it. We had seen what happened to our brothers and sisters in the South Pacific, [The Kingdom of] Tonga and the Solomon [Islands]. The Chinese have changed the landscape of those countries in terms of business.

Diplomatic Connections: Has your strategy produced the desired result?

Ambassador Kyota: Well, they're there and you have to cope.

Diplomatic Connections: Are they investing in the country?

Ambassador Kyota: I hear that they're leasing homes and land and even opening their own shops to cater for the Chinese tourists. We have a law in our books that specifies jobs and positions that are reserved for locals. You know, 20,000 people is not a whole lot of people, and if you have 5,000 businessmen from China settling in, they can take over the country very quickly.

Diplomatic Connections: So is that one of your major concerns at the moment?

Ambassador Kyota: It could be if we don't put controls in place, and I'm happy that our president and the leadership are seeing that.

Diplomatic Connections: Has your president visited Washington?

Ambassador Kyota: He was here in June, and he was a guest speaker at CSIS about security in our region. He was educated here in the United States.

Diplomatic Connections: As are you, no?

Ambassador Kyota: In 1970 I came to a junior college in Upper Michigan and two years later I transferred to a private university in San Diego, the United States International University, where I finished my schooling. In Palau I went into politics, and I was a member of the Senate for one-and-a-half terms. Prior, I was clerk of the House of Delegates, which is our House of Representatives.

Diplomatic Connections: How many political parties are there in Palau?

Ambassador Kyota: We don't have political parties in Palau. We used to have a party system in the 1970s, but now we have caucuses.

Diplomatic Connections: What happened to the political parties?

Ambassador Kyota: They petered out.

Diplomatic Connections: What other problems are worrying your government?

Ambassador Kyota: The important thing that's in everybody's mind is global warming. We have seen rises in the sea level that are the highest in 22 years. The sea is overrunning low-lying islands and destroying crops and flooding homes. We had our own El Ni–o a few years ago and the result was coral damage. In a tourist destination famous for its SCUBA diving, this is a serious loss. Fortunately, Palau consists of volcanic islands so there are also high points, but some of the outer islands are atolls and they'll disappear below the water if the industrialized nations don't bring the temperature down.

Diplomatic Connections: Was your country represented at the recent Paris conference on climate change?

Ambassador Kyota: Our president was there, and Palau was among the leaders in the negotiations that produced the agreement to cut carbon emissions


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