An Interview with Ambassador Thomas Hart Armbruster, U.S. Ambassador to the Marshall Islands
Thomas Hart Armbruster became Ambassador to the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) on August 16, 2012. Previously, Armbruster held the position of Diplomat in Residence in New York City, and he has also served on behalf of the U.S. government in Afghanistan, Cuba, Finland, Mexico, Russia, and Tajikistan. He earned his Bachelor’s Degree from McDaniel College in Westminster, MD as well as Master’s Degrees from St. Mary’s University and the Naval War College.
The Politic: Why did you join the Foreign Service?
I had an opportunity to live with an American diplomatic family in Moscow in what would have been my senior year of high school. That introduced me to Foreign Service life. I took international relations courses in college and joined. Ever since I saw how the embassy worked, it was something that I wanted to do.
The Politic: You have served as a diplomat in countries such as Russia, Mexico, and Afghanistan What do you do to learn about a country in order to prepare yourself for a diplomatic position?
There is the Foreign Service Institute in Virginia, which teaches us not only languages but also what we call “Area Studies” on Fridays. You take a break from your Russian or Spanish language classes and have a day taught in English about the politics, the culture, and the people of the country to which you are going. It is tremendous preparation. Language is pretty much the biggest determinant in morale. The Foreign Service Institute allows spouses to go. My wife has also taken languages. Her language is good enough that she did a TV show in Russian. I think that is one of the perks of this profession.
The Politic: Can you talk about your experience with the corrupt policemen in Mexico who committed a kidnapping?
We had a young girl who had been held by narcotics dealers. We were able to find her. She showed up at the police station — we were there at around midnight to pick her up — and she was being interviewed by the police. At one point she said, “My kidnappers are those policemen.” At that point I was a little tired of the whole charade and I just said, “Let’s go.” We left and went down to our car and were then surrounded by the policemen/narcotics dealers. We were held there for I do not know how long. Eventually, we called in a Mexican undercover policeman, and he essentially gave up his cover and made a deal. We were then allowed to leave. It was an intense night.
The Politic: Wikileaks picked up one of your cables. Can you talk about that experience?
I was pleased that the Russian press said that the consulate got it right. It was a cable about illegal logging. We recognized that illegal logging was a threat, so we thought it was important to report back to Washington. It was picked up on Wikileaks, put out to the Russian press, and then the Russian press said, “Yes, that is accurate.” I often feel that diplomatic reporting is sometimes some of the most insightful reporting there is.
The Politic: Is there one experience, person, or event in the RMI that has greatly influenced one or more of your policies? How so?
Right now what we are really working on in the Marshall Islands is a response to the drought in the northern islands and atolls. About 6,000 people are affected. Yesterday, I released another $100,000 from a joint US-Marshallese fund for drought response. We are waiting to see if the Marshalls will ask President Obama for additional assistance. We had a team here from FEMA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and USAID assessing the damages of the drought. We have worked very well with the Marshalls. We can contribute further if they ask for it.
The Politic: Can you talk about how the citizens of the RMI are coping with the drought and how the US is providing assistance?
The response so far has centered on getting water to the affected islands. They are doing that with reverse-osmosis machines and with water bladders [which are large tanks of water]. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is looking at long-term ways to deal with it; maybe with more drought resistant crops or different ways of irrigation. They are trying to look at it in the long-term so that we can address not just the short-term drought but also make this community a bit more resilient to drought in the first place.
The Politic: In your testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee you claim, “The Marshall Islands is a key partner in the United States’ deepening commitment to the Pacific.” Can you elaborate on what the role of the Marshall Islands is in this commitment?
In terms of national security, the U.S. Army base Kwajalein Atoll (USAKA) is really a jewel. It is our space and missile defense center where they test rockets launched from Vandenberg Air Force base into the Kwajalein area. It is an Army base with a lot of scientists involved and they’re doing work not just on missile defense but also on tracking of space debris. They have had NASA there sending up sounding rockets [which carry instruments to make scientific measurements] and doing tests on the upper atmosphere. So it is an active Army base with a unique role to play. I am very happy that the Marshalls host USAKA. USAKA is the number two employer in the country. It is also a place where some Marshallese go to school, and those students have done quite well. They have become leaders in the government.
The Politic: In your testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, you claimed that even though we send aid every year to the RMI, students are still struggling with health, education, and unemployment. What do you think needs to change, if anything, with respect to our aid to the Marshall Islands?
We do have to keep at it. I think getting the Peace Corps here could help with the English scores. We have just seen some data from the College of the Marshall Islands indicating that the entrants to the college are doing better on their tests — their English is better. Students come to the college better prepared if they start to learn English earlier. They are going to be more successful. We have worked closely with the Education Minister. We have been very impressed with their dedication. As long as the U.S. and the Marshalls have an agreement that health and education are two of the top priorities, then we will continue to find ways to improve. But it is an ongoing process and one that it important for the Marshallese whether they decide to stay here [in the Marshall Islands] or come to the United States, which they can do under the Compact of Free Association.
The other thing we have really pushed is access to the Coast Guard Academy, which Marshallese citizens can get into for free. They have built foundations, learning engineering skills and leadership skills. We also have a lot of Marshallese who join the military. They join at higher rate than any U.S. state. They come back with training and skills from those experiences as well.
The Politic: Can you briefly discuss how the 1986 Compact of Free Association functions today?
The Compact provides almost seventy million dollars in assistance through the Department of the Interior, mostly in health, education and infrastructure. We also have twenty U.S. government agencies outside of the Department of the Interior involved with the Marshalls. The Compact allows the US to provide for the defense of the Marshall Islands; they are committed to our defense as well. And then we have payments that continue until the year 2023, which decrease every year. We work very hard on a strategy to deal with the decrease in payments, so that the money is supplemented by revenues to the state.
We also contribute to a trust fund that will help the Marshalls continue operations after the payments from the Compact end. That trust fund this year is actually doing quite well. I think that it is up to something like $180 million. The goal is to have $700 million by 2023. It is being managed by financial firms that diversify the fund, and we are hopeful that it will contribute to the Marshalls’ income, along with fisheries and other sectors of the economy.
The Politic: Is financial independence for the Marshall Islands a goal that the U.S. is working towards?
These days, I think — and the Marshalls will say this themselves — that every country in this globalized world is dependent on one another. So I am not sure we could say “completely independent.” We do have long-lasting ties with the Marshalls, so we are not going to walk away in 2023 and say “good luck.” The Army base agreement that we have is until 2066, with an option to extend that agreement. “Independence” is not quite the word, but certainly more self-sufficiency is the right goal. We are trying to see their enterprises operate more efficiently, such as the energy companies and the airlines. Those are challenges we are trying to address.
The Politic: Phillip Muller, the foreign minister of the RMI, wrote an op-ed piece in the Washington Post attributing the drought and the rising of sea levels to climate change from carbon emissions. Can you discuss what the general feeling on climate change is in the RMI and your thoughts on their position?
The RMI is definitely one of the most vulnerable countries in the world. You see that most of Majuro is at best six to eight feet above sea level. In order to address climate change and adaptation, the State Department has funded a climate change advisor here for the last couple of years, a man named Steve Why. It is obviously the type of question where there is no easy answer. The way we are contributing is by providing experts — not just statewide but also coastal management experts — who can come here and look at ways to prevent erosion and restore coral reefs. Coral reefs are a defense against rising sea levels. We look for ways to contribute. It is an important problem throughout all of the Pacific. It is something that we are working on regionally. I know it is something Secretary Kerry is quite concerned about. We welcome the dialogue on that.
The Politic: The U.S. performed 67 tests of nuclear weapons in the Marshall Islands from 1946 to 1958. Can you talk about the consequences of those tests and what the U.S. has done in the 21st century to help remedy their harmful effects?
There is a Department of Energy Program that screens people who were exposed to radiation especially in the Atoll BRAVO test. That screening goes on for life. It is not just for radiation-related cancers, but health screening in general. That is something the U.S. has committed to, and will continue to do. We continue to talk to the Marshalls about the nuclear testing era, which is a very important issue for them. We are going to hand over this month a thousand pages of recently declassified documents about the testing era. We have provided for a Remembrance Day, which is an annual commemoration of the Atoll BRAVO test at the College of the Marshall Islands. The United States has provided full and final compensation; this is an issue that we are happy to engage in. Additionally, the Department of Energy is interested in perhaps a scholarship to bring more Marshalls into the sciences so that they can look at this issue independently, and I think that is a good initiative as well.
The Politic: Do you sense any resentment on the part of the citizens of the RMI concerning the tests?
It is hard for me to characterize how the Marshallese feel about it. It may be somewhat of a generational thing as well. I know that it is something school kids still talk about. It is part of their history and part of our shared history. It depends on the person. Some people feel very strongly about it. The overall relationship between the Marshall Islands and the U.S. is one of friendship, respect and a mutual outlook on the world. We share a lot of values and we certainly share a lot of history and relationships. Many Marshallese are now working in the United States. So it is a very rich and deep relationship.
The Politic: On that note, how do you feel that America is represented abroad, and are there any elements of American foreign policy that you would want to change?
I think we have done better in connecting with youth, and not just dealing with the government elite, the foreign ministry, and so on. We really do try to get out. We had an NBA coach here, which was our secret weapon to talk to kids about nutrition and exercise. We had a musical band that connected immediately with local audiences. We have realized that the means embassies can use to get Americans — whether they are citizens, musicians or artists — to make those connections are a really critical part of diplomacy.
Embassy of the United States to the Marshall Islands: http://majuro.usembassy.gov/