68th Anniversary Address to the
World Council of Western Michigan
His Excellency, the Honorable Tommy E. Remengesau, Jr.
President of the Republic of Palau
Good afternoon everyone. It is a great honor to have been chosen by you to address the World Council of Western Michigan on its 68th Anniversary. This esteemed Council has provided a dynamic forum for conversation and discussion on international issues since World War II and is a model that needs imitation throughout the world.
Ladies and Gentlemen, about 45 years ago a young man found himself at the Grand Rapids Airport, in the dead of winter, in jeans and a tea-shirt and a pair of zorries (I believe you call them flip-flops) after a 30 hour flight from his home in the Pacific. It was white, windy, and so cold that he found he could almost catch the breath he breathed with his hands. That young man was the very definition of culture shock and ready to go home as fast as that plane could fire up its engines. Fortunately, the plane had settled in for the night and he was going nowhere. As you can probably guess, that young man was me. And let me say that, in retrospect, after these 45 years, I am glad that I stayed to find out what Michigan, and America, were all about.
I came to Michigan full of dreams and ambitions, but without a real vision of our world, a real philosophy upon which to begin my life’s work, or an understanding of the nature of our global partnerships. I can honestly say that my time spent in Grand Rapids, in this beautiful Great Lakes State, helped me define myself, begin to form a set of viewpoints about the world and about my country, and to understand the extreme complexities of the world in which we live.
You see, for me, Michigan was a huge departure from my small island home. For those of you who are not familiar with Palau, it is a small island nation in the Western Pacific composed of approximately 500 islands of great beauty and diversity but with only about 20,000 Palauans. There are also about 6,000 expatriate employees in Palau. Altogether, there are only enough people to fill up the North bleachers at Michigan Stadium.
But my friends, Palau is much more than just a small island nation, with bountiful fish and gorgeous sunsets. Palau has a strong cultural history that goes back thousands of years, of which its people are very proud. Palau also has strong historical ties with both the United States and Japan – two democratic countries that governed Palau immediately before and after World War II. From these relationships, Palau gained ties to the east and to the west and to democratic institutions that govern us today.
So when I came to Michigan, I had a background of ideas tied to my culture and to democracy, but not a vision created through interaction with other people and other mindsets. Grand Rapids was therefore where I learned to see the world, and the Asia Pacific, as a melting pot, full of diversity and full of complexity -- requiring an open mind and a creative response.
It was therefore here that I learned that if I was to succeed, and if my country was to succeed, we would have to think outside the box, taking advantage of our own uniqueness while exploring new ideas and different perceptions. And like this organization, I concluded that we would need on-going conversation on the issues of the day.
And my friends, we certainly have a lot of issues in our time. For my country, a small island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the issue of sustainable development is the centerpiece of our focus. That is why, in 2006, we joined with four other Micronesian neighbors to declare the Micronesia Challenge, a commitment to place 30% of the near shore marine and 20% of the forest resources across Micronesia under effective conservation by 2020. Palau has already met this commitment.
Shortly thereafter, Palau outlawed shark-finning and eventually created a Shark Sanctuary, protecting all sharks from harvesting in our waters by– the first No Take Zone in the World. We also outlawed deep sea bottom trawling within our waters to protect ocean resources that are still unexplored. To close this preservation circle, in October of 2015, Palau created, by law, the Palau National Marine Sanctuary, a marine protected area that encompasses our entire Exclusive Economic Zone, an area of over 620,000 square kilometers or roughly an area the size of France. As a companion issue, we worked with international partners to spearhead a stand-alone, sustainable development goal in the United Nations, to save the ocean -- SDG 14.
These ocean initiatives were parallel to Palau’s active participation in the forward movement of the Paris Climate Accord. In fact, Palau and many of the small nations of the world can take credit for giving this Accord its moral and practical underpinning as well as its political impetus. We need to look no further than the melting of the Polar Ice Caps and the recent extreme weather events throughout the world to realize the importance of moving forward with our efforts to stem the tide of sea level rise.
You see, ladies and Gentlemen, the issues of Large Ocean States and the issues of Large Developed Countries are not really very different. In Palau, we simply see, on a daily basis, the very real changes that are occurring to our Ocean, to our sea levels, and to the frequency and severity of our storms. I am, at heart, a fisherman, and I guarantee you that when I soon retire from this office, there will not be the same number fish for my new career as a fisherman as there were when I was a child.
If our oceans and our planet are to recover from illegal fishing, pollution and the adverse impacts of climate change, we need, at the international level, to creatively respond in an aggressive and proactive manner. As I learned in Michigan, we will need to think outside the box. For Palauans, the issue is the very survival of our people, our islands and our culture. Some day soon, it will also be a global issue of equal importance.
In this modern world, all of our issues are interrelated. Climate Change relates to Ocean health, to food security, to extreme weather patterns, to the prosperity of economies and to the future of our children.
In like manner, a stable world order is as crucial to my small country as it is to the United States and to the other developed nations of the world. That is why Palau’s partnership with the United States is critical. North Korea has recently threatened the United States, Japan, South Korea, Hawaii and Guam. A threat to Guam, and a threat to the United States has to be considered a threat to Palau. Only by standing together as strong Partners can the aggressive actions of tyrants be counteracted.
That is why Palau is working with the United States to establish Radar Stations to closely monitor upper atmosphere activity in our region. That is why Palau is making land, a very limited commodity, available for this project. This joint effort is just the most recent example of the unique relation between our two nations and the value of our Compact of Free Association relationship, wherein the United States recognizes the strategic location and importance of Palau and Palau recognizes the strategic and developmental importance of the United States.
Palau has demonstrated just how important the U.S. presence in the region, and throughout the world is by committing its most treasured asset to support this presence, our children. I am sure you would be surprised to know that Palau currently has a higher per capita induction rate into the United States military than any state in the United States. Indeed, we take our commitment to democracy seriously.
The complex situation with North Korea, along with the need for this radar station in Palau convinced me of the need to sign the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons while recently in New York for the United Nations General Assembly. In this very complex world, it is time that we look to nullify our own worst instincts at the global level.
But we must also be realistic to the current realities in our region and throughout the world, the global community must develop a stronger understanding and partnership with China. Living in the Pacific, the growing strength of the Peoples’ Republic of China is very clear, as is the need for a strong U.S. presence to counteract this strength.
My friends, the world is becoming a very small place. With the modern proximity of nations and people comes a new responsibility to one another. We can no longer separate ourselves from one another's problems. It is no longer possible, or reasonable, to ignore the issues that do not strike our own native shores. When terrorism strikes the economy of one democracy, it strikes the economies of all democratic economies. And when industrialization pollutes the atmosphere and the oceans, the tides in non-industrial nations rise.
Thinking outside the box is really our only real alternative. The realities of our planet will eventually require that all of us alter our perceptions and our philosophies regarding growth and development to one that emphasizes the sustainability of the world. Likewise, our necessary partnerships will require that we join together to combat irresponsible behaviors of rogue nations. At the end of the day, only together will we achieve these goals.