On a Wednesday in June, Hersey Kyota — the longest tenured ambassador in Washington and, therefore, the dean of the city's diplomatic corps — is meeting two fellow ambassadors for lunch. Kyota has for 20 years represented the tiny nation of Palau, a group of islands in the Pacific Ocean with a population of just 21,000. Every month or so, he grabs lunch with his fellow ambassadors from the Pacific region of Micronesia to catch up and talk shop. On this particular day, the group is meeting in a conference room on Pennsylvania Avenue that Palau sometimes rents by the hour. It's the closest thing the country has to a formal embassy in the city, since it can't afford a permanent one.
It doesn’t take long for the conversation to turn to a subject that is of urgent importance to Kyota: In 2010, Palauan and American diplomats reached a deal, known as the Compact of Free Association, to provide Palau with some $130 million in aid through 2023 — a sizable amount of money in a country where the government’s annual budget is just $87 million. But seven years later, Kyota, to his great frustration, has proved unable to get the bill through Congress.
Lately, he informs his fellow ambassadors, he has been trying to take a tougher line with the Americans. "I've said that Palauans are patient people, but you are trying our patience," he tells them.
His lunch companions are closely following Kyota’s saga; their own countries have similar arrangements up for renegotiation in 2023. “If he can make it, I think we can make it, too,” Akillino Susaia, ambassador from the Federated States of Micronesia, says to Gerald Zackios, his counterpart from the Marshall Islands.
Later in the lunch, Kyota will share some good news on this front: The Trump administration’s proposed 2018 budget has set aside specific funds for renewal of the compact — the first time this has happened in the long road to ratification. What’s more, GOP control of government could open even more avenues for finding the funds: “When I talked to Don Young” — a Republican who is Alaska’s only representative in the U.S. House and also a longtime friend of Palau — “he said, ‘Oh, we can find money from the EPA or whatever.’ ” (Young, a member of the House Committee on Natural Resources, did not respond to requests for comment.)
Eventually, after almost two hours of shoptalk and camaraderie, the lunch meeting comes to an end: The longer everyone stays and talks, Kyota’s attache, Tester Yalap, points out to the group, the more Palau has to pay for the space. Kyota helps to clean the room on his way out and takes a box of fruit salad for the road.
In an interview the day before, Kyota — 65 years old, with the solid build, slow gait and quiet confidence of a former athlete (which, in fact, he is) — had told me that, while he has yet to meet President Trump, he dreams of playing golf with him. “When I see him, I’ll ask if I can play. Even one hole, two holes,” he said. “Imagine if I could play a whole round of golf, 18 holes, with the president of the United States? There’s so many things we could talk about! Like the compact! Increase the funding!” He laughed. Kyota imagined a kind of diplomatic match play: “If I make this shot, would you sign that?”
“No,” he added, “but I know Trump doesn’t have time to play four hours of golf.” He paused for a moment and then amended his statement. “Not with an ambassador from Palau, anyway.”
Washington is a city that is famous for not getting things done. But the failures that grab the most attention are generally the ones that play on a grand, operatic scale — the failure to confirm a judicial nominee, the failure to enact a long-awaited health-care bill. It can be easy to overlook the smaller failures: the ones experienced by relatively anonymous operators who, by the standards of official Washington, lack the raw influence needed to cut through the city's maddening maze of bureaucracy and inertia — the people who ply their trades and plead their causes in the halls next to the halls of power.
Hersey Kyota is such a person. He is very unlike previous deans of the diplomatic corps, who have often been a patrician bunch. Their ranks include such distinguished (and delightful) names as Sir Julian Pauncefote of the United Kingdom, Comte Cassini of Imperial Russia, Baron de Cartier de Marchienne of Belgium and Count Wilhelm Wachtmeister of Sweden. In the early 2000s, Prince Bandar bin Sultan of Saudi Arabia served as dean; as reported in The Washington Post, he “had such direct access to presidents and Cabinet members that he could show up at their offices unscheduled and gain entry.”
Kyota became dean in 2015 upon the death of Ambassador Roble Olhaye of Djibouti. While Kyota’s ordinariness may put him out of step with many of his predecessors, it has the virtue of making him seem genuinely like a man of his people. Kyota grew up in a village without electricity or running water — “Man, we had a great time!” he recalls — and to this day harbors few pretensions. Back in Palau, he walks around in a T-shirt and baseball cap.
He represents a country whose diplomatic foothold in Washington has long been tenuous at best. Palau didn’t gain independence from the United States until 1994 — a time when D.C. townhouse prices were already through the roof. Since then, the Palauan delegation has bounced from rented office space to rented office space. (“We’d rent a big truck and do the moving ourselves,” recalls Rhinehart Silas, a former staffer.) At its height, the delegation employed a total of five people. Today, its staff has shrunk to three: Kyota himself; his attache, Tester Yalap; and Kyota’s wife, Lydia. The trio mostly works out of the ambassador’s house in Alexandria, Va.
Kyota began his political career in the 1970s as a staff aide in Palau’s congress. He balanced his work there with a sideline as an antinuclear activist, as well as a baseball career playing second and third base in the Palau Major League. (Kyota’s brother Felix was also a baseball player, and a legendary one, before dying of complications from alcoholism.) Kyota became a senator in the Palauan congress in 1990 and developed a close relationship with Kuniwo Nakamura, the country’s first post-independence president. When Kyota lost his senate reelection bid in 1996, Nakamura offered him the post in Washington.
He has remained in D.C. ever since, a feat made easier by Palau’s lack of organized political parties (which means there’s less upheaval when a new president takes power). When asked how he has stayed here so long, he jokes: “It’s two things: Either I’m doing a good job, or people in Palau don’t care who’s in Washington representing them.”
That’s not exactly true: Many people in Palau speak proudly about one of their own serving as the dean of the diplomatic corps. And at the level of ceremony and protocol, the post does indeed come with some measure of importance. As dean, Kyota frequently greets new ambassadors when they arrive to take up their posts: “I tell them that I’m here, and if they need anything, please don’t hesitate to call.” He is also introduced by name at every State of the Union and joint session of Congress.
When it comes to passage of the compact, though, Kyota has been on a long, exasperating journey. The first version, signed in 1994, laid out a framework under which Palau would rely on the United States for military protection and budgetary support — as well as a host of government services that to this day can make Palau feel like a tropical America in miniature. The U.S. Post Office delivers Palau’s mail; programs like Head Start educate its children; the Federal Emergency Management Agency cleans up after natural disasters.
After that agreement lapsed in 2009, congressional ratification of the new compact — which was signed by the Obama administration in 2010 and gives Palau further U.S. aid in exchange for exclusive military rights to Palauan land and waters — should have been a formality. Republicans like Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) supported it; so did Democrats like Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.).
The compact hit a snag, however, after the 2010 midterm elections. Under incoming Republican leadership, most new spending (including the compact) would need to be balanced by an equal budget cut somewhere else. This rule has been in place ever since, and the Obama administration was never able to propose specific offsets that Congress liked, says Molly Block, a spokeswoman for the House Committee on Natural Resources. Compact ratification efforts have been further complicated by Palau’s history as a U.S. territory. Traditionally this has meant that compact funding comes from the Department of the Interior — Palau’s former administrators — as opposed to State or Defense. As a result, according to a lobbyist who has worked for Palau on the compact, Palau has had to compete with U.S. states for scarce Interior funds and offsets.
“It’s embarrassing,” says a Department of Interior official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “It’s not good that it hasn’t been ratified. There’s no lack of support for it. The trick is finding the money.” In a statement, Wyden told me that “Ambassador Kyota has been the epitome of diplomacy throughout this process. Despite the years of setbacks, the ambassador has been a calm voice of reason as we forged ahead to ensure this compact stays in place.”
Ironically, Palau’s closeness to the United States may have hurt the small nation. “Palau’s so friendly with the U.S. that it makes sense [for the U.S.] to pay attention to other countries,” says Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan, a longtime Kyota ally and the Democratic delegate from the Northern Mariana Islands — which, unlike Palau, is a U.S. commonwealth and therefore has nonvoting representation in Congress. “That’s not fair, but that’s how Washington works.”
By this fall, however, in an almost-impossibly-long-in-coming twist, it appeared that the compact was finally progressing toward ratification. With Trump administration support — and borrowing a gambit first proposed by the Obama administration — the House and Senate's 2018 military spending bills both authorized the use of Defense funds for compact aid. Defense money, unlike Interior appropriations, isn't subject to the same offset scrutiny. Should this language survive conference between the two bills, Palau can expect to receive its compact funds by 2018.
Meanwhile, a global crisis has suddenly made Palau into more than a strategic afterthought. North Korea’s threats to fire nuclear missiles at Guam have turned Micronesia into an unexpected hotspot, and Palau’s location 800 miles southwest of Guam makes it something like a neighbor in the far-flung region. In August, the U.S. military announced plans to install radar towers in Palau that will allow America to better monitor Pyongyang’s moves in the Western Pacific. Renewed appreciation of Palau’s strategic importance — both to counter specific threats from North Korea and to check the more general trend of China’s growing influence in the Pacific — appears to have created new energy this year around enacting the compact. “The Trump administration has prioritized this as a ‘must do’ for national defense purposes in the Pacific,” says Block.
After years of his writing letters, lobbying officials and testifying to Congress about the compact, you might expect Kyota to be in an exultant mood as its official passage draws near. But that’s not Kyota’s style: “I do not want to get the credit at all,” he says — and knowing Kyota’s taciturn disposition, this statement doesn’t reek of false modesty. Anyway, he’s not yet sure it’s time to celebrate. Though Kyota acknowledges that compact authorization is closer than it’s ever been — “we can almost smell the money” — he knows that the plan could still blow up in conference negotiations. “I won’t feel relieved until the i’s are dotted and the t’s are crossed,” he says.
Nor has Palau’s newfound strategic relevance brought Kyota a noticeably higher profile in Washington. In some ways, he feels more overlooked than ever. Under Obama — and consistent with traditional protocol for deans of the diplomatic corps — Kyota was regularly invited to the White House to join the welcoming committees for visiting leaders. This privilege has given Kyota some of the greatest thrills of his career — allowing him to meet with the Japanese prime minister and even the pope.
Under Trump, however, no such invitations have been issued. Kyota’s not sure if this is a deliberate or accidental oversight: “I don’t know why. Maybe Trump doesn’t believe in protocol, or maybe it’s because his chief of protocol hasn’t been appointed. But there have been many heads of states visiting,” he says. (In September, the Trump administration appointed a new chief of protocol, but he has yet to be sworn in.)
Kyota is also still waiting for that golf game with Trump — or failing that, even a chance to meet the president. The closest Kyota has come thus far was after Trump’s address to Congress in February. Kyota gives the calamitous play-by-play as if it all happened yesterday. “I almost shook his hand,” he remembers. “I was sitting next to the acting chief of protocol, and Trump came all the way over and shook his hand.” Kyota readied his hand for the shake; Trump readied his. Then, disaster. “This photographer just cut through between me and him,” Kyota recalls, and — in very Washington fashion — the moment was lost.
David Walter is a writer in New York.
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