BY TOM ARMBRUSTER
We probably should have flown the pirate flag. The Foreign Affairs Manual, the rules, the regs, well …
Fulfilling the administration’s pledge to open a new U.S. embassy in Nuku`alofa, Tonga, was top priority. In July 2022, Vice President Kamala Harris said, “We recognize that in recent years the Pacific Islands may not have received the diplomatic attention and support that you deserve. So I am here to tell you directly: We are going to change that.”
There were just 965 tasks to go when we were first given the keys in April 2023. The new embassy was to be housed on an upper floor of the Tongan National Reserve Bank building, which itself was a striking diplomatic platform with windows north, facing the Pacific Ocean; south, the lush, green interior of Tongatapu, the main island; west, downtown Nuku`alofa; and east, the massive embassy compound of another country.
To move as quickly as we could, we had to get creative. Diplomatic correspondence with the Foreign Ministry was not “standard”—often they took the form of informal emails and texts—at least not until Susan Heckman, the ambassador’s office management specialist (OMS), joined us to give guidance.
But did we really need a new embassy, given the Peace Corps’ track record and Suva just next door?
The answer is yes.
Despite Tonga and the United States signing a Treaty of Amity, Commerce and Navigation in 1886, sharing fighting and sacrifice in the Pacific during World War II, and establishing formal diplomatic relations in 1972, there has never been a full-time embassy or permanent ambassador in Tonga.
A great case for having one can be made for diplomatic universality. The United States is a superpower and has global interests. We should be everywhere. Any duty officer who has fielded midnight calls from Americans in trouble will tell you that Americans are in every corner of the globe.
Even if you don’t buy that argument, there is something special about Tonga and the U.S.-Tongan relationship. There are nearly 70,000 Tongan Americans in the United States. Tonga is rich in marine resources and is a bellwether state for climate change adaptation. As the second most disaster-prone country in the world, Tonga stands to benefit from American emergency response expertise.
And yes, there is a geopolitical imperative. China’s game in the Pacific is robust and growing. They offer scholarships to young Pacific Islanders who come home speaking Chinese and more sympathetic to China’s world outlook. China’s ambassadors have wide spending discretion and love to make a splash at diplomatic events with large monetary contributions. Their building projects are anything but modest. Understanding that, here are the lessons we learned in opening the embassy.
What kept us out of trouble were resources from U.S. Embassy Suva provided by Ambassador Marie Damour, who remains the chief of mission for Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Tuvalu, and Tonga until an ambassador is confirmed for Tonga. Our fledgling operation in Nuku`alofa doubled in size when the ambassador sent Gus Mario from Procurement and Samson Shankaran from Facilities.
Gus and Samson helped find official residences, outfit the building with essential safety and security equipment, and begin the procurement of the thousands of items an embassy requires. Meanwhile, the Overseas Buildings Operations Bureau (OBO) and East Asian and Pacific Affairs Bureau (EAP) were moving mountains in Washington. The lesson is that even in the most remote posts, there is a team ready and willing to help.
If there were a brick with the name of every contributor to the embassy’s opening, we would have a wall of hundreds of bricks. But you might find a pattern. In recruiting temporary duty (TDY) assistance, EAP found officers with unique experience around the world to come to Nuku`alofa.
Alan Smith, Chris Hodges, Kevin Brendle, and Paul Neville had all served in Tonga with the Peace Corps or covered Tonga from Fiji. They believed in the relationship and even fought for establishing an American embassy over the years.
They came to serve as chargés for several weeks, each with language skills, contacts, and context. Some still knew the royal family, some were fluent enough to do television interviews in Tongan, and all brought a love of Tonga and its rich culture. That love seemed to be reciprocated as they were welcomed back as old friends.
Take care of the flag, and you are halfway home. No one takes better care of the flag than the U.S. military. We were fortunate to have the U.S. Army’s Oceania Engagement Team on the ground in Tonga. Major Jimmy Kow and Sergeant Alavoni “TK” Tukunga took care of raising and “marching on the colors” of the flag at the congressional opening, the soft opening, and the ceremonial opening.
EAP Executive Director Ann Marie Everitt managed to get the congressional notification approved for a May 9, 2023, official opening. It was a simple affair. We were a handful of Americans, a couple of guards, and Peace Corps Country Director Kris Stice and his family.
We raised the flag early in the morning to a beautiful violin rendition of the national anthem played by Stice’s wife, Lindy. After that opening, I had the honor and privilege to raise the flag most mornings, which I loved.
On May 10, we had our “soft opening” with the Foreign Ministry and about 60 guests. The real highlight was U.S. Sergeant Tukunga. TK’s family moved from Tonga to Hawaii to build a better life for their kids. Her father was a stone mason; her mother cleaned houses. They worked hard for their kids, and TK is repaying the favor, serving in the U.S. Army and doing her family proud.
TK speaks Tongan and was invaluable throughout the opening. I ran the idea of presenting the flag that flew for the congressional opening to TK by Deputy Chief of Mission Tony Greubel about an hour before showtime. “Sure!”
After that, rumors of a possible Secretary of State visit to dedicate the new embassy swirled for weeks. We kept one eye out for news on that, while experts worked on getting communication and cable systems up and running. The word finally came down that Secretary Antony Blinken would stop in Tonga on his way to the Australia-U.S. Ministerial in Australia and the Women’s World Cup soccer match. Good, game on!
As overall control officer, I had a few things to worry about, like getting the armored car into port and cleared through customs. Same with Tyson, the sniffer dog. Did Tyson need a diplomatic note for tarmac access? Too late now!
The one thing I didn’t worry about was the grand opening. I had seen Chargé Voyles’ rehearsal, and the program was tight, moving, and featured the flag prominently. The highlight was the national anthem sung by Tongan American NFL football player turned opera star Ta'u Pupu'a. The grand ceremonial opening was truly memorable.
And yes, there is a geopolitical imperative. China’s game in the Pacific is robust and growing.
You might think that after the Secretary of State presides over the grand ceremonial opening with Tonga’s Crown Prince, the embassy would be well and truly open. But there will be one more opening celebration. Just like you expect a hamburger when a McDonald’s opens, you expect a visa, or at least a chance for one, when an embassy opens.
Visa adjudications will start in Nuku`alofa once the people, security, and computers are installed. I hope there will be an ambassador in place then to raise a glass to OBO, EAP, Embassy Suva, the Peace Corps … and maybe all the pirates at sea.
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