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What’s a Freely Associated State?


A Freely Associated State (FAS) is a small country that grants the United States responsibility for its national security and provides the U.S. with military rights within its borders.

Three Pacific island nations have signed Compacts of Free Association (COFAs) with the United States: the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI), the Republic of Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM).

Citizens of the Freely Associated States are not U.S. citizens; they are citizens of their own nations.

The defining feature of free association is U.S. military access and authority. The Republic of the Marshall Islands is home to a premier U.S. military facility, the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site on Kwajalein Atoll, where the U.S. regularly conducts intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) testing and space surveillance activities.  In the FSM, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) is seeking a location for U.S. Air Force Agile Combat Employment operations. Palau is the site of a highly advanced radar with surveillance capabilities vital to U.S. regional interests.

These countries are members of the United Nations and conduct their own foreign policy, but the U.S. may overrule their government priorities if deemed inconsistent with U.S. defense policy (the “defense veto”).  The U.S. may also deny access to these nations by military forces of any other nation (the “right of strategic denial”), including their water and air rights in a geopolitically strategic part of the Pacific.

The three countries receive limited financial aid from the U.S. and qualify for circumscribed U.S. federal programs often related to the sovereignty that the U.S. exercises within their borders, such as the U.S. Postal Service and U.S. Coast Guard patrols. The freely associated states are ineligible for safety net programs found in U.S. territories such as Medicaid,  Medicare, nutrition assistance, and Social Security.  FAS citizens lack access to veterans health care in their home countries even though many have served in the U.S. armed forces.

COFA citizens qualify for Pell Grants as university students and do not need a visa to live or work in the United States.

Current compact agreements between the U.S. and the Freely Associated States expire starting in 2023.  Financial support to each nation and the continuation of some federal programs must be renegotiated. The current agreement between the U.S. and RMI extends U.S. base rights at Kwajalein Atoll through 2066 with an option to continue the arrangement until 2086. This aspect of the U.S.-RMI relationship is set to continue regardless of the amount of financial assistance contained in a new COFA.

A Freely Associated State cannot unilaterally set the terms of its U.S. agreement or make it permanent. Like all international agreements, either nation can unilaterally terminate the association.

Ultimately, as the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources noted in preparation for a 2023 hearing, the foundation of the free association relationships is “the strategic importance of the Pacific Islands to U.S.-led global security.”

As a Freely Associated State, Puerto Rico would have to negotiate the terms of its relationship with the U.S. without the benefit of a Resident Commissioner or any other representation within the U.S. Congress.

As is the case with the current FAS, U.S. citizenship is not a part of the arrangement, existing levels of federal financial support would be expected to decrease substantially, and continued national security protection could call for increased U.S. military presence in Puerto Rico.

If the sovereign nation of Puerto Rico were unable to negotiate acceptable terms with the U.S., its only recourse would be to refuse the FAS relationship while remaining an independent country. The two countries could then establish other international bilateral agreements. The close relationship that exists today would be severed.

Read more about Free Association:

Ambassador Joseph Yun, who serves as Special Presidential Envoy for Compact Negotiations and leads U.S. deliberations with the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republics of the Marshall Islands and Palau, has explained that the Freely Associated States are “complete[ly] independent” and “foreign” countries.

Puerto Rico as a Freely Associated State could not count on keeping U.S. citizenship. Read the statements made by U.S. officials in each branch of the U.S. government.

A Foreign Minister of a Freely Associated State testified before Congress that the U.S. Constitution does not apply to the FAS.  There is no overlapping U.S. citizenship. The relationships is between two “totally independent nations.”

Leaders of the FAS nations do not always feel confident that Washington values them as important partners.

What would a Compact of Free Association between Puerto Rico and the United States look like?

Territories receive much more generous health benefits than Freely Associated States.

In Free Association arrangements, either side can change the deal at any time. A Republic of Puerto Rico cannot, for example, guarantee U.S. citizenship.  Also, U.S. military presence is permanent but economic help is temporary. See how the law works.

Is it possible to repackage a rejected “enhanced commonwealth” status as “free association”?  See how the federal government has responded to efforts to relabel “enhanced commonwealth” as “Free Association.”

Puerto Rico could become a Freely Associated State, but it’s necessary to be aware of the possible drawbacks.

  • Treatment of COFA citizens living in states

Under federal law, FAS citizens who move to a state or U.S. territory can find themselves disadvantaged.

Image source: Congressional Research Service