Will new ambassador usher in a new dawn in US-Thailand ties?
President Barack Obama announced the appointment of the new US ambassador to Thailand on the Thai New Year. Many here quietly hope that this appointment will mark a new beginning after a rather sad and abysmal period in Thai-US relations in recent times.
As the first Asian nation to forge official diplomatic relations with the US, in 1833, with the Treaty of Amity and Commerce, Thailand’s geostrategic and geopolitical significance for the US in Southeast Asia could not be lost on America. Today, the US Embassy in Bangkok is still one of the largest in the world.
Thailand-US bilateral ties encompass security, political, economic, to anti-drug trafficking cooperation. The US is among the largest foreign investors in Thailand. The Treaty of Amity and Economic Relations that the two countries signed in 1966 granted major trade advantages to the US; one, it allowed American companies to maintain a majority shareholding or wholly own their company, branches, representative offices in Thailand; and two, American companies are the only foreign companies that receive national treatment – that means they can engage in business on the same basis as Thai companies.
Thailand has had several first-rate ambassadors from the US. Those in the major league include ambassadors U Alexis Johnson, Leonard Unger, Charles Whitehouse, Morton Abramowitz, William Brown, David Lambertson, and Ralph Boyce. They possessed a keen sense of appreciation and healthy respect for the dynamics of local politics and that of the region. Ambassador Boyce not only speaks Thai fluently, he can tell Thai slapstick jokes, reflecting the depth of his understanding of Thai culture. He went to all Thai ceremonies large and small, even to a spirit house-erecting event. It’s not that he had a lot of free time to waste, but he went because he saw the opportunity to peep into the psyche of Thais and seek mutually beneficial joint endeavours. The above-mentioned ambassadors helped avert bilateral and regional crises, and forged healthy ties that served both Thailand and the US well. The newly appointed US ambassador – Glyn Davies – will come to Bangkok at a most challenging juncture. Bilateral ties have been in tatters. He will also meet with the rise of China’s dominance in Thailand and in the region that it now regards as its own backyard.
At the same time, the US seems to have lost its foreign policy acumen, clarity and focus. President Obama’s “Asia Pivot” has proved to be nothing but a hollow initiative, devoid of any real follow through and accomplishment. The same cannot be said of China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative that comprises two primary projects: the “Silk Road Economic Belt” and the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road,” a network of road, rail and port routes that will connect China throughout Asia, the Middle East and Europe.
Perhaps, more importantly, the new US ambassador will have to face the challenge of balancing the American role as the beacon of liberal democracy and the political reality in Thailand that requires security, law and order to be in place before the return to elections. If the US keeps beating Thailand on the head with its boiler plate notion of democracy, Thailand will inevitably turn to other major powers that show a greater inclination to give Thailand the benefit of the doubt. He may have to heed Francis Fukuyama’s latest theory that there can be no democracy without security – and the latter must come first. The evidence to support Fukuyama’s thesis can easily be found in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and all the hotspots where the US has left its fingerprints as the promoter of democracy.
Constructive and cooperative engagement is perhaps the best option that both Thailand and US can have when it comes to their bilateral ties. Both nations are not starting from a deficit standpoint in their relations. A lot of goodwill was established and has remained in place over the years despite the most recent shortsightedness of Washington, the multiple-standard treatments it applies to various governments, all else being equal, and Washington’s perception of the strategic importance of each country.
The job of ambassador carries with it a heavy burden and numerous responsibilities. In Thailand, an ambassador is the representative of His Majesty the King – that means he is above politics and must remain non-partisan for the sake of the best interests of the country. For the US to play a critical role at an important juncture in Thai history, it must maintain a non-partisan engagement. It cannot choose sides, as it has done in recent years. It cannot beat up the country with political and economic sanctions, as Thailand already has its back against the wall. Nothing will be gained that is in the US interests if it continues to pursue blindly the same diplomatic policy it did during the last few years. It will not only further alienate its oldest ally in Asia, but open the door wider for other emerging powers that are prepared and willing to step in to fill the void left by the US.
Thailand’s geopolitical and geostrategic position in Southeast Asia is something that can be both our curse and our blessing. The US can play a pivotal role in the future of Southeast Asia, if it does not lose Thailand.
The US must make the choice.