The U.S. government is still deciding what to do about Thailand. Reuters reports that the Asia-Pacific subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee recently held hearings on how the United States should respond to Thailand’s military rule. When the military imposed martial law this past May, U.S. officials thought civilian rule might return relatively quickly, as it had after the last coup in 2006. But this government has turned out to be both repressive and enduring, and now we’re canceling engagements there and freezing some security aid. The next question is whether we will cancel an annual Cobra Gold military exercise held in Thailand:
[U.S. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, East Asia Bureau, Scot] Marciel said Washington had yet to make a decision on the Cobra Gold exercises planned for early next year in Thailand, which he called “hugely important … not only for Thailand and the United States, but for the region.”“It’s something we’re looking at. We have a little bit of time to work with.”Steve Chabot, chairman of the subcommittee at which Marciel spoke, suggested that Cobra Gold could be moved to another country, such as Australia, and added: “It could clearly send the wrong message if we allowed (Thailand) to participate” […]Washington has also yet to decide whether Thailand would receive a presidential waiver on sanctions – including withdrawal of U.S. support at the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank – that could be imposed for its failure to deal with human trafficking, Marciel said.
All the usual conditions are here for the United States to send Thailand a “pro-democracy message.” The military government will be in power for a while; Thailand is already in the crosshairs of Wilsonians because of its abysmal sex-trafficking record; the human rights and democracies lobbies will put pressure on the United States to denounce Thailand’s regime; Thailand is both a relatively weak power and a U.S. ally. Under normal circumstances, therefore, censoring Thailand over the coup would be a no-brainer. Thailand looks like the kind of country Washington moralists can usually sanction without serious foreign policy consequences, and it makes our neo-Puritans feel better about themselves when they do. Though American rhetoric rarely changes much on the ground, ritual denunciations “make a statement” for U.S. values, and the cost to other U.S. interests is usually small.These days, however, normal conditions in Thailand don’t obtain. Obama will be tempted to throw the moralists in his administration a bone as a consolation prize for the many policy fights they’ve lost since their Libya disaster. But with China throwing its weight around in the neighborhood and the situation in Myanmar remaining fluid, the United States cannot afford to make many empty moral gestures in Southeast Asia right now. This time the costs of hollow moralism even in Thailand could be higher than usual.A better U.S. policy would make clear both that we don’t like military coups and that we are realistic about the allies we have to work with. Thailand has a long history of coups. Given the King’s advanced age and the political crisis in the country, we can hardly be surprised at the military’s latest move. We should respond to it with the minimum required by law while working hard behind the scenes to protect individuals from repression. At the same time, we can continue embassy meetings with civilian leaders of all political factions, working as collaboratively as possible toward a more democratic future. The Thai people by and large want a democratic future and American policy should honor that goal. But precipitously pulling money and military exercises out of the country in order to “show our support for democracy” is, now more than ever, exactly the wrong thing to do. The United States cannot, as some self-described “realists” would like, conduct its foreign policy in a moral vacuum. Questions of values cannot be excluded from the policy processes of a democratic republic—nor should they be. But integrating our moral and political values into concrete policies in a complicated world is harder than it looks, and a rigidly moralistic approach to foreign policy often undercuts exactly the moral values we most wish to support.