Last month, Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel, during an official visit to Bangkok, decided to speak his mind. From Stripes:
Russel bluntly discussed the coup and prosecution of Thailand’s democratically elected government, which the military and political opponents viewed as corrupt, during his Jan. 26 speech at Chulalongkorn University and in a subsequent television interview.“Ending martial law throughout the country and removing restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly are important steps as part of a genuinely inclusive reform process that reflects the broad diversity of views within the country,” Russel said during his speech.
What followed was regrettable, though not surprising:
After Russel’s departure, Thai officials summoned the U.S. Embassy’s charge d’affaires to express their displeasure.Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the general who led the coup, called Russel’s comments a big disappointment.“It saddens me that the United States does not understand the reason why I had to intervene and does not understand the way we work, even though we have been close allies for years,” he told reporters.Last week, Prayuth pointedly thanked China for understanding how Thailand works.He met with China Defense Minister Chang Wanquan and announced a new intelligence-sharing agreement, according to media reports.
It will take more than one poorly-received tour by one diplomat to sink a relationship as old as the U.S.-Thai alliance. Still, parts of the DC establishment seem to be operating on some badly dated assumptions from the 1990s:
- that human rights and democracy are irresistibly sweeping the world,
- that non-democratic governments everywhere are doomed to fall quickly to democratic protesters, so the smart move for the U.S. is to be on the right side of history—complaints by dictators on their way to the rubbish heap of history can be safely ignored,
- elections make a state democratic even if everything else about it is illiberal,
- governments angry with the United States have nowhere to go and their anger can do us no real harm,
- leaders in other countries are profoundly impressed by moralistic, finger-wagging lectures by American officials.
If you believe all these things, then traveling to a non-democratic, non-Western country and attacking its rulers at public events and telling them how to govern their country is smart diplomacy. But if few or none of these assumptions are valid, then you can end up with a dysfunctional diplomacy that helps neither democracy nor U.S. national interests.The Thai generals know—as does every other sentient being on planet earth—that the U.S. and China are competing for influence in the region. They also know that China is critically short of friends and very eager to acquire new ones.There are problems in Thailand, as even its current rulers would agree. But the current battle, essentially between the supporters of the traditional elite and monarchical order of the country and the followers of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, is not quite the battle between darkness and light that some imagine. Both sides are flawed in important ways, and both sides also speak to values that are very important to Thai society and culture. Thailand’s foreign friends can play a useful and constructive role by quietly working to moderate the excesses of both—but that approach needs to be grounded in respect for diplomatic usage as well as a balanced understanding of the many dimensions of the volatile situation in and around Thailand these days.There is much to be troubled about in Thailand’s recent history, and neither the pro- nor the anti-Shinawatra forces have the world’s cleanest hands when it comes to human rights. American diplomats not only need to weigh their public comments carefully; they need to make sure that their judgments reflect all the complexities of the Thai situation—and this will naturally make them less cocky about prescribing what Thailand should do next.