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Dealing with Dictators
Former Officers: Cold US-Thailand Relations Give China an In

Experts and former military officials are ringing an alarm that we have been ringing too, warning that Washington’s cold policy towards Thailand since a military coup last May will be counterproductive and that it hands influence over this important Asian ally to China and other foes. The Military Times reports:

“The American approach has caused more damage than good at this point,” said Kerry Gershaneck, an associate at the East-West Center in Honolulu.

“America can adhere to its principles — and most effectively imbue our values of freedom and democracy — by engaging our Thai allies at high levels during this troubled time,” said Gershaneck, a former Marine Corps colonel with extensive academic and military experience working with the Royal Thai Armed Forces.

“Respectful engagement” will be key in resuming cordial relations with Thailand once democracy is restored. “But we will have little chance to influence Thailand’s current or future leaders if we abdicate the ideological battlefield to China — an expansionist, coercive and manipulative dictatorship,” he said.

Thailand’s junta, led by strongman Prayuth Chan-ocha, recently drew loud condemnation from Western Wilsonians for its brutal policies and for replacing the system of martial law that had been in place with an even more authoritarian “dictator law.” This response is understandable, but it is ultimately wrongheaded and counterproductive; isolation of foreign regimes for ideological (rather than strategic) purposes is less effective than engagement. It is often worse for the rights of the regime’s subjects, and it hands an easy win to America’s less scrupulous foes:

…Gershaneck and John M. Cole, a retired Army foreign area officer with 15 years of experience in Thailand, say the U.S. style of condemnation this time around is backfiring.

“My key point is that America has to be much more visionary and much more adept at dealing with this situation than it has been,” Gershaneck said, quickly pointing out that he is not defending military dictatorship.

“I’m saying if you want to be effective and bring people back, you understand their psychology, their culture, their history.”

Many Thai military officers and civilian elites view the State Department’s attitude toward the country as “hypocritical, arrogant and indifferent,” he said.

We have already seen the junta successfully go courting Russia, but China is likely to provide much more succor to Bangkok. Thai diplomacy has a long history of walking a line between Washington and Beijing, and of playing each side against the other. If the current human rights fracas pushes Bangkok further towards China, it will be an important strategic setback for the United States as it executes its vaunted “pivot to Asia,” and a loss taken in service of a policy that gains us nothing but the warm feeling that we took a principled stand to say the right thing at the wrong time and in the wrong place.

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  • Kevin

    It would be an insane policy. The U.S. needs to make less of a fetish regarding elections in turbulent countries. Egypt, Pakistan and Thailand all showed this to be a very foolish policy. We should encourage liberal reforms which build the basis upon which a more open and stable political system could be built, but to prioritize elections that bring factions to power with no checks or balances on their behavior is a mistake.

  • Andrew Allison

    Respectful engagement appears to me to be a much better foreign policy that our, largely unsuccessful, attempts to impose US values on foreign countries.

  • qet

    Maybe if Thailand threatens Israel or starts enriching uranium it will get the respectful engagement treatment.

  • dfooter

    Though I don’t necessarily disagree, whether or not this is a good or bad policy will depend on how long the current regime exists. If, in a few years, Thailand re-democratizes, being seen to be opposed to the current regime would be a big strategic advantage.

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