Consul General’s Corner
September 26, 2011
“U.S-Thai Alliance: Reinvigorating the Partnership”
Friendship is essentially a partnership. -- Aristotle
Last week, I discovered a year-old report from the National Bureau of Asian Research and Georgetown University. Despite the fact it was published in April 2010, at the height of political demonstrations in Bangkok, “The United States-Thailand Alliance: Reinvigorating the Partnership” remains an important and relevant paper. It calls attention to the fact that the U.S.-Thailand relationship “has a lower profile than any other U.S. treaty alliance” despite it being our oldest alliance in Asia. Had the main objectives for both sides changed?
I’ve heard accusations that the U.S. neglected Southeast Asia after September 11, when the war on terror dominated our agenda. But the report notes that U.S. engagement actually increased with our operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, when Thailand was a strategic partner in the fight against extremism – so much so that President Bush designated Thailand as a major non-NATO treaty ally. The report suggests it was Thailand’s 2006 coup that led to “strategic drift” in the alliance, forcing the U.S. to cease military aid and Thailand to focus on domestic political turmoil.
Back in 1996, when I was working in the U.S. Embassy’s press office, we still published a quarterly magazine called Seripharb. To mark King Bhumiphol’s 50th jubilee year on the throne, we created a special issue that reviewed His Majesty’s birth in Boston and his father Prince Mahidol’s medical studies at Harvard. In a separate article, we interviewed a former Seri Thai member who had fought with the U.S. during World War II. My Thai colleagues and I were very proud of the issue, which pointed to the long history between our two countries. Shortly afterwards, President Clinton became the first sitting U.S. president since Lyndon Johnson to visit Thailand. Relations were at a high point.
Then came the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Many Thais were disappointed that the U.S. didn’t help immediately following the baht devaluation. Moreover, in the first decade of 2000, both Thailand and the U.S. confronted increasingly polarized domestic politics. Was our treaty alliance still relevant?
A 2005 Congressional Research Report reminds us that “shared economic and security interests have long provided the basis” for our bilateral cooperation. This stretches all the way back to the Treaty of Amity and Commerce, signed in 1833 and still valid today. Indeed, the American Chamber of Commerce in Bangkok is more active now than when I lived there in the 1990s, and we’ve been pleased to see American investment here in Northern Thailand, including Mycos Software, Thai-A-Fly fishing equipment, and the Aegistek Corporation, which makes computer racks. With its geographic location and broad-based economy, Thailand has a major role to play in Southeast Asia and has been an “aggressive advocate of increased economic integration.”
That’s why the U.S. Embassy and Consulate here in Chiang Mai have been very active in the Thai-U.S. Creative Partnership, engaging our Thai counterparts on everything from education to the environment to design and software development. The Chiang Mai Creative City initiative – itself inspired by a U.S. Consulate-sponsored economic conference – has become a catalyst for interest in Chiang Mai’s economy. Regionally, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is very interested in the Lower Mekong Initiative to encourage cooperation on regional issues among the four countries of the lower Mekong basin, including Thailand.
Where does that leave us? While the U.S.-Thai relationship has certainly evolved from its strategic security focus during World War II and the Vietnam War, it remains an important and historic alliance. We are now engaged in smart agriculture, economic development, educational exchange, collaboration on health and medical research, and assistance to Burmese refugees. The challenge of the Georgetown paper is for the United States to “engage the Thai community on the purpose and value of the alliance.”
That’s what we try to do every day.
# # #