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U.S. Moral Tutelage of Thailand

The U.S. State Department has condemned Thailand for its failure to live up to standards we set for the treatment of migrant workers. Annually, the State Department monitors and evaluates 190 nations for their compliance with “minimum performance standards” for the treatment of migrants. In 2013 it put Thailand into a “warning” category in its TIP (Trafficking in Persons) report. In 2014, it put Thailand in the bottom rank of all the countries of the world.

Our oldest trading partner in Asia, Thailand, found itself lumped with Zimbabwe, Uzbekistan, Syria, North Korea and the Central African Republic. The failing grade, which went unnoticed in the American media, made headlines in Bangkok and the other capitals of Southeast Asia.

It is official U.S. policy to “name and shame” nations that fail to meet minimum performance standards. The concept is that their governments, feeling the heat, will undertake reforms. The policy, however, is unsupported by statistical measures and lacks meaningful comparative data.

TIP fails, for example, to take account of the fact that Thailand’s economy is a magnet for more than two million migrant workers and is one of the world’s most burdened destination countries. By contrast, its neighbor Burma (which TIP ranks above Thailand) sees hundreds of thousands of its citizens flee abroad for a better life.

TIP’s rankings are widely believed in Southeast Asia and elsewhere to be politically manipulated by U.S. officials. Some wonder, for example, whether Burma escaped a failing grade only because of Obama’s 2012 visit there to celebrate its emerging democracy.

Whether that charge is true or not, the rankings are based on what The Economist recently called “second-hand, unreliable and not comparable from country to country.”

In May of this year, the State Department issued an even harsher condemnation of Thailand. In the wake of massive street demonstrations, a military coup toppled the elected government. Our State Department promptly denounced the military and thundered that the elected government must immediately be restored to power. Ever since, American diplomacy has demanded that the new government of General Prayut step aside and hold immediate elections.

In a major speech in Brisbane at the close of the G20 summit this month, President Obama made clear that Thailand would only return to “partner” status with the U.S. if it replaced Prayut. “In Thailand,” he said, “we are urging a quick return to inclusive, civilian rule.” American diplomacy seems badly out of step with public opinion in Thailand.

Many Thais believe that only the military coup saved their country from civil war, and the new government is widely popular among the Thai people. In a nationwide survey in October, 82.7 percent of respondents said they were satisfied with Prayut’s government. Other surveys have shown equally strong public approval for their government’s efforts to frame a new constitution with checks on majority, one-party power. Even the ousted prime minister of the pre-coup elected government says she trusts Prayut’s commitment to reform.

Our State Department claims to know better. Official American policy measures nations by whether or not they hold elections.

Thailand’s elected government, although it used its majority to rule divisively and was criticized for massive corruption, met our simple standard: it won an election and, therefore, our support.

As the cartoonist indicated, when American policy demands elections prior to constitutional reform, we are picking sides in Thailand’s domestic politics. Strangely, too, given our own Constitution with its checks against the tyranny of the majority, we are pitting ourselves against the side in Thailand that wants constitutional limits on majoritarian democracy.

An image being circulated on social media states: “America is evil. You think Thailand is your colony? …”
An image being circulated on social media states: “America is evil. You think Thailand is your colony? …”

Soft Power Interventionism

Some have justified military interventions with the belief that democracy is the aspiration of peoples everywhere: remove the tyrants and free government will naturally emerge. The failure of blood and treasure to teach democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq has quieted the appetite for full-scale military interventions. These occupations seem to have produced dysfunctional sectarian kleptocracies. Under Obama, the focus of our foreign policy remains the promotion of democracy, but by non-military means. Instead, we seek to use our moral authority as the world’s greatest democracy.

Joseph Nye’s book, Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics, released about the time of Abu Ghraib, is a major influence on the Obama administration’s foreign policy. Nye guided attention away from “hard power,” or military force and coercion, instead focusing on the ability to influence behavior by influencing and co-opting through the projection of attractive values.

The so-called “pivot” or rebalancing toward Asia is premised on the attractive power of America’s democratic values. We will partner with democratic nations for trade: the dozen nations that are to join in the long-delayed Trans-Pacific Partnerships are all to be democracies. Our security partnerships will also be with democracies: so, for example, we signed a military agreement with Thailand’s elected government in 2012, but applied sanctions on military aid to the new government in 2014.

Coercive Soft Power

The attractive power of national values depends on the extent to which those values are already shared by others. Democracy is not the only value by which people assess their governments. Growth and prosperity often compete with elections as legitimating principles. Often, a country will be admired not for its official policy, but for its culture, its historical example, its society, or its prosperity. It is possible, therefore, for people to dislike the government of a country, but to like its citizens, or to admire its businesses and its private organizations. This is largely the case of the United States today vis-à-vis Thailand. Our foreign policy is disliked, but Americans personally are not.

In the Middle East, official America is widely despised. Yet surveys show that the American way of doing business is admired by most Arabs. For many around the world, America’s governmental institutions are seen as deeply dysfunctional. Yet the same people often admire the openness of our society and our innovations in science, business and popular culture.

The United States government will not promote democracy successfully by monitoring, hectoring or haranguing. If governments are slow in building democratic institutions or if they backslide, it is it is up to their own peoples, not Washington, to hold them accountable. Thais see coercive hypocrisy in official Washington’s critique of their country. What right have unelected officials in Foggy Bottom to assess democratic progress? Why should our diplomats determine whether or not the Thai people are right to frame a new constitution before new elections? What moral hegemony permits official Washington to put Thailand at the bottom of the class of nations?

Policies Have Consequences

Official interventions and meddling in Thai affairs have produced predictable results. No Asian country has had longer or closer ties with the United States than Thailand; and no tourist destination in Asia has been more visited by American tourists. Yet, aside from China, no country in Asia now has more hostile attitudes toward our government.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies published a recent survey on “Power and Order in Asia.” Its results revealed that Thai respondents were the least convinced of any people in the region that they would benefit from U.S. leadership in Asia. Of all Asian respondents –next only to Chinese respondents –Thais were the most opposed to the American pivot to Asia. Not surprisingly, Thais find little to attract them in U.S. official soft power interventions.