A look back at the Trump presidency and Thailand

Many Thais would have been asleep when the election results in Pennsylvania were finally called at nearly midnight, Bangkok time. Some of those who were awake greeted the news that former vice president Joe Biden had won the state, and with it the American presidency, with relief. President Donald Trump will not receive a second term. 

That is unsurprising, perhaps. After four years of Trumpian turmoil, exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, the Pew Center found that those around the world with favorable views of the United States are at record lows, and there is little confidence in the president himself.

Many Thais were amused at times by slips such as when Trump referred to the nonexistent country “Thighland,” but on the whole more would have simply felt repelled by presidential behavior that was unpresidential far too often. 

Indeed, many had feared for the worst when Trump was elected. I still remember election day in 2016, friends gathered around a projector screen showing a map of the United States, watching as state after state turned red. Lunch was eaten with a sense of disbelief: what, exactly, were Americans thinking? And what would it mean for the world? It was easy to predict all sorts of mayhem. What else could one have thought when such a loose cannon was to be handed the nuclear codes?

In the end, the simple truth was that no one had much inkling of how a Trump administration might actually govern. So now that Joe Biden is president-elect and the Trump presidency will wrap up, barring any unexpected success in the challenges being mounted by a president unwilling to admit defeat, it would be fruitful to look back and cut through all the sound and chaos. What did Trump mean for Thailand? 

The image that emerges was that it was quite a mixed bag. It could have been worse, but it still wasn’t great.

Relations between the United States and Thailand certainly improved during Trump’s tenure. The Obama administration, had downgraded relations with Thailand in the aftermath of the 2014 coup, with Secretary of State John Kerry writing in the aftermath that the coup “will have negative implications for the U.S.–Thai relationship.”

There was no such concern from Trump, who invited Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to visit the White House during his first year in office, making Prayut the first Thai prime minister since Thaksin Shinawatra to sit in the Oval Office.

US President Donald Trump and Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha shake hands during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House on October 2, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN / AFP)

This was not surprising. Trump had discarded the values-based foreign policy of traditional American statecraft in favor of a much more transactional approach. The decision to bring Thailand back in from the cold was thus a move that simply reflected realistic strategic calculations and benefitted the governments of both countries, allowing Washington to shore up its alliance with Thailand by normalizing ties and giving Bangkok space to rebalance towards the United States after leaning too heavily towards China.

But even as Trump hailed the “very strong relationship” between the two countries at the White House, the initial momentum of renewed ties would eventually fizzle out. Despite accepting an invitation from Prayut to visit Thailand, the president himself never came: a signal of strategic disinterest. The highest ranking officials that visited Thailand during Trump’s tenure would be his two secretary of states, Rex Tillerson and Mike Pompeo.

The lack of priority given to Southeast Asia was highlighted at the 2019 ASEAN summit in Bangkok. Neither Trump nor Vice President Mike attended, instead sending National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien. Perhaps Trump, with a famously short attention span, was never one for such events. Still, most ASEAN leaders felt snubbed and boycotted the US-ASEAN conference, leaving only Prayut (then acting as chair) and two other prime ministers as the heads of government in attendance. An anonymous diplomat said that the US viewed this as “an intentional effort to embarrass the President of the United States of America.”

Prayut even lamented in a TIME interview that the White House seems “somewhat busy with its own issues” and that there “seems to be some distance between the US and ASEAN.” He even called China the “No. 1 partner of Thailand,” an extraordinary statement which contradicted the oft-repeated maxim that the United States is maha mitr (a great friend) and the platitude that Thailand is America’s oldest ally in Asia. Trump’s efforts to court Thailand had clearly gone nowhere: it was clear that the same prime minister who had once praised Trump’s “polite language” and “sincerity” had been unconvinced by the sweet talk of friendship. 

US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump greet Thai Junta Chief Prayut Chan-O-Cha and his wife, Naraporn Chan-O-Cha, as they arrive at the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, DC, October 2, 2017. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP)

Thus, the US approach to Thailand and Southeast Asia under Trump became fundamentally contradictory. Trump’s allergy towards multilateral engagement undermined his own efforts to contain China, and his neglect of Southeast Asia belied his tough rhetoric on China when he was not even seriously contesting its own backyard. The administration did try later to increase its engagement in mainland Southeast Asia through the launch of a Mekong-US Partnership in late 2020 but it was too little and too late. 

And while the US spoke of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” and intensified the sense of ideological competition with autocratic China, Trump’s own approach of diplomacy sans values deprived any attempt to create democratic solidarity of credibility.  

Yet ultimately, perhaps it was a benign neglect. After all, other countries around the world that found themselves the focus of Trump’s attention did not necessarily find it a positive thing. Indeed, Thailand escaped relatively lightly from the trade wars prescribed by the America First doctrine; although Trump’s trade representative suspended some of Thailand’s GSP privileges, many other US allies suffered worse. 

And it is doubtful whether ASEAN countries, Thailand included, would have actually appreciated a more coherent and forceful China policy from Trump. As Dino Patti Djalal argued in The Diplomat, Trump’s anti-China policy has fallen on largely deaf ears in Southeast Asia: leaders are simply pragmatic and recognize that they cannot take clear sides and “commit to a blanket opposition to China.” Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s words on this issue ring true for all ASEAN countries, Thailand included: “it will be a very painful choice.” 

Beyond the issues of bilateral and multilateral relations, one of the most lasting effects that Trump might have on Thailand is the example that he set through his own conduct of American domestic politics.

The United States may not be the world’s only democracy, but for better or for worse it is the world’s most visible one. And Trump’s behavior over the past few years, which befits a deranged emperor with no clothes, has made it more difficult than ever to make the argument that democracy is a positive thing. This has massive implications in Thailand, where the argument over whether or not democracy is a suitable form of government is unfortunately far from settled even ninety years after the transition to constitutional monarchy.

Even worse, in this biggest of bully pulpits, Trump has turned his presidency into a case study in democratic erosion via norm busting. Thailand, with the rest of the world, has spent the past four years watching the leader of the free world denigrate democracy and praise autocracy. The grand finale of the Trump presidency, his refusal to accept Joe Biden’s election victory, is a case in point. 

The US embassy in Bangkok had noted, when the Constitutional Court dissolved the Future Forward party, that “decision to disband the party risks disenfranchising those voters and raises questions about their representation within Thailand’s electoral system.”

Now, we watch as Trump tries with all his might to disenfranchise the approximately 77 million voters (and counting) who voted for Biden, and as his secretary of state, who continues to lecture the world about democracy, states with unfounded confidence that there will be a “smooth transition to a second Trump administration.”  

One can hardly be surprised, then, if autocrats around the world seize the profoundly evident hypocrisy in American foreign policy moving forward. More than anything, perhaps, the legacy of Trump in Thailand and Asia will be the low esteem in which American democracy is held. Who can forget the not so glorious sight of a public temper tantrum from the world’s most powerful man? 

After President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration in January, we will be seeing American foreign policy take a more coherent shape, even as the outlines of Trump’s confrontational stance towards China remain. We will see a much reduced political temperature and a return to old norms. We will also see more multilateral engagement in much-needed areas such as climate change (don’t forget: Bangkok is sinking!) 

With four years of incoherence and incompetence behind us, those can be things we look forward to. Whether Biden can clean up the mess Trump has left behind and restore America’s image in the world remains to be seen.

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