September 18, 2007

Thailand and the United States

Thailand and the United States of America: Beyond Hegemony?
Draft of article that appears in Bush and Asia, edited by Mark Beeson, Routledge, London 2006
Michael K. Connors

This paper explores US-Thai relations in the context of a rapidly shifting global and regional landscape since the end of the Cold War. The days when US Cold War objectives twinned with a militarised Thai state are well over. Bereft of this unifying theme, any analysis of the Thai–US relationship immediately confronts a range of seemingly contradictory phenomena. In the last several years, for example, Thailand has been declared a major non-NATO ally at the very time that it has been coy about support for US strategy in the Middle East. The Thai government initially opposed the war in Iraq, but Thailand was the first Asian nation to send troops to Iraq as part of a ‘post conflict’ humanitarian mission. Having earlier announced that US forces would not use Thai airbases for transit to Iraq, the government cited treaty obligations to explain subsequent US access. Confronted with these inconsistencies, it is easy to see the attraction of the popular metaphoric phrase ‘bending with the wind’, which originated in the 19th Century to describe Siam’s adaptation to evolving structures of imperial power. In the current period, a more appropriate phrase might be ‘bending US hegemony’, suggesting that Thailand has not simply glided hither and thither according to prevailing winds. Rather, it has closely associated itself with the US, while obviously seeking to pursue its own elite defined ‘national’ interests.

If we understand hegemony in the manner proposed by Antonio Gramsci (1972), we are interested in the problematic of how a ruling strata is able to integrate subordinate elements into a hierarchical order on a seemingly consensual basis. Robert Cox (1987, 7) extends this problematic to the international level arguing that “the dominant state creates an order based ideologically on a broad measure of consent, functioning according to general principles that in fact ensure the continuing supremacy of the leading state or states and leading social classes but at the same time offer some measure or prospect of satisfaction to the less powerful.” Neo-Gramscian perspectives move beyond the territorial state as the articulator of hegemony, developing analyses of the role of transnational capitalist classes, and their impact on the nature of trading and investment regimes, and on the functioning of international financial institutions. For his part, Cox (1997, 60) has recognised the growing power of what he terms the ‘nebuleuse’: “a loose elite network of influentials and agencies, sharing a common set of ideas that collectively perform the [international] governance function.” These include the World Bank, the IMF, the WEF, the OECD, the ADB and so on. By virtue of the structure of the global economy and US dominance, and the presence of the world’s major TNCs there, sections of the US state are powerful within these agencies. These considerations are relevant to the status of inter-elite Thai-US relations.

In the Gramscian perspective hegemony, does not principally entail direct forms of domination under duress, nor does it indicate identical interests. The constitution of hegemony requires that over a range of crucial areas of interstate and international life (security, trade, sometimes regime form), metropolitan and peripheral elites share broad understanding of economic and security matters, and move towards similar objectives. Such understandings are mediated by the prevailing structures of economy and security, projects for change, patterns of socialization, and by the constitution of forces within territorial states and in transnational spheres. For the most part, Thai peripheral elites have contended and cooperated in an international order structured by US hegemony. While accepting US leadership over the last half century, there have been disagreements and significant divergences in particular arenas. Divergence does not necessarily entail the end of hegemony, a threshold needs to be reached where matters of substantive difference over crucial arenas outweigh matters of agreement and compliance. The Thai state has rarely strayed from a broad subaltern position vis-à-vis the US and the nebuleuse: this is despite countervailing pressures emanating from its regional environment, and apparent Thai doubts over the 2002 US National Security Strategy. The hegemonic relationship is also sustained by the partly deterritorialised nature of the nebuleuse, which allows some elements of the internationalised Thai elite to benefit by entering its ranks and assuming a hegemonic role (a Thai national and former Finance Minister currently heads the WTO). While many economic sectors remain nationally based, the rise of international and transnational elite spheres blurs the line between metropole and periphery.

The Thai relationship to US hegemony is historically fluid, with material, security and political elements of the relationship differing over time. This paper explores some of the characteristics of this fluidity. From the 1950s to the early 1970s, US-Thai state elites shared strong affinities across all three elements. Between the late 1970s and 1980s these affinities weakened, although they were sufficiently robust to survive Thailand’s drift into regionalism. In the 1990s the Thai state underwent a significant process of economic and political liberalization. This reflected the emerge of new domestic forces, and an increasingly transnational Thai-based nebuleuse. In tune with the US concerns to press for democratic enlargement in the post cold war era, the two states moved closer together. In the current period, commencing in 2001 with the arrival of the Bush and Thaksin administrations, the hegemonic relationship has taken on a new form, with security and resource imperatives compelling the US to extend its relationship with a Thai state that remains uneasy about US global strategy. Furthermore, the democratic convergence of the 1990s has receded, with Thailand moving towards authoritarian forms of rule. The hegemonic relationship has become strained. The rest of this chapter explores these different periods, with the spotlight on more recent times.

Read the full draft here

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