Kristie Kenney, appointed U.S. Ambassador to Thailand in December 2010, moved back to Washington D.C. this month after celebrating the Loy Krathong festival in Bangkok on November 6. A new ambassador has yet to be nominated and it could be the middle of next year before her replacement arrives in Bangkok.
Symbolically, one of the last acts of the outgoing ambassador was floating a krathong during the Loy Krathong festival, an act which is believed to wash away ill-luck and invite good fortune. After a challenging final year of her assignment to Thailand, it would be fascinating to know what the outgoing ambassador had wished for.
Kenney’s posting to Thailand was her third ambassadorial position, having previously served as U.S. Ambassador to Ecuador and the Philippines. She is a career ambassador and a talented linguist fluent in five languages. In fact her ability to converse fluently in Thai initially made her a popular figure amongst the Thai community.
Kenney was also able to create a positive impression by cultivating the image of a culturally sensitive ambassador and lover of all things Thai. She was seldom far from a photo opportunity and she engaged in a range of image-friendly activities such as wildlife conservation, education development and Thai cultural events. She was also an advocate of social media and a prolific tweeter. Her tweets ranged from snippets of American foreign policy, to the promotion of environmental conservation, to restaurant recommendations. She even found time from her busy schedule to get involved in memes such as the Harlem Shake, the Ice Bucket Challenge, and group selfies. At times it seemed that her role was more about getting social media ‘likes’ than actually representing the foreign policy of a superpower.
Looking back over her tenure, Kenney’s role seems closer to that of an American socialite than senior representative of the Obama Administration. But perhaps a media-friendly socialite was exactly what the State Department wanted, especially after the dark cloud that followed the previous US Ambassador as he left Thailand. Shortly after Eric John left his post in Thailand a number of his cables were made public through WikiLeaks which added tension to relations between the two nations.
Neither were former Ambassador Kenney’s four years in Thailand without event or controversy; after all she was witness to Thailand’s 12th ‘successful’ coup d’etat. American foreign policy is always quick to judge events around the world and even quicker to disapprove actions that are at odds with American ideology. Following the 2014 coup, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry expressed that the coup would “have negative implications for our relationship”, calling for “the restoration of civilian government immediately”, and concluding that “there is no justification for this military coup”. While these comments were welcomed by critics of the coup, they angered pro-coup supporters. Suddenly the US Ambassador went from being a foreigner who understood and appreciated Thai culture to a colonialist attempting to spread American ideology across the globe, in the eyes of some.
Since the coup, trade and commerce between Thailand and the US has continued as usual – it takes more than a military coup to get in the way of profit-making. However, the Obama administration has kept diplomatic relations cool over the past 6 months and recently scaled down joint military exercises. This week, U.S. President Barack Obama will be holding a series of meetings with Asian leaders which will see him visit China, Burma and Australia. Unsurprisingl,y a meeting with Thailand’s junta has been left off Obama’s schedule.
The Thai-US relationship is very much a friendship with conditions. Publicly this friendship appears to be on hold at present and it’s going to require some effort from both sides before it regains its warmth. All this raises interesting questions concerning who will be a suitable ambassador to oversee this delicate period and when they will get to work.
The ambassador position in the US Embassy looks like it will be left empty for at least a couple of months. However, the absence of an American ambassador in Bangkok is actually more representative of complications in Washington which are preventing Obama from having his nominees confirmed than America falling out with Thailand. Thailand is not alone in having an American Embassy without an ambassador, there are now over 50 nations across the globe without American Ambassadors.
For the incoming ambassador it’s going to be a difficult balancing act. The U.S. needs to promote its political agenda, encouraging democracy across the world while making examples of those who ignore democratically elected leaders – but at the same time America doesn’t want to damage business, trade or influence in Asia. This leads into America’s power play with China. Southeast Asia is seen as an important territory on the global chess board. The importance of maintaining influence in Southeast Asia is paramount in order to stop China cementing its power across the region. The last thing America wants to do is chase Thailand into China’s warm embrace – a superpower that isn’t going to be lecturing leaders about voter’s rights or democratic ideals.
Uncertain times lay ahead but one thing is for sure, the future U.S. Ambassador to Thailand will find themselves facing challenges that won’t simply be overcome by photo opportunities and goodwill tweeting.