10 Questions for Kantathi Suphamongkhon on His Diplomatic Career and Lessons Learned from Nixon
Kantathi Suphamongkhon, senior fellow at the Burkle Center for International Relations and visiting professor of law and diplomacy at UCLA, served as Thailand’s equivalent to U.S. secretary of state from March 11, 2005 to Sept. 19, 2006. He was the 39th minister of foreign affairs for Thailand until a military coup d’état forced him out of office. The Thai national, who graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in political science in 1976, has taught here since 2007.
Suphamongkhon holds a master’s degree in international service from the American University in Washington, D.C., and a Ph.D. in international relations from USC. He speaks Thai, English and German. Prior to serving as Thailand's foreign minister, Kantathi Suphamongkhon was trade representative for his country. He was elected a member of the Thai parliament for two terms.
A picture of Suphamongkhon, former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other Asia-Pacific Economic Corporation leaders hangs in his Bunche Hall office overlooking the sculpture garden. Suphamongkhon recently discussed his experiences Letisia Marquez, senior media relations representative in UCLA Media Relations and Public Outreach.
By Letisia Marquez for UCLA Today
What was it like to grow up as the son of a diplomat?
I was born in Thailand and by the time I was eight-months-old, my father was appointed the first Thai ambassador to Australia. I took my first flight south to Canberra, Australia as a baby with my parents and then stayed there until I was 7 years old. So my multicultural, multilingual upbringing began very early. I was speaking Thai at home and learning Australian English in school. I remember being sad when I left all my friends in Australia. My entire class went to the airport to wave goodbye to me.
And you also lived in Germany as a boy?
Yes. After Australia we went to Thailand and then left again when I was 12. My father was appointed Thai ambassador to the Federal Republic of Germany so we were there for a long time. At first, my parents sent me to a boarding school in England, but I didn’t like it. I felt that I needed more freedom and more privacy in life, even at 12 years old. I eventually negotiated my way back to live in Germany with my family.
I went to the American School on the Rhine which was a U.S. Department of Defense high school in Bonn. I finished my last two years of high school on a U.S. military base in Wiesbaden. So I had more multicultural, multilingual experiences going to school with Americans, shopping in Germany and living with my family. By then, I had also learned German.
How did you end up studying at UCLA as an undergraduate?
I actually started university in England. I did a couple of years there, and then I decided to come to UCLA because I had heard about its excellent reputation. In addition to that, I really liked Los Angeles and Southern California. I started out studying pre-med. My father told me to avoid going into the diplomatic service, but I was already realizing that I was deeply interested in international relations and political science.
You eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from UCLA. What made you decide to switch from pre-med?
Since I was a child, I had this tendency to want to help people when they are down, or at least to help make them feel better. And it so happened that the person I saw who was down in 1975 was former President Richard Nixon. I wrote him a letter, trying to lift his spirits, telling him I was a Thai student studying at UCLA and appreciated his contribution to Thailand – U.S. relations. I didn’t include my phone number because I wanted him to write back to me. After three weeks, his letter came. It was an invitation for me to visit him.
He invited you to visit him at Casa Pacifica?
Yes. In fact, I believe I was the first person outside of his relatives and his circle of close friends to visit him at his home after he left office. It was incredible. I was only a young UCLA undergraduate student. We had a long talk about world affairs, and then he took me for a stroll on the beach. Eventually, he was the one who tipped the balance that made me decide to drop pre-med and go into political science.
The first thing he said to me was: “Remember that life is nothing without challenges.” I thought to myself that he must have been using this for himself because he had succumbed to the challenges, but he had to remain strong. He also told me: “Whatever you do, don’t blend into the walls.” I was sure he meant that one should not go through life as an observer only. One must contribute to society rather than merely observe society.
He said he thought I would do a good job as a diplomat. He really opened up to me. He even shared with me how nervous he felt during his first trip to Moscow as U.S. president. It was a remarkable meeting, and he kept in touch with me for many years. A year later, when my parents came to visit me in California, I took my father down to meet him. Whenever he wrote a book, he would send a signed copy to me until he passed away. To me, even though President Nixon made serious mistakes domestically, his foreign policy was good.
So it turned out to be President Nixon who had a decisive influence on my career path. I changed my major after I saw him the first time. I went into political science, and then I started to plan a diplomatic career.
How did your diplomatic career start?
I had spent most of my life outside of Thailand, yet I always had a strong urge to go back and help Thailand. After I took the Foreign Service Exam and worked in the Foreign Ministry, I was posted to the United Nations in New York for four years. Then I returned to Thailand. I was appointed director of policy and planning in the Foreign Ministry. I then left the Foreign Ministry and went to work in the private sector for a little while. But then I was invited to run for the Thai Parliament. I was elected twice to serve as a member of Parliament, which is the equivalent of a U.S congressman. After that, I was Thailand’s trade representative, a position with a cabinet rank in the Royal Thai Government. I was appointed foreign minister in 2005.
What were your goals as Thailand’s foreign minister?
I wanted foreign policy to help protect and promote Thailand’s national interests under globalization. This meant good relations with our neighbors in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). This meant good relations with our traditional friends and allies, such as the U.S, Japan, China and the European Community. This also meant enhanced relations with countries in Latin America, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa. In other words, my policy was designed to make Thailand a global and local player at the same time.
In order to accomplish this, I used my personal touch to establish good relationships with my counterparts from diverse countries around the world, from ASEAN to the U.S. to the U.K., Germany, Japan, China, South Korea, North Korea and Iran. This placed me and Thailand in a good position to protect its interests and for Thailand to play constructive roles around the world. When problems came up, I was able to resolve them rather effectively.
The North Korean government also twice invited you to visit. What did you accomplish during those visits?
I was helping behind-the-scenes to get North Koreans back to the six-party talks in August 2005, after they had refused to do so. I was coordinating with Secretary Condoleezza Rice and Ban Ki-moon, who was then foreign minister of South Korea. I was also in close touch with the foreign ministers of China, Japan and Russia. I was pleased to see that the North Koreans went back to the six-party talks a few days after I left Pyongyang.
In 2006, there was a military coup in Thailand and you were ousted out of office. What happened to you and your family?
Unlike many other places around the world, most of the coups we have had in Thailand are usually non-violent. Before the 2006 coup, I was anticipating a coup because there were demonstrators in the streets, and I had already analyzed the political situation. So when I left Thailand on an official trip to France, I did an unusual thing — I took my California driver’s license with me so that I could be free to drive around Europe.
You know, traveling on official visits to foreign countries as foreign minister, I never had the opportunity to drive. After the coup, I decided to visit my friend who was a commander of a U.S. military base in Germany and visited my American high school there. After two weeks, I went back to Thailand.
What is the political situation now in Thailand?
Thailand is the only country in Southeast Asia that has never been colonized, and, yet, the road to democracy has been long and difficult. The government has sent out signals that we should expect an election sooner rather than later this year. I think this is good news, and I hope that true national reconciliation can be found in Thailand soon.