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Burkle Senior Fellow Dr. Suphamongkhon's Letter to the Next US President

Burkle Senior Fellow Dr. Suphamongkhon's Letter to the Next US President

Bangkok Post, November 2, 2008

When I was growing up, I thought of the US as a role model for all countries. The US was eager to listen and cooperate with other countries to solve common problems. The US stood for justice under the law, domestically and internationally.

This article was first published in The Bangkok Post.

By Kantathi Suphamongkhon


Since I began teaching diplomacy and international relations at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) a year ago, Americans and members of the international press have often asked me what kind of foreign policy I would like to see from the next US president. Now that we will soon know whether it will be Senator Barack Obama or Senator John McCain, I shall share with Bangkok Post readers my thoughts on this important subject.

When I was growing up, I thought of the US as a role model for all countries. The US was eager to listen and cooperate with other countries to solve common problems. The US stood for justice under the law, domestically and internationally. I believed that these were the key elements of US power. I hope the new president will be mindful of this.

I am allergic to phrases like, "you are either with us, or you are against us". Don't compress the international system into a simplistic good vs evil picture. The cost of conflict is so high. US interests would be better served when the US listens and is sensitive to the concerns of others. Remember that countries can disagree on some issues and work well together on other issues. Countries can also use different tactics to achieve the same goal.

Military force should be used only as a last resort. The pre-emptive use of force without a clear and present danger of enemy aggression is destabilising. It sets bad precedents. It may be used as an easy justification by any country to attack another. If countries were allowed to attack in such a manner, we would be living in an unstable and dangerous world.

The US should rely more on diplomacy and multilateral mechanisms, including the United Nations. At the end of World War Two, the US played a key role in the establishment of the UN. We have seen that so many problems today require international solutions. I would like to see the US working with others to reform and revitalise the UN, as well as other key international institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. This would enable international institutions to better serve the interests of the US and the world at large.

Some have expressed concern that the current financial crisis may make the new president preoccupied with internal economic issues at the expense of a more outward-looking US diplomacy. This should not be the case, because we have seen over and over again that under globalisation, financial crises cannot be solved by any one country alone. Global solutions require an even more outward-looking US diplomacy under the new president. The Group of 20 Summit on the financial crisis, with the participation of industrialised and developing countries, scheduled to be held in the US on Nov 15, should set the tone for international cooperation and a proactive US foreign policy.



I am concerned about the proposal to create a so-called "League of Democracies" as an additional formal club to serve the goals of "democratic" countries in international relations. I have listened to the arguments made by its proponents with deep interest. Here are my views. The formal creation of the League of Democracies would be divisive. The decision on the composition of such a grouping alone would already lead to conflict. Should China and Russia be included? What about some other important friends of the US around the world? How can an imposition of sanctions against Iran by such a group be effective without the participation of all key players?

Also remember from the lesson of Iraq that consensus on a common foreign policy among "democratic" countries may not be easy to form. In addition to all this, the League of Democracies would likely undermine the UN. Therefore, instead of creating another club which would divide the world further along membership lines, the new president should focus on issues and on how to get as many countries as possible on board to solve common international problems.

The use of force to impose democracy contradicts the very essence of democracy. The assumption that, when given a chance to vote, people around the world would always vote for the candidates that the US favours, is based on a faulty premise. You can't expect democracy to have a pre-determined result.



After 9/11, the world agreed with the US that the smoking guns pointed to Bin Laden, al-Qaeda and Afghanistan. But then the invasion of Iraq took place. That invasion destroyed the delicate balance of power that existed within Iraq and between Iran and Iraq. Now it is important to get all countries, and all parties concerned, involved in the political negotiations. The conflicts in Iraq must not be allowed to destabilise the whole region and the world at large. An appropriate time-line for US withdrawal from Iraq is important.

I hope that the negative tones toward free trade agreements, as heard during the campaign period, will not become US trade policy. A free trade agreement should be judged as a comprehensive package. Free and fair trade under globalisation should remain our steadfast goal. I would like to see the new president pursue free and fair trade at the multilateral, regional and bilateral levels. I also urge the US Congress to grant the new president the Trade Promotion Authority, which would be key to making free trade negotiations achievable.

On public health, the new president should help ensure that poor people around the world suffering from life threatening diseases have access to affordable medicines. 'SMART' DEMOCRACY All states, including Iran and North Korea, must comply with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty (NPT). We should also be mindful that Article VI of the NPT legally requires that parties to the treaty work toward general and complete nuclear disarmament. US leadership on nuclear disarmament would be highly consistent with the NPT and would be a substantial contribution to international peace and security. A first significant step the new president could take upon taking office in 2009 is to seek the Senate's approval for the US to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, already ratified by 145 countries.

On the fight against international terrorism, the new president must avoid falling into the trap of playing the terrorists' games. The new president needs a policy to win the hearts and minds of as many people around the world as possible. Here, "smart" diplomacy may become a powerful tool for the new president.

The US needs to avoid giving the impression that it is fighting Muslims. It should be clear to everyone that the US is against extremists and terrorists who are using religion as a justification for violence. The US should encourage the enhanced role of moderate Muslims against terrorism.

The priority for the new president should be to regain the moral authority of the US in the world. This means building partnerships and alliances. Cultural or "smart" diplomacy should be emphasised. The visit to North Korea of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra was a diplomatic success.

On the question of whether the new president should meet or should not meet with leaders of the so-called "Rogue States", I feel that the next president should avoid declaring his position in advance, but make this a part of negotiations. Ruling out talks in advance usually hardens the position of the adversary.

Setting a constructive tone is vital to diplomatic success. Americans must refrain from name calling in international relations. Using terms such as "Axis of Evil" or "Rogue States" does not advance US interest nor promote problem solving.



The US must not forget that it has many friends around the world. Friendships must be continuous and must be cultivated.

I know that many friends of the US, including Thailand and other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), often feel that we are not on the US radar screen.

Asean members have been relatively successful in achieving peace and stability for Southeast Asia. This success, ironically, may have taken Southeast Asia off the US "urgent list" and thus off the US radar screen. I hope the new president will re-engage Southeast Asia in two ways: enhance US relations with Asean and enhance US relations with individual members of ASEAN.

The importance of Southeast Asia to the security of the US is clear. Right after Sept 11, 2001, Washington announced that Southeast Asia was the second front in the global war on terror.

Today, national security should be seen in a broad and comprehensive way. This includes military and intelligence cooperation. It also includes cooperation in areas such as trade and investments, climate change, human and drug trafficking, as well as the prevention of contagious diseases.

It is important for the US to attend key meetings in Southeast Asia at the appropriate level. The US Secretary of State should attend the annual Asean plus US conference and the Asean Regional Forum (ARF). The ARF focuses on confidence building and preventive diplomacy in the Asia-Pacific Region. The ARF can also provide a neutral ground for foreign ministers of countries in conflict to meet. For example, all six parties involved in the negotiations on North Korea's nuclear programme recently met at the ARF at the foreign ministerial level.

The often postponed US-Asean Summit should take place soon. US signing of Asean Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) would be a major step forward.

Southeast Asia is a strategic area of the world. Other major powers are engaging Asean and Asean countries. China, Russia, India and the European Union are among the powers that come readily to mind. Enhanced US enengagement with Asean will contribute to the building of a healthy regional balance beneficial to all.

As chair of ASEAN until the end of 2009, Thailand is in a good position to work closely with the US on Asean matters.

I am also looking forward to see more dynamism in Thai-US relations as our two countries enter the 176th year of relations in 2009.


Mr Kantathi is presently the University of California Regents' Professor at UCLA, as well as a Senior Fellow at the Burkle Centre for International Relations in Los Angeles. He was the Minister of Foreign Affairs in the last Thaksin administration.

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