23 May 2024

“Idealism or Realism” – Can diplomacy serve the growing aspirations of young Thai leaders for greater engagement in world affairs while serving national interests, or is there more than meets the eye?

The challenge was tacitly and subtly debated at the fifth and final Thai foreign policy webinar series on “Future of Thai Diplomacy and Global Challenges” on Nov 18th

The event was jointly hosted by the Surin Pitsuwan Foundation, Chiang Mai University’s School of Public Policy, Thai PBS and Asia News Network. The session was moderated by Panrawee Meesupya from Zipmex.

The participants were three young politicians, Tidarat Yingcharoen, from Thai Sang Thai Party’s Policy Centre, Phetchompoo Kijburana, a former member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and Saratsanun Unnopporn, a member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs from the Pheu Thai Party. They were joined by Natapanu Nopakun, deputy Thailand’s Foreign Ministry spokesman.

Next year, Thailand will witness the greatest number of new generation of young people, well-educated and ambitious people contesting national elections. Political parties sensing the demographic shift have gone all out to recruit younger members, ushering them into positions of authority and publicity.

The young politicians are far from abiding by the old Thai political patronage culture. Participating in this webinar series, they speak their minds, confidently self-assured and professional, sufficiently holistic in their understanding of the art of government and firm in their aspirations on human rights, climate change and inequality. Reality or idealism?

Many Thais welcome the arrival of the new generation in politics, to pull the country out of the doldrums after decades of mainly political conflicts. Many are, however, wary of a growing split between the generations, with conservative forces in the society refusing to make any political accommodations.

Is it a matter of risk? Is it idealism versus realism? It is the status quo versus change to the unknown.

If the Thai foreign policy webinar series is to hold its ground and represent a glimpse of what’s in stall in the future – the answers are within reach.

Global challenges:

Saratsanun: It is a good thing for the world to open-up for everyone to share their values and their ideas but, at the same, there is a clash between generations. Global values, such as inequality, human rights and climate change, are all contained in our Constitution but, in reality, the supporting laws and regulations are outdated.

It is the duty of all governments to speak to all segments of society on these priorities. Climate change is a subject which is difficult to grasp in practical terms. At the global level, we might have agreed to cooperate and make commitments but, back at home, there are no actual implementations or outcomes. It’s something everyone has to take seriously. There is a need to communicate, to all stakeholders, what our positions are and for people to accept whether it is about climate change, inequality or human rights. It’s a grand strategy that the government has the duty to undertake.

Tidarat: On inequality or human rights or climate change, from the party’s point of view, we see them through a prism of reactive and proactive policy. We mostly react, but the current government is not reacting appropriately. There is little progress on the outcome.

An example close to hand is about vaccine inequality. Thailand received vaccines quite late and the country is not among the 95 countries eligible to produce drug treatments cheaply. The inequality related to vaccine and medical diplomacy have not achieved much success.

Human rights: Thailand’s position is not clear and goes up and down. We were also slow in announcing our stand on Myanmar and, even at home, on ethnic minorities and the UNESCO (land heritage) issue.

COP26: We have done nothing outstanding from the point of view of the rest of the world.

Thailand should be proactive and shape discussions and policy, not just on our own behalf but regionally and even globally. All the three issues are not just broad, but have deep significance and importance for Thailand in the post-COVID era. There are economic impacts from tax incentives, foreign capital inflows and how our economy will be able to jump start.

Previously, we had fishery issues and were seen as being not yet able to deal with human rights properly. So, we were subject to tariff walls.

In climate change the same might happen, if we have a supply chain which is not yet green or sufficiently environmentally friendly. We should give importance to all these issues. Give it deep analytical thought!

Phetchompoo: Diplomacy has changed significantly, compared to 10-20 years ago. Then there were “Three Threats”, namely terrorism, technology and trade wars. Defensive diplomacy is no longer sufficient. We need proactive and offensive diplomacy.

Inequality, human rights and climate change now all garner great importance. Have our foreign policy objectives been met? If we go back two years, the government announced five ‘S” strategies:

Security – for peace and stability

Sustainability – for well-being and prosperity to the people

Standard – trade negotiations, such as CPTPP, have changed significantly. No longer it is about pure trade, but is tied to related policies, such as human rights, labour rights, the environment and carbon footprint.

Status – image and unity in the conduct of foreign policy – bilaterally, regionally and globally, and

Synergy – power and involvement of stakeholders. These used to be seen as government-to-government matters, but now a whole lot of stakeholders are involved, whether they are civil society, the people, NGOs or multinationals – each has a role to play.

So do these strategies provide answers? No, not quite! We need to look at the five strategies in detail to assess whether they are sufficient to meet the challenges and changes which have taken place.

Foreign policy used to be regarded as disconnected from individual citizens’ daily lives. This is no longer the case. Today as we live in an era of digitalization, the internet and the information comes very quickly for the people to respond to the policies.

I was once on the House of Budget Committee and assessed that the budget of the Foreign Ministry was relatively small, given that the mission has changed significantly.

Diplomats were previously narrowly designated to represent the country. Now, we are in an era of public diplomacy. Embassies now have to own social media and directly communicate with the people. This is the part in which the new generation can actively engage.

Diplomacy and its mechanics

Natapanu: Foreign policy is owned by everybody and diplomacy has changed a lot over time.

Diplomacy, with its exacting detail, intricacy, conduct and frameworks, is something most people don’t know much about and the contexts change over time.

The direction is now towards more “open diplomacy”, public diplomacy and even citizen diplomats, where ordinary citizens can engage in diplomacy with their own part to play.

The avenue of conduct is now via new platforms, such as social media. Digital diplomacy can go very deep and wide.

I like to distinguish between idealism and reality. Idealistic world views are never ending, such as wanting the world to be beautiful, to have a good environment and peaceful co-existence.

In reality, diplomatic progress has its own conduct. It’s an unending duty. We may consume world views from news and so on but, the reality, it is far more complex to make things happen.

We can’t just go about doing things. It’s not possible. Diplomacy is one key method to deal with world issues.

I like to refer to it as dual track. It’s about what is happening in the world and at home. They move in parallel.

Some say we should get our house in order before projecting our foreign policy overseas. An example would be for the US to deal with its internal human rights issues, before projecting their principles overseas.

It’s really about our intention to do things at home and for the international community to understand our efforts and how we are trying to move forward. It’s not necessary that we agree on everything.

So, foreign policy is about projection as well as perception.

It is best if both are done simultaneously but, in reality and in many countries, they are not.

We might commit to something internationally, but not yet have supporting local laws and regulations. It’s difficult to match overseas and home. A commitment is about a country’s positioning and action aspirations.

So, what position should Thailand take? Be reactive or proactive….This is debatable. I don’t agree that we are more reactive than pro-active or have to choose a side or have positions on all issues.

There are reasons. It’s all about diplomatic acumen. Sometimes, we intentionally stay in the background, sometimes we look for an opportunity to proceed, sometimes we do not want to lead…..there are reasons as we may want to be a bridge builder, rather than a leader.

Some nations have to choose, but diplomatic success doesn’t depend on this, or having a position, but on political sense, timing, alliances or emerging neutrally – and finesse.

In my 25 years of experience, Thai diplomacy is active on those issues on which we should be. For sensitive ones, we may be cautious or play an active role behind the scenes, which people would not know about. There are many instances in which we are in the rear, but have achieved successful outcomes.

Cop 26, human rights, climate change, Myanmar….: we have positions, but form and essence may vary and people outside might not always know.

As for Public diplomacy, we will proceed in this direction in force.

Some call this ‘twitplomacy’ using twitter – as some countries use it a lot because they have many adversaries.

We don’t have adversaries and it’s a position that has enabled us to survive to this day and many appreciate it…when they see Thai diplomats they know exactly where we are, we have finesse, are bridge builders and have no hang-ups about any countries.

Our digital diplomacy will embrace travel, convenience, inter-connectivity – all accumulating in multiple fields – many cross cultural undertakings – all blurred, as everyone gets to know one another in different forms.

So these will bend towards the new generation and reduce the generation gap and poverty.

Environment and climate change will be Thailand’s core policy…we have made changes, but not yet enough.

Post-COVID will be about the environment, human security …

The digital diplomacy is aimed at winning the hearts and minds of foreigners for Thailand and for Thai people to grasp the localisation

Domestic policies shape foreign policy and vice versa.

Global to local

Tidarat: Thai Sang Thai Party does not distinguish between foreign and domestic policies. They are interrelated. We certainly give priority to foreign policy.

We look at the global landscape and how it is shaping the world: it is about trade wars.

We are in the middle, a balancing point between the US and China.

Second is post-COVID world, there are disruptions and changes. The world order has changed, causing foreign policy to change.

Thailand’s position is how we move ahead honourably and, most importantly, how we jump start the economy. We want to look long term, such as how to get tourists to stay longer, based on a survey that indicates that people largely only want to fly for no longer than five hours. How will foreign policy accommodate this group of visitors, such as those from China and India?

Third is how to balance the power in the trade war and to stay neutral and attractive as a destination.

Climate change should not been viewed narrowly. It is not just about natural disasters but is relevant to our international trade, economic development and supply chain. All domestic policies will affect our foreign policy.

Sarasanun: Political campaigning is all about communication. It should be easy, accessible and not involve ‘big’ complicated words.

Foreign policy is a subject which is difficult to grasp as an individual, but it involves across many dimensions and ministries.

We breakdown our communication into small words, like tourism, labour, exports or new markets – when are talking to the people

Last, but not least, the domestic foundation has to be strong before we can have an active foreign policy.

Foreign policy is unavoidably important, but how do you communicate it to the people?

We need to restore the economy in the post COVID world. We must get grass roots people back on their feet. It is unavoidable that agriculture will need technology to capitalise on the modern trends.

Our main problem, however, is political instability. Both through the Constitution and Parliament, politics must settle down to work.

Politics has prevented us from moving forward. We stay put, but that means we lose ground to others who are running faster.

Singapore and Vietnam may not have true democracy, but they have grand strategies. We have had no strategy in the past five years. People don’t know where we are going. We need to get politics in order first.

Tidarat: How to make Thailand a key player?

We must embrace what we are good at.

My party has identified four areas: food, health, high income tourism and geographical advantage.

**The verbatim of the speakers are translated from Thai, rewritten and edited for conciseness.**