Analysis: US nominates former NKorea envoy as new ambassador to Thailand

Originally published on Siam Voices on April 15, 2015

After half a year of vacancy, the position of US Ambassador to Thailand looks like it will be filled soon. With the nomination of experienced career diplomat Glyn Davies, it offers a glimpse into the future United States’ diplomatic relations with Thailand.

In an episode of the American TV drama ‘The West Wing’, a scene depicts how new ambassadors are welcomed in Washington, D.C.:  “I understand that you’re a sports fan?” asks the fictional president Josiah Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen. “Yes sir, Mr. President. Golf!” replies the fictitious new Thai Ambassador Tada Sumatra (who came up with that name?), both men standing in the president’s Oval Office with their respective aides. “Okay, well – golf’s not a sport. It’s fine, don’t get me wrong, but let’s not you and I get confused with things that men do,” rebuffs the president before proceeding with the acceptance process.

It is doubtful whether such pleasantries will be exchanged during the acceptance of the next US Ambassador to Thailand, because the current relationship between the two countries is less than cordial.

Since the military coup of May 22, 2014, the Thai military junta has faced a series of condemnations, diplomatic downgrades and some sanctions by Western countries, just stopping short from ostracizing Thailand from the international community amid the risk of driving the still geo-strategically important country into the arms of both China and Russia.

One of the most vocal critics against Thailand’s military rulers is the United States, with Secretary of State John Kerry saying shortly after the takeover of power that it would have “negative implications for the U.S.–Thai relationship, especially for our relationship with the Thai military,” later emphasized with the US’ suspension of military aid to Thailand worth $3.5m – in hindsight more a symbolic slap on the wrist compared to the $6.07bn military budget the junta gave itself.

Furthermore, amidst calls to either completely cancel or move it to another country in the region, the annual long-running military “Cobra Gold” exercise was scaled down this year while the preparatory meeting for next year’s drill have been indefinitely postponed.

Another sign of American discontent with the Thai junta that was widely (and incorrectly) speculated on is the ongoing lack of a US Ambassador in Bangkok. The position has been left vacant since Kristie Kenney left Thailand late last year after a tenure of nearly 3 years, during which, as Siam Voices contributor Daniel Maxwell noted back then, she managed to create a positive image as “a culturally sensitive ambassador” who was popular among a lot of Thais. This has often been attributed to her and her embassy’s successful utilization of social media. The Charges d’Affaires W. Patrick Murphy has taken over duties ever since.

The wait for a new Ambassador to Thailand looks to be coming to an end, as US President Barack Obama this week nominated Glyn T. Davies for the post.

Davies is a distinguished career diplomat with 35 years of experience, most notably as US representative at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in the Austrian capital Vienna, and from 2012 to 2014 as Special Representative of the U.S. Secretary of State for North Korea Policy, in which he managed the American position on the controversial nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea, respectively. In other words, this man knows a lot about crisis diplomacy.

People close to Davies have apparently good things to say about him, as former IAEA deputy director-general Olli Heinonen said in a 2011 Associated Press report:

“He’s a good communicator and willing to talk to adversaries,” Mr. Heinonen said. “He’s easygoing and fairly low-key but can be tough when he needs to be.”

Others describe Mr. Davies as likable, with a good sense of humor, a consummate networker, extremely committed to U.S. diplomacy but also known to show his frustration if his efforts are not working.

New U.S. envoy on N. Korea faces tough mission“, Associated Press, October 20, 2011

These personal traits should come in handy when Davies is dealing with the Thai military government. Relations between the two countries hit a low point in late January when US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel R. Russel heavily criticized the authoritarian government during his visit to Thailand, provoking the junta – in a thinly-veiled case of hurt pride – to fiercely rebuke Russel’s words, summoning… erm, “inviting” US charge d’affairs Murphy to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and causing Prayuth to go on a week-long verbal rampage.

Davies’ nomination could also be regarded as a sign that the United States has realized that it will be likely dealing with the military junta for a lot longer than initially anticipated, namely beyond the promised elections sometime in early 2016, while it still isn’t known in what capacity the junta will exist after that.

But whether or not Glyn Davies will become the next US Ambassador to Thailand is less up to the Thai government but more dependent on the United States Senate. More specifically, the question is whether the perpetual political gridlock can be somehow resolved, which has caused dozens of nominations for ambassadors to be stuck in political limbo waiting for confirmation, leaving over 50 countries worldwide without an American ambassador.

In other words, it’s most likely the political dysfunction in Washington D.C. that will delay the arrival of the next US Ambassador in Bangkok for his acceptance process, complete with handshakes and a little small talk – perhaps about golf?