America's presidential poll and Thai-US ties

America's presidential poll and Thai-US ties

As the current presidential cycle in the United States closes with elections on Nov 8, there will be a global sigh of relief that it is finally over. The longest electoral contest in the world's ostensible bastion of democracy has become increasingly dysfunctional and malfunctioning. It has become a gruelling competition to see who is the least worst to put up with rather than who is the best to lead, resembling a drawn-out political circus, tinged with Hollywood dramatic effects and unbecoming of a country that is supposed to lead the community of democracies.

Nevertheless America's pre-eminent role in global affairs over the past seven decades makes its presidential election consequential for all countries concerned. This particular contest between former senator and first lady Hillary Clinton and media mogul Donald Trump is unusual and unprecedented on many levels. Whoever wins will have to pick up the pieces of a bitterly angry and viscerally polarised society.

On one side against the odds is Mr Trump. He has come from outside the established political circles to seize control of the rank-and-file of the Republican Party in a spectacular fashion. He is the answer to the voices that have been left behind by socio-economic changes from globalisation and the digital age. These disenchanted Americans have been around for some time but they were not seen as a serious force to be reckoned with. They are the descendants and by-products of the older America from several decades ago, now unable and unwilling to cope with shifting demographics and fluid socioeconomic dynamics. They are fed up with the traditional Republican insiders who led them in the recent past, and want change from outside.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak is associate professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University.

Mr Trump still has a good shot at winning despite countless gaffes and myriad personal scandals. If he wins, the world will have to take notice because his politics and policy preferences will reinforce and intensify America's isolationist tendencies for a more inward-looking superpower that will no longer shoulder the burdens of global leadership. Those who want Washington to stay away and stop policing the world may well have second thoughts in what they had wished for. A navel-gazing, nativist America will accelerate the unravelling of the global order that was constructed after World War II to the detriment of all concerned.

For Southeast Asia, a Trump presidency would be confrontational towards China but not in a way to reengage and renew ties with the US's partners and allies in the region. Tensions between Washington and Beijing would rise on a bilateral and trade-driven basis but China's growing dominance in Southeast Asia would remain unchecked by the US. The US's emphasis on human rights and democracy in developing Asia is likely to be given a lower priority, and political regimes in the region, whether democratic or authoritarian, would be left to their own devices.

For Thailand, a Trump presidency and relative American isolationism may reorient bilateral relations to a new normal of better ties with fewer shared values and a realignment of mutual interests. In view of the regional mix, such as Philippine-US and Malaysia-US relations, where Washington is losing its way in Southeast Asia despite the highly touted but rhetorically shallow "pivot" and "rebalance" strategy of President Barack Obama's administration, Thai-US relations may be heading in that direction in any case. So a Trump presidency would be domestically focused and driven, much less concerned with the outside world.

The fact that Ms Clinton, who has been immeasurably more coherent and composed than her opponent, has not been able to close this race once and for all in the majority of polls is indicative of how divided and socially unwell America is. Ms Clinton is a tainted insider from within the establishment with dynastic baggage in her husband, former President Bill Clinton. Hounded by corruption scandals and dubious oversight over email correspondence, she speaks well enough but cannot connect with ordinary folk. In an era of social media and instant and universal connectivity, ordinary folk have the upper hand over old elites. Personifying old elites is Ms Clinton's principal weakness.

But if she wins, her presidency would maintain considerable continuity from the Obama years. The Asian pivot and rebalance would be kept on track, perhaps recast and relaunched. Her Asia team, unlike Mr Trump's, is visible and seasoned, led by the likes of former Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell. China's belligerence in the South China Sea would be more directly challenged, although Ms Clinton's administration may not have the wherewithal to back up its rhetoric just like President Obama's. The Philippines, Malaysia and other regional states would inch back towards Washington as a counterbalance to Beijing up to a point. The US's promotion and protection of democracy and human rights would likely be maintained, as both values and interests guide policymaking towards Southeast Asia in an outward-looking fashion.

For Thailand, a Clinton presidency would broadly see continuing friction much as was the case under President Obama. The US would keep calling for elections, democracy and human rights protection. But in view of regional setbacks to US interests where the Philippines and Malaysia (following in post-coup Thailand's footsteps) have cosied up to Beijing, there is a chance of a regional recalibration in Washington to bite the bullet and elevate America's interests over values. If so, Thai-US ties may become more nuanced and dynamic in a more cooperative manner, especially if Thailand proceeds to the polls and restores a semblance of democratic legitimacy.

Whoever wins, US prestige, credibility and pre-eminence in Southeast Asia are on the wane. America will be domestically preoccupied and unable to fulfil as much of its traditional global leadership role. America's middle-power allies, particularly Japan along with Australia to a lesser extent, would have to step up if China's regional dominance is to be hemmed in.

Thai-US ties, on the other hand, practically cannot be any worse than they have been, in need of realigning into a strategic partnership of sorts in practice, even if still a treaty alliance in name.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak

Senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University

A professor and senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, he earned a PhD from the London School of Economics with a top dissertation prize in 2002. Recognised for excellence in opinion writing from Society of Publishers in Asia, his views and articles have been published widely by local and international media.

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