Published online by Cambridge University Press: 21 October 2015
Thailand has long been famous for its adroit diplomacy. King Chulalongkorn's consummate balancing of European powers is often credited for Thailand's ability to retain its independence while the rest of Southeast Asia succumbed to colonialism. Skillful diplomacy in the immediate post-Second World War era helped Thailand to avoid occupation and the payment of reparations, the fate of other Axis cobelligerents. Following the communist victories in Indochina, Thailand avoided the retribution normally suffered by losing states after their abandonment by a great power ally by forging an entente with its erstwhile adversary, China. At crucial historical junctures, the ability of Thai leaders to discern changing trends in global politics and shift their country's policy accordingly has been crucial to safeguarding the Thai nation.
Today, Thailand's proud foreign policy legacy lies in tatters. The political crisis ongoing since the September 2006 coup against Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has had deleterious effects on the country's relations with the outside world. At the most basic level, images broadcast around the world of massive street demonstrations by colour-coded protestors and the violence associated with their suppression has forced the international community to reassess long-held perceptions of Thailand as a socially stable, economically prosperous destination for foreign investment and tourists. Pivotal events in the crisis directly affected foreigners in a negative way. The take-over of Suvarnabhumi airport by the Yellow Shirts stranded tens of thousands of tourists and the attack on the ASEAN Summit meetings in Pattaya threatened foreign dignitaries. The 2010 Red Shirt demonstrations in central Bangkok forced many embassies to evacuate non-essential staff, to issue travel advisories, and ultimately to close, while the violence associated with the demonstrators’ dispersal saw two foreign journalists killed. As its domestic politics spills over into international affairs, Thailand, long viewed as mainland Southeast Asia's pivotal state, has morphed into a problem state.
The crisis has also politicized Thai foreign policy. Thaksin's mobilization of his supporters from exile blurs the lines between foreign and domestic affairs. Clausewitz's dictum that “war is merely the continuation of politics by other means” might aptly be paraphrased as “diplomacy is merely the continuation of politics in foreign arenas” to describe significant aspects of Thai foreign policy today. Foreign policy is increasingly used as a weapon in Thailand's domestic political battle as each side seeks external support and legitimacy to bolster its position.