Scott Murray recently had a chance to sit down with American Ambassador to Thailand, William H. Itoh, at the American embassy on Wireless Road to discuss many issues including the Thai economy, and how America is prepared to help Thailand through this crisis. Itoh, who is entering his third year as chief of mission here, was graceful and forthcoming in his answers as he held court in the second biggest embassy in the world.
Q. - How did you get involved
in diplomatic life?
A. - I think it's largely
because of my international background. My father and mother met at the London
School of Economics, and he became a professor of economics in Japan. As a child
I lived in Japan and Canada before settling down in the state of New Mexico, and
my family always had interests in the broader world.
After I left the Air Force, I
was trained as an academic and I taught Asian and European history briefly at
Humboldt State in Northern California.
But I decided that at one point
I would take the foreign service exam and my wife agreed we would try it for a
couple of years. That was twenty-three years ago, so I guess I have made it a
I started off my career in
Washington D.C., which was unusual because most foreign service officers go
overseas on their first tour. This was particularly useful for me because I had
not actually visited Washington before.
It was a good opportunity for me
to understand how the bureaucracy worked, and how the State Department related
to other government agencies. As I spent a good deal of my subsequent career in
Washington, that introduction was very helpful for me.
I was first assigned to the
Office of Congressional Relations, so very early on I developed an interest in
relations with the Congress and its role in American foreign policy. I continue
to believe that the conduct of American foreign policy should be a bipartisan
Q. - Who are some of your
role models and some of the people that
influenced you in your career.
A. - Well, my first boss was
Robert J. McCloskey. He had been Ambassador to Cyprus when I worked for him. He
was also a close advisor to Henry Kissinger, who was Secretary of State at that
time. He later went on to be Ambassador to the Netherlands, and Greece.
When I was posted in London, I
worked for Kingman Brewster, who was a former president of Yale University
before he was appointed to the Court of St. James. I also worked briefly for
Ambassador Ann Armstrong before she returned to the United States.
At that time, I was struck by
the contrast in their styles.
Brewster was much more
interested in the substance of diplomacy. He was the one who wanted to carry the
demarches himself to the Foreign Office. Ann Armstromg was much more interested
in public diplomacy, and outreach into the broader community.
I finally concluded, having
worked closely with both of them, that there is no set formula for success as an
ambassador. People have to determine their own style, and to a certain extent
their own agenda.
In subsequent years, I was
influenced by Larry Eagleburger, who was my boss when he was the undersecretary
for political affairs. I later worked indirectly for him when he was Deputy
Secretary of State, and Secretary of State at the end of the Bush
All of these people had rather
different contrasting styles
but they influenced me in one
way or another.
Q. - What about other
experiences prepared you for your role
A. - First, I served as
consul-general in Perth, Australia from 1986-90. It was like running a small
embassy. We had six Americans and thirteen Australians working for us. Perth is
as far from Washington as one can get in the foreign service, and was a
continent away from our embassy in Canberra. We had a great deal of independence
and it was up to me to determine how I wanted to spend my time. During that
period, especially after the Americas Cup, I found I did a great deal of work
with my commercial officer promoting American business interests in Western
Australia. I found I enjoyed it, and I thought it was very productive.
The recent experience which
prepared me for my role here was the four years I worked in the inter-agency
process back in Washington. For two years, I was the Deputy Executive Secretary
in the State Department which included a fairly long stint as the active
Executive Secretary. That position is responsible for coordinating paper flow
for the State Department and particularly the Department's participation in
inter-agency meetings with other agencies that are involved in foreign policy. I
went on to that same job in the White House as the Executive Secretary of the
National Security Council, again having to deal with all sorts of different
agencies that play a role in formulating foreign policy.
Both of these experiences were
very useful preparation for my role here in Bangkok. This is the second largest
embassy in the world, and it is essentially a microcosm of Washington. We have
over thirty US government offices and agencies represented here. Part of my job
is to help coordinate their work and to make sure that all these agencies
represent the best interests of the American government.
I don't know how many people
consciously set out to be an ambassador. I hadn't thought a lot about it because
I was quite satisfied, step to step, with where my career was going. But I must
say, it's a very challenging and rewarding experience. What I particularly enjoy
is the variety of the work. That plus living in Thailand, and the cultural and
historical context that it offers, along with the general friendliness of the
people and their receptivity to outsiders, make this an exceptional assignment.
Q - Being the American
Ambassador you are constantly in the spotlight. This must be very stressful at
times. How do you get away from it all?
A - I devise ways to maintain my
privacy by retreating to the confines of the residence. I have always maintained
that it is useful to pursue one's own personal interests. My reading, collecting
activities, trips to museums, and cultural activities provide a good balance to
my professional life.
Q - What is your take on the
Thai economic crisis?
A - I think it is fair to say
that no one fully appreciated the depth and magnitude of the crisis Thailand was
facing toward the end of 1996 and in early 1997. As the year progressed the
government took steps to try and deal with the economic crisis. First was the
suspension of the fifty-eight finance companies, then the floating of the baht
on July 2, and finally the IMF rescue package of US$17.2 billion.
Everyone assumed recovery would
soon follow, but there were some fairly serious political distractions. One of
course was the fate of the new constitution which was resolved with a successful
vote on 27 Sept 97. The other had to do with the question of political
leadership which was eventually resolved by the new government coming into
The new government has been
impressive not only in its composition which includes a number of ministers with
good skills and the ability to communicate their positions to the people of
Thailand as well as to the international community. It has also moved out
forcibly in addressing the economic challenges it faces including what's to
happen to the suspended finance companies.
It was unfortunate that Thailand
was poised to start the process of recovery at precisely the time that other
major economies, like South Korea and Indonesia, took such a sudden turn for the
worse. I call this process "reverse contagion." Thailand, being the
first to come down with the disease, is now taking the long and difficult steps
to position itself for recovery and is having to distinguish what it is doing
from the problems facing the rest of the region. But we are quite encouraged by
the steps taken by this government, and we have been quite supportive of the
Q. - Many people have
expressed concern about whether America has done enough to help Thailand get
through this crisis. Is this fair?
People don't fully appreciate the fact that the United States was quite
instrumental in the IMF's role in putting together the rescue package so
quickly. Our initiative at the Halifax G-7 meeting really paved the way for the
speedy implementation of the package based on our experience in Mexico. We are
the largest financial contributor to both the IMF (18%) and the World Bank
While it's true we didn't make a
direct bilateral contribution to Thailand, I don't think it was necessary and it
wasn't requested at the time by the Thai government. None of this should have
been interpreted as a lack of interest, or a lack of support for the process,
because the reality is we were fully engaged right from the beginning. Remember
as well that a number of countries in the region came forward very quickly to
help support Thailand.
The US has constantly found ways
to help support the development of the Thai economy over many many years. While
the preoccupation right now is with the negative news, the reality is that over
the last twenty years or so Thailand has grow at a spectacular rate and the US,
both in the government and private sectors, has played an important role in that
On the government side, for
forty-five years we have had a very large development assistance program here in
Thailand. This included major infrastructure programs such as highways and dams
and a very important human resource component which trained tens of thousands of
Thais including twenty thousand in the USA at universities and colleges. This
has made a direct contribution to the eventual economic development of Thailand
which was so spectacularly visible in the 1980s and the early 1990s.
Another point that should be
made about our contribution to the growth of the Thai economy is the access we
have provided to our markets. While Thailand has been carrying a
significant deficit with some of its trading partners it has been
carrying a significant trade surplus with the US. We estimate that this year our
trade deficit with Thailand will exceed $US5 billion. Last year, it was US$4.1
billion, and two years ago it was US$4.9 billion.
The openness of our market to
Thai exporters has been, and will continue to be, a major element of support for
the Thai economy, and for the recovery of the Thai economy in this period of
With the recent visits of high
ranking officials we are visibly offering strong support to the recovery program
undertaken by this government. We recently received visits from Deputy Secretary
of the Treasury Larry Summers, Assistant Secretary of State Stanley Roth, the
Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee William Roth, Defense Secretary Bill
Cohen, and Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts - all within a six day period.
All of them had a number of important discussions with Thai officials. They will
take back to the US a very positive impression of how this country is moving to
try and address the difficult challenges of the economic situation.
Likewise, I think Finance
Minister Tarrin Nimmanahaehinda's treatment in Washington was extraordinary. He
was welcomed in the Oval Office for a meeting with the President and the
Vice-President. He was then welcomed to a long meeting with the Secretary of the
Treasury, Robert Rubin, including follow-up meetings with his staff, and he was
also involved in a meeting with Secretary of State Madeline Albright. In
addition to his discussions with the IMF, his trip to Washington was really an
unqualified success in the sense that he was able to demonstrate to everyone
that his government is committed to real reform under the IMF guidelines.
So while there is some lingering
concern about American support I would think that recent events would clearly
demonstrate our strong and unequivocal support for this government's efforts.
Having said that, however, I would emphasize that Thailand's recovery will
depend largely on the reaction of the private sector and private sector
investors. We are hopeful that the confidence level of these investors will rise
again and they will return and participate widely in the Thai economy.
Q - Would you please
elaborate on the recently announced Kissinger-Anand initiative?
A - Dr Kissinger and Khun Anand
are going to co-sponsor a private sector initiative to raise funds from American
corporations. These funds will then be administered by the Kenan Institute of
Asia for training programs and other projects to assist in the adjustments that
have been made necessary by changes in the Thai economy. I think this initiative
is an important demonstration that the American private sector is standing by in
support of the Thai economy.
The Kenan Institute of Asia is
an institution that is headed by Khun Anand Panyarachun here in Thailand. It is
an interesting partnership between the government and the private sector. It has
been funded by the US government through USAID, through the Thai government by
the Department of Technical and Economic Cooperation, and through the Kenan
Institute by the Kenan Charitable Trust at the University of North Carolina at
Its purpose is to continue some
of the development projects first introduced by USAID over the forty-five year
USAID presence here. They have been working on environmental and health issues,
attracting private sector expertise to help address some of the challenges here
So the Kenan Institute in many
ways is extremely well positioned to undertake the programs that would be
envisioned by this new private sector fund launched by Khun Anand and Dr
Q. - What do you think will
be the importance of PM Chuan's upcoming visit to Washington?
A. - First, it is an extraordinary sign of President Clinton's personal interest and commitment to Thailand that this invitation was forthcoming at such an early date. The President and PM Chuan first met at the APEC meeting in Seattle in 1993. They met again most recently in Vancouver at the APEC meeting when PM Chuan reiterated Thailand's strong commitment to economic reform, and the President reiterated our strong support for an old friend and ally.
PM Chuan's meeting in Washington
along with the round of visits we had here in Thailand and the Finance
Minister's trip to Washington, will be an important opportunity to really
underscore the broad relationship between the two countries.
While much of the discussion
will be on economic issues the meeting also provides a good opportunity to
address a range of issues of mutual interest where we have co-operated in the
past and will continue to do so in the future.
Q. - What can the US-ASEAN
Council and the US-Thai Business Council do to help Thailand during this crisis?
A. - Both these organizations
represent the best of the US private sector and their interests in South-East
Asia. The US-ASEAN Business Council has traditionally sponsored a trip taken by
all of the US ASEAN ambassadors back to the United States. I have been
privileged to be on this trip the previous two years, and I look forward to
being with this group again in late May and early June of this year.
This is a wonderful chance to be
able to talk about the opportunities for trade and investment in Thailand to
diverse business audiences all across the country. This year we will be talking
to audiences in Phoenix, Arizona; Kansas City, Missouri; Greenville, South
Carolina; and Washington D.C. We have also added a stop in New York City to talk
to the business and financial community there in view of their interest in the
economic problems being faced in this part of the world.
The US-Thailand Business Council
has also had a strong record of being active in supporting trade and investment
in Thailand. The mission that was recently here was designed to once again
reinforce the strong message of support from the US private sector for what this
government is attempting to accomplish and also to indicate that the American
private sector - and this can certainly be said of all American companies
operating here - has a great deal of faith in Thailand's future.
In Thailand, we have US$16
billion of cumulative investment represented by a variety of American companies.
We have a very strong bi-lateral trade realationship, more than US$18.5 billion.
As I mentioned earlier, we've carried a very large trade deficit with Thailand
for years in the past which has been the tool for the expansion of the Thai
economy. We feel that Thailand has been a good place to trade and invest and
American companies are certainly poised for the long term and once this period
of economic difficulty is behind Thailand there is no question that American
companies will continue to be active here.
Indeed, I'm encouraged that
major investors like Ford and GM have reiterated their commitment to continue on
schedule. In May of this year Ford will be rolling out pick-up trucks from their
Rayong plant and GM will continue with plans to produce automobiles in this
We've also seen some encouraging
signs of new investment. Esso has announced plans for a US$400 million
investment in an aromatics plant. That is a major investment for Thailand coming
at this critical period of time. The Troy Corporation has also announced, in
conjunction with its Thai joint-venture partner, a new chemical venture in
I think that over time you will
continue to see additional American investment here because the American
business community has a great deal of faith and confidence in the long term
future of the Thai economy.
Q.- Any advice for someone
traveling to Thailand?
A. - There is a great sense of
unity in the nation but there are many Thailands here. I think it's important
for visitors, and myself, to see as much of the country as we can, to experience
the distinctiveness of the regions, and I will continue to try and do so. During
my assignment here, I have been fascinated by the history, the culture, and the
art of Thailand.
Q.- Would you please comment
on the Peace Corps presence here?
A.- We have had a very active
Peace Corps presence in Thailand for many years, and that presence continues. A
brand new class just arrived. These volunteers serve in some of the most remote
areas in the North and North-East and work primarily in the schools, assisting
in teaching English, and in health and environmental education. They really have
a remarkable impact on their local communities.
I just had a visit from my
colleague Darryl Johnson, who is the head of the American Institute in Taiwan,
which is our unofficial presence there. While here, he visited places that he
had seen when he was a Peace Corps volunteer thirty-five years ago. It was
remarkable for him to meet some of his classmates who had stayed in Thailand and
at the same time to meet some of the host families and the people he worked with
in the Lamphun district not far from Chiang Mai.
I think the Peace Corps is one
of the best instruments of American diplomacy, because of its people-to-people
diplomacy. Many of the volunteers are young, but in actual fact we have people
from all ages and all backgrounds who represent the United States in these small
communities throughout Thailand. If we look for successful personal diplomacy
repeated on a daily basis we should look to the experience of these Peace Corps
Q. - What other initiatives
are you looking at to help Thailand throughout this troubled period?
A. - We are looking at a variety
of ways to assist Thailand. For example, we recently had a high-level delegation
from the Pentagon to discuss with the Thai military some creative solutions to
ease the burdens of a number of defense procurement obligations. This was an
immediate follow-up to the discussions between PM Chuan and US Defense Secretary
Cohen. We are optimistic we can find some solutions to help Thailand.
Recently, I joined the Thai
Minister of Agriculture in announcing a US$300 million program of export credit
guarantees for American agricultural products to be sold in Thailand. This
should be a helpful program because it would allow Thai importers to purchase
these commodoties on credit at US interest rates.
Three specific examples come to
mind. One, credits could be used to buy US cotton for the textiles industry for
export. Two, credits could be used to purchase hides and skins in the US for the
leather industry, also for export. Three, credits could be used for the purchase
of soybean meal in the US for the poultry industry, again for export. This
program has existed in the past, but this year we think it shows real promise
for Thai producers because of the very high interest rates here.
Another area we are looking at
this point is to try and provide some relief for Thai students studying in the
US. Already, on a case-by-case basis, some universities have extended low
interest US dollar denominated loans to Thai students to help them stay in
school. One recent example is the University of North Carolina which is
co-signing loans that will allow Thai students to continue their studies at that
I think it is important to
underscore that in a whole variety of ways the US honors and respects its long
standing connections with Thailand. We will continue to look for ways we can
help in these difficult economic circumstances.
Q.- Any parting comments?
A.- I would just like to add
that we are quite confident that Thailand, in fact, has a very bright future.
First of all, the pre-conditions being imposed externally by the IMF are
designed to improve transparency and accountabilty in economic policy making. I
think that in the future the management of Thailand's economy will be vastly
improved by some of the reforms being undertaken in response to these
Second, under the new constitition adopted in September there will be a greater degree of accountability in political life. Taken together, both the changes in the economic management, and in the political life of the country, should mean that in the future Thailand will be even stronger than before.