The Perilous Stability of Kings and Generals

One of the enduring problems of U.S. foreign relations has been the tendency to support authoritarian governments in the eternal quest for “stability,” sometimes as just a matter of inertia and risk-reduction, sometimes out of fear of particular democratic movements associated with perceived threats to our interests, from communism to Islamism. It’s certainly a dynamic relevant to the current quandary of U.S. policy in the Middle East.

In a web exclusive essay/review for Washington Monthly, Council on Foreign Relations fellow Joshua Kurlantzick examines this issue from the perspective of a new book on the legacy of Thailand’s long-reigning King Bhumibhol Adulyadej, who has unarguably been a force for “stability” but sometimes at the cost of progress–political, economic and cultural–for his people.

Thailand, like a number of other countries – Bhutan, Cambodia, Nepal, Morocco,- made a transition to democracy but never completely removed the influence of their once all-powerful monarchs. This has been a quandary faced by some non-monarchies as well. Places like Turkey for years and Pakistan and Egypt today, where one powerful unelected figure is relied upon to bail the country out of crises. Like his peers in those countries, King Bhumibhol has failed to use his moral standing to create lasting change, hindering the development of institutions that could be called upon to solve political problems. And those problems are spiraling. This is particularly of concern as the king is clearly near the end of his life, he reportedly suffers from Parkinson’s and other ailments. His appointed successor, 59-year old army officer and playboy Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, enjoys little of the respect accorded his father. Thais fear that, without Bhumibhol, their society could quickly descend into chaos.

Please check out Kurlantzick’s piece not just to better inform yourself in advance of possible future events in Thailand, but as a meditation on the costs of delaying or avoiding democracy with all its perils.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.