President Obama kicked off his tour of Southeast Asia this week with a visit to Bangkok, Thailand where he and Secretary Clinton were granted a royal audience with the country’s ailing monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The Washington Post yesterday had an excellent account of the meeting, which took place at the Siriraj Hospital where the king has been hospitalized since 2009. The United States’ courtship of the monarch dates back to the 1950s, when the king and his close ally, then-military leader Sarit Thanarat, allowed U.S. troops to base out of Thailand during the Vietnam War. Washington came to view the monarch as invaluable to stemming the growth of communism, both in Thailand and region-wide.
The U.S.-Thai relationship, though treasured by both sides as “special,” is hardly unique. The United States has long relied on monarchs and strong militaries around the world to prop up political systems in developing nations. That strategy, it appears, isn’t working too well anymore. In my new piece for Washington Monthly, I review the biography King Bhumibhol Adulyadej: A Life’s Work and examine how, in Thailand and elsewhere, royal reverence has hampered the development of democracy. You can read my review essay in its entirety here.