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October 28, 2021

Multilateral diplomacy and the wisdom of the East

Multilateralism dominates  international life and multilateral diplomacy  is being treated by many diplomats as a “sunrise industry “. To what extent multilateral diplomacy practiced today by 193 United Nations (UN) member states has  been  and is being influenced by the wisdom of the East and in particular by Asian thought, as reflected in diplomatic  deliberations, statements and pronouncements ?

It is not easy to give a persuasive answer to this complex question. Some scholars believe that the wisdom of the East is an essential key if our planet is to continue being a healthy ecosystem for all earthly habitation. Demonstrating it would demand appropriate  intellectual and diplomatic efforts, as well as  the  full cooperation of Asian countries at the academic and diplomatic levels.

A moderate optimism can be expressed on this matter. Conditions are being created now to undertake  a serious research about the specific, original  contributions of Asian diplomacy to the development of multilateral diplomacy, as   shaped under the UN auspices.

A promising start took place in Thailand.

The Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs published a monumental two- volume  collection of statements and interviews of Dr.Thanat Khoman (9 May1914 – 3 March 2016), minister of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of Thailand for twelve  years : 1959 – 1971.

The first volume contains the statements of the head of Thai  diplomacy and has 914 pages, while the second one is dedicated to his  interviews and has 715 pages.

All documents are published in their original versions, in English or Thai languages.


Who was Thanat Khoman?


Dr.Thanat Khoman is known in Asia as one of the architects of modern Thai diplomacy. He  was born in Bangkok,  attended Assumption College in the same city, obtained  a doctor of law degree from the University of Paris in 1940 and  after  his doctoral studies served in Thai embassies in Tokyo , Washington and  New Delhi. From 1952 to 1957 he was deputy to the Permanent Representative of Thailand to the UN. In 1959 he was appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs. He played a key role in the creation of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) on 8 August 1967, which with its  ten members is now the most advanced regional institution in Asia.

Sihasak Phuangketkeow, Permanent Thai Secretary of Foreign Affairs, in his Foreword to the impressive  collection of documents  presented in this article wrote that by his key diplomatic achievements Thanat Khoman  left an indelible legacy for the security of Thailand and Southeast Asia.

Thanat Khoman  will be remembered not only as a father of ASEAN, but also  as a  great  personality  in the history of international law, multilateral diplomacy and, in particular, as an exemplary fighter for the democratization of international relations. This assessment will be illustrated by a few examples  taken from his numerous  statements in the UN General Assembly (UNGA), as reproduced in the voluminous collection under consideration.

As an introduction to these examples, it should be  reminded that in  Thailand peace is understood  as a positive state of welfare. It is called  santisukh, which means “happiness in tranquility”, because peace  must be associated  with freedom and justice, leading to prosperity.

While  formulating and explaining the position of Thailand on the international arena and its  commitments during  a period of  world uncertainty, Thanat Khoman   clearly emphasized the fact that this has to be done  in the “free, fearless and indomitable spirit of Asia.”

From this perspective, on September 24, 1959 , in his first  statement at the UNGA  as head of Thai diplomacy, Thanat Khoman said:” If the nations of the world, great and small, should agree to practise tolerance in all its aspects, to develop better understanding of one

another, and to renounce force and violence and to have recourse only to peaceful means for settling disputes, peace will reign. In other words, if nations are willing to help themselves in their mutual relations, the United Nations will help them have peace. In conformity with

this concept, I must say that there is a growing realization in our part of the world that the nations living in the  same region share a common interest and a common stake in their own welfare and prosperity. They feel, therefore, that it is essential for them to develop and

strengthen  among themselves the ties of regional solidarity which in due course may mature into a form of regional cooperation”.

By a happy coincidence , exactly the same day, on September 24, 1959, Silviu Brucan, permanent representative of Romania to the UN,  stated :”We live in an epoch which requires of all mankind, of leaders, statesmen and diplomats, the maximum mobilization of all resources, wisdom, realism and vision.  The United Nations is a forum where these requirements should find their full expression if this Organization is to keep pace with our age, May the United Nations face with honour  this hard but noble task.”

On October 5, 1967, taking the floor in the UNGA, under the presidency of Corneliu Manescu, minister of Foreign Affairs of Romania, Thanat Khoman  in a realistic  diplomatic assessment of the  situation of  the world organization asserted the following : “While international problems grow in urgency and acuteness, the capacity of the United Nations to deal with them effectively appears to develop in inverse proportion. As a result of this seemingly unfortunate situation, like many other representatives of smaller countries which constitute the great majority of the membership of this Organization and which place their faith and reliance in the United Nations as an instrument to preserve and maintain peace in this world, we have come to this important meeting with our hearts heavy and full of perplexity about the outcome of our present deliberations.”

The UNGA session of 1967 presided by Corneliu Manescu was a successful event  in the complex history of multilateral diplomacy. This fact was clearly recognized by many official representatives from all geographical areas. Under such circumstances, a year later, on  October 10, 1968, in his statement  in UNGA, Thanat Khoman  in a spirit of diplomatic camaraderie said: “ I should like also to place on record the appreciation of my delegation for the valuable services rendered to the United Nations by the outgoing President, the Foreign Minister of Romania”.

One of the most significant diplomatic statements made by Thanat Khoman in UNGA was delivered on October 1st 1969. Deeply inspired by Asian wisdom, he said :” Now, more than ever, we realize in the depth of our hearts and minds that our strength lies within ourselves, our nations and our ancient lands. Outsiders come and go; they do not take roots, while we, the people of Asia, are anchored unalterably to our eternal soil. We, and we alone, have and will always have the primary responsibility for making it fertile, peaceful and prosperous. This is exactly what we have set ourselves to do and what we intend to do to the best of our ability. That is why we have devoted our time, energy and dedication to forge a much needed sense of solidarity and cohesiveness, to lay the basis for working positively together, and to replace the outmoded imperialistic concepts of domination and subjection by the humane and progressive philosophy of cooperation and partnership”.

The last statement pronounced by Thanat Khoman in UNGA, in his capacity of head of Thai diplomacy, is dated September 30, 1971. Its topicality and visionary dimension are obvious today and illustrate the perennial value of his diplomatic credo. In a prophetic way, with reference to the tumultuous state of the world, he said :”What Asia urgently needs is to erase and do away with the obsolete concepts of domination and spheres of influence and substitute for them the healthy and beneficial principle of mutual cooperation among equal partners, encompassing all nations, large and small. The interests of all should be safeguarded, and the furtherance of the interests of some should not be at the expense of others. Only in such manner would the cause of international peace and security be truly served”.

The wisdom of the East is being stated and  restated in Thanat Khoman’s diplomatic statements in  a terminology that is familiar to the Western diplomacy. Moreover, when we read in 2017 these statements  we cannot ignore a  trend which becomes   more and more visible  that the traditional   wisdom of the East is now being embraced worldwide by many  people who truly respect fundamental values  in contemporary  modern societies .

In the present world characterized by global vulnerabilities, perplexities and  discontinuities  the  humanistic  diplomatic  legacy of Thanat Khoman conveys to our generations a persuasive  appeal for a permanent combat for peace and harmony and  repudiation of  violence, war and injustice.


Dr. Ioan Voicu is a visiting professor at Assumption University of Thailand in  Bangkok.



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