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Book Review: Aid Imperium: United States Foreign Policy and Human Rights in Post-Cold War Southeast Asia

11 May 2022
Reviewed by Marc Martorell Junyent

Salvador Regilme seeks to understand how US foreign aid has impacted human rights in Southeast Asia during the post-Cold War period. In using “Imperium” to describe Washington’s relations with Southeast Asia, Regilme acknowledges the region’s agency to shape its interaction with the United States, while pointing to the inequality within this interaction.

In his recently published book Aid Imperium: United States Foreign Policy and Human Rights in Post-Cold War Southeast Asia, Regilme’s main argument is that the consequences of US foreign aid for human rights in Southeast Asia depend on three main factors. This is substantiated by his study of the Philippines and Thailand as empirical cases. The first factor Regilme identities is the interests of the US as a donor, ranging from a very militaristic understanding of security to a broader one incorporating human rights and the promotion of economic development. At the same time, the domestic legitimacy of the recipient government shapes the effects of US foreign aid on human rights. If the recipient government is suffering from weak legitimacy, it is more likely that foreign aid will be used “to include the unarmed political opposition as targets of violence.” Finally, the volume of foreign aid also plays a key role. In the cases studied by the author, limited volumes of aid coincided with fewer human rights abuses. Although an increase in the volume of aid does not necessarily lead to a concomitant rise in the prevalence of human rights abuses, it clearly opens the door for broader targeting of non-violent opposition groups.

In his analysis of the Clinton administration’s foreign aid policy towards the Philippines and Thailand, Regilme describes Washington’s approach as aimed at “democracy promotion initiatives” and “entrenching human rights.” Bill Clinton’s period in power coincided with the presidencies of Fidel Ramos (1992-1998) and Joseph Estrada (1998-2001) in the Philippines. After the two-decade dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos – which had come to an end in 1986 despite Ronald Reagan’s reluctance to lose an ally in his crusade against Communism – the Philippines entered a phase in which national governments enjoyed broader popular legitimacy. This internal change, in conjunction with the end of the Cold War, made possible a move from the very militarised United States-Philippines relations of the past to a new paradigm by which US foreign aid would be focused on economic development.

Similarly, in the early 1990s, Thailand emerged from a period of severe military interventionism in civilian politics. The Thai army had become a key security ally for Washington at the height of the Vietnam War. In the new post-Cold War context, however, a major part of US foreign aid for the country would have prodemocracy business groups as beneficiaries.

Regilme analyses how the Philippine and Thai governments adopted similar processes of strategic localisation, a concept defined by the author as “the recipient government’s discursive articulations of political agendas, which aim to win the support of two important stakeholders: its own domestic public and the donor country.” In both countries, political leaders resorted to a similar line of reasoning: international human rights norms were presented as a prerequisite for long-term local economic development and thus, worth supporting with foreign aid. In the first decade of the post-Cold War era, partnerships between state and civil society were seen as the key to success.

Regilme’s initial hypothesis foresees that a militaristic understanding of foreign aid by the US government, when combined with a high volume of foreign aid and weak domestic legitimacy of the recipient government, will lead to pervasive human rights abuses. Both the Philippines and Thailand underwent such periods during George W. Bush’s administration, which broadly overlapped with the governments of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (2001-2010) in the Philippine and Thaksin Shinawatra (2001-2006) in Thailand. Focused on the so-called “War on Terror,” the Bush administration had no qualms in supporting the brutal counter-insurgency campaigns carried out by Manila and Bangkok. In the southern island of Mindanao, a Muslim-majority insurgency was openly contesting the Philippine state. Meanwhile, in southern Thailand, Malay-Muslims were fighting against the central government.

Both Southeast Asian governments skillfully played their cards in the post-9/11 world so that Washington would end up bankrolling their repressive counter-insurgency machines. Manila and Bangkok resorted to a renewed strategy of strategic localisation. US foreign aid was now needed to confront domestic insurgencies, in a fight that was presented as part of the War on Terror despite the absence of links between Al Qaeda and regional insurgents. In Thailand, the conflict was actually to an extent an all-out war against drug dealers that provided a useful cover to eliminate political opponents, not unlike Rodrigo Duterte’s Philippines in current times. In exchange for rising military aid and little scrutiny of its (mis)use, Arroyo and Thaksin rhetorically supported Washington’s War on Terror. In the case of Thailand, the CIA was even allowed to establish a black site to unlawfully detain terrorism suspects.  The detention centre, where torture was rampant, was supervised by none other than would-be CIA director Gina Haspel.

Regilme presents the Obama presidency as bringing in a new era for US-Philippine relations, aided by the election of Benigno Aquino as president of the Philippines in 2010. Soon after becoming president, Aquino negotiated a peace deal with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the largest Muslim rebel group. Aquino enjoyed considerable domestic legitimacy, leaving office in 2016 with a record-high approval rate. This allowed him, in accordance with Regilme’s theory on the importance of legitimacy, to “allocate US strategic support and more domestic state resources away from counterterrorism toward the implementation of pro-human-rights policies.”

Regilme appears to have identified the key dynamics behind Washington’s interaction with the Philippines and Thailand regarding the provision of foreign aid and its impact on the human rights situation in the receiving countries. Regilme’s periodisation of the evolution of US foreign aid ties with the Philippines and Thailand – largely based on the changes of administration in Washington – may at first glance appear too clear-cut considering the messiness of political change. Nonetheless, the author will convince many skeptics with the numerous graphs included in his work. These visualisations present evolutions across time in the type and volume of foreign aid as well as in the number of human rights violations. Overall, the data shows Regilme’s periodisation is accurate.

Less clear, however, is how well his findings can explain a broader range of cases than the ones he examines, even within Southeast Asia. If so, it is probably Bangkok and Manila’s instrumentalisation of the “War on Terror” narrative during the Bush administration period that speaks to a more general trend. Other governments around the globe adopted a similar strategy in that historical moment. Following 9/11, Ethiopia managed to pitch its invasion of Somalia in 2006 to Washington as part of the War on Terror and received increased military aid. A similar strategy was followed by Ali Abdullah Saleh in his clash with Yemen’s Houthi rebels, which would drag on between 2004 and 2010 before re-igniting in the wake of the Arab Spring.

Aid Imperium is more convincing in its exploration of how human rights abuses in the Philippines and Thailand were facilitated by US foreign aid during the early 2000s than its description of the supposedly much more positive effects of aid during the Clinton and Obama presidencies. Regilme persuasively proves that US foreign aid contributed to an improvement in the situation for human rights through its support for grassroots initiatives, but foreign aid’s impact on economic development is far more uncertain. Although the Philippines and Thailand have secured foreign aid from Washington over the years by causally linking improvement in human rights conditions to economic development, there is no reason why we should adopt this idea uncritically. Granted, the Philippines of the 1990s and the 2010s achieved impressive growth figures, as did Thailand in the last decade of the 20th century. But this growth was unequal. The Philippines currently has the highest income inequality among ASEAN’s six largest economies, while Thailand’s growth split society “along class lines.” Salvador Regilme skillfully explores many all-important topics in his well argued and thoroughly researched book, but a key question remains unanswered. Can Aid Imperium help recipient countries move beyond uneven development and provide better livelihoods for the majority of their citizens?

This is a review of Salvador Regilme, Aid Imperium: United States Foreign Policy and Human Rights in Post-Cold War Southeast Asia (University of Michigan Press, 2021) ISBN: 9780472132782

Marc Martorell Junyent is pursuing a master’s degree in Comparative Middle East Politics and Society at the Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen and the American University in Cairo. His main interests are the politics and history of the Middle East, with area interests in Iran, Turkey, Yemen, Tunisia and Israel/Palestine.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.