Hun Sen, Marcos, and the Anatomy of an American Smile

There’s an old adage among U.S. diplomats about how to handle a necessary meeting with a strongman, whether in Asia, Africa, or elsewhere. One U.S. diplomat in Cambodia—where the adage has applied for nearly four decades—explained it simply enough a few years ago. “Shake their hand,” the advisor tells their principal, whether an ambassador or secretary of state, “but don’t smile, especially if there are cameras.”

U.S. leaders have taken this lesson to heart in Cambodia for years. When U.S. president Barack Obama visited Phnom Penh, Cambodia for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meeting in 2012, he had to meet with his host, Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen—an autocratic leader who has ruled for nearly 38 years. When it was time to take their photo together, Obama offered what could barely be described as even a faint smile. It would probably be better described as the politest possible demonstration of disdain. A toothy grin, however, swept across Hun Sen’s cheeks.

U.S. secretary of state Antony Blinken followed the diplomat’s adage while in Phnom Penh from August 3–5 for this year’s ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting. When Blinken met with Hun Sen—who in the intervening years has only cracked down harder on his opposition and aligned more with China—he offered a facial expression remarkably like that of Obama 10 years prior. More interesting was Hun Sen. Following a decade of declining relations with the United States, he finally matched his American counterpart with a muted smile. Not a single tooth could be seen.

This crash course in diplomatic body language offers some helpful insight into Blinken’s recent Southeast Asia trip. Just by looking at the images, one can better understand the U.S. approach to the two countries the secretary recently visited: Cambodia and the Philippines. The contours of a smile tend to give away the contours of a relationship.

Blinken’s non-smile with Hun Sen is a reminder of the state of the U.S.-Cambodia relationship: strained and drifting. Sure, the secretary began his meeting with Hun Sen by raising relatively easy issues, like health security and the Mekong River, along with Cambodia’s ongoing ASEAN chairmanship. But they seem to have spent most of their time discussing the charged issues that get “in the way” of deeper ties, as the secretary put it.

Blinken pushed Hun Sen to be “fully transparent” about reports that Cambodia has offered China an exclusive military presence at the Ream Naval Base in the Gulf of Thailand, and urged him to stop that from happening. He also called on Hun Sen “to reopen civic and political space ahead of 2023 elections and make progress on democracy and respecting human rights.” Blinken noted, too, that he supported the Cambodian people’s “aspirations for a more prosperous, democratic, and independent country”—language that will only augment Hun Sen’s longtime fears that Washington is looking to oust him. So too will the fact that the secretary met with Cambodian opposition leader Kem Sokha, whom Hun Sen’s government has targeted with trumped-up treason charges since 2017. (Both Kem Sokha and Blinken managed slight smiles.)

Blinken and his team must know that meeting Kem Sokha and publicly criticizing Hun Sen will not persuade the Cambodian government to deepen cooperation with the United States. But Washington does have a commitment to standing up for democrats everywhere, particularly in autocracies like Cambodia.

This conundrum is reflective of the problem facing Blinken and his team: they want to foster more productive ties with Cambodia—because Cambodia sits in a neighborhood too important to ignore—without ignoring Hun Sen’s poor human rights record. Washington knows that it would be unwise to maintain a sanctions-first policy that offers Phnom Penh little in the way of geopolitical or economic benefits (which is one reason why it was such a mistake to not invite Cambodia to join the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, or IPEF).

Blinken’s decision to meet with Hun Sen is therefore an important reflection of the growing Washington consensus that the United States cannot write off such a strategically located country and focus on values alone. Why? Because the United States has done that for nearly two decades, and it has not worked; it has actually backfired. It is not a coincidence that Cambodia drew China so close over the last 15 years—a period when the United States considered Cambodia strategically unimportant and thus pushed a primarily values-based agenda, offering little in the way of positive benefits.

Nearly two decades of this values-focused, sanctions-heavy approach to Cambodia thus produced the opposite of what Washington wanted: a more China-reliant, China-aligned Cambodia that appears likely to give Beijing access to a strategically located naval facility that China could use as a refueling outpost or to increase its intelligence-gathering efforts in a neighborhood where the United States has its own military assets.

Ironically, U.S. neglect of Cambodia produced troubling enough consequences for Washington policymakers to see Cambodia as strategically important once again.

Moving forward, the Biden administration would be wise to better engage Cambodia by offering more tangible economic benefits (first by inviting Cambodia to join the IPEF), finding more meaningful and less politically charged areas of cooperation (health and war legacy issues come to mind), and raising human rights concerns at least somewhat more delicately, as U.S. policymakers do with Vietnam. Washington should do all of this not because the United States likes Hun Sen, but because he rules the only Cambodia that exists—and the democratic Cambodia that U.S. policymakers want is no closer to existing than it was when Hun Sen seized complete power in a 1997 coup, nor when he outlawed the main opposition party in 2017. The Cambodia the United States wants is probably further from existing than it has been at any point since 1993. A punitive U.S. policy will not change that.

Cambodia is an admittedly difficult country for the United States. Blinken’s job was much easier in Manila, where he flew to after Phnom Penh on August 5. In the Philippines, Blinken had the advantage of engaging a democratically elected president, Ferdinand Marcos Jr.—who, despite his bloodline and legal troubles in the United States, seems committed to improving the U.S.-Philippines relationship, which drifted under former president Rodrigo Duterte.

When Blinken and Marcos met on August 6, they spoke mostly in generalities about the importance of the U.S.-Philippines partnership. Both leaders expressed support for strengthening their military alliance, even though Marcos also expressed his concerns about heightened tensions in the Taiwan Strait following U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s recent Taiwan visit.

Notably, readouts and reports suggest that Blinken did not press Marcos on governance issues, even though the new Philippines administration has continued waging Duterte’s legal war against Rappler, the independent news site founded by Nobel Prize winner (and American citizen) Maria Ressa. Blinken certainly did not read Marcos the riot act as he did for Hun Sen. The Philippines was, of course, also invited to IPEF, hosts U.S. military assets, and has a historically strong relationship with the United States.

For lack of a better analogy, Blinken’s meeting with Hun Sen was something of an awkward middle school-like diplomatic dance—engaging the strongman while leaving enough space for governance concerns in between—while his meeting with Marcos was a more mature embrace. The key difference is that while the United States and the Philippines have a mutual attraction, no such affection exists with Cambodia.

When it comes to Cambodia, neither side wants to make the first move. Much like the middle schooler, both sides fear unrequited affection, and neither side wants to be embarrassed. Phnom Penh will not offer meaningful governance improvements until Washington offers meaningful economic benefits and ratchets back sanctions, which the United States will not do until Cambodia stops repressing political opposition. And so, the United States and Cambodia are stuck in an uncomfortable dance of détente, in which nobody is happy and both sides want more.

At least Hun Sen and Marcos have one thing in common: they welcome U.S. interest, both to balance China and provide more benefits to their people. Both want improved economic and even strategic ties with the United States, even if the yearning is deeper in Manila.

It remains to be seen, however, if the United States will offer enough to bring the two Southeast Asian leaders—one a long-serving strongman, the other a newly inaugurated son of one—at least a little bit more on board. Successfully doing so will require much more than smiles.

Charles Dunst is an adjunct fellow (non-resident) with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Charles Dunst

Charles Dunst

Former Adjunct Fellow (Non-resident), Southeast Asia Program