What does the beginning of a diplomatic partnership look like? Though the image that comes to mind is elegant diplomacy, crisp photo-ops, and a complete alignment of mutual positions, the real work of foreign service officers is rarely so neat. In 1977 and 1978, the United States had its first meetings with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a multilateral organization that remains a key American partner and dominates regional politics to this day. What occurred during those meetings offers both an insight into the rough-and-tumble contest that is high level diplomacy, as well as a course in exemplary flexibility and problem solving—necessary traits for all foreign service officers.
In 1967, ASEAN was founded as a partnership between five Southeast Asian nations—the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, and Thailand—in order to promote stronger economic and political ties in the rapidly developing Southeast Asia region. However, it was not until in the late seventies, through forging partnerships with the United States and taking an active role in mediation of the Third Indochina War, that ASEAN took its place as a major world player. Since that time, ASEAN has expanded to include the rest of Southeast Asia, save Timor-Leste for the time being, further asserting its influence as the broker of the region. It was in that coming-out party atmosphere of the seventies that Anthony Geber, long time FSO and then director of the Office of Economic Policy for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, arranged the first two top-level meetings between the United States and ASEAN. Read more