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The Rocky Beginnings of the U.S.-ASEAN Relationship

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.

Barack Obama at ASEAN Summit, 2012, Peter Souza | White House
Barack Obama at ASEAN Summit, 2012, Peter Souza | White House

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.

In this “Moment in U.S. Diplomatic History,” we see that from the very first cable addressed to U.S. diplomatic representatives in ASEAN countries in 1974 there were political conflicts that remained unresolvable until 1977. The United States and ASEAN both were having their own internal debates about involvement with the other, and the first few years of that relationship, chronicled in excellent and colorful detail by Mr. Geber, brought issues unimaginable by even the most cynical to the fore. However, the eventual triumph of mutual understanding has led to a long and productive relationship, and so, like old friends looking back on past quarrels, the two parties can now see these rocky beginnings and laugh.

Anthony Geber’s interview was conducted by Thomas J. Dunnigan on August 24, 1993.

Read Anthony Geber’s full oral history HERE.
Read another moment in U.S.-ASEAN relations HERE.

Drafted by Hawkins Nessler

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“​​In those days relations between the Third World and the industrialized democracies were quite confrontational”

Imelda Marcos, 1984, SSGT Marvin D. Lynchard | Wikimedia Commons
Imelda Marcos, 1984, SSGT Marvin D. Lynchard | Wikimedia Commons

First soundings:
I think my most significant deed while I worked in the Bureau of East Asian Affairs was the initiation of a “dialogue,” i.e. annual meetings between the U.S. and ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Offhand I do not recall when ASEAN was formed, but by 1974 it was an organization significant enough for the European Community and Japan to hold regular economic consultations with it. I thought that it was in the U.S. interest not to lag far behind the Europeans and the Japanese. As I indicated earlier, in those days relations between the Third World and the industrialized democracies were quite confrontational, and the more ideologically extreme countries among the developing countries could set the agenda (….) My superiors in the Bureau were somewhat reluctant at first. The U.S. was still deeply engaged in Vietnam, and some members of ASEAN were not particularly helpful in supporting the U.S. position.

But finally Art Hummel, then Acting Assistant Secretary, agreed that we should send out instructions to our Ambassadors in the ASEAN countries, to indicate to them that the U.S. would be receptive to an invitation by ASEAN for economic consultations. A cable which I drafted went out on December 31, 1974 which also contained an outline of the type of consultations we envisaged. In essence we told the ASEAN countries that they would be free to place any item on the agenda, but we would wish to make trade and investment, rather than foreign aid, to be the focus of the consultations.

The timing of this initiative turned out to be unfortunate. We imposed some sanctions on members of OPEC after the 1973 oil crisis. Indonesia was member of OPEC and felt to be unjustly treated by these sanctions. By the time we resolved our differences with Indonesia, South Vietnam, and with it the U.S. position, crumbled under the armed attack of North Vietnam. The ASEAN countries quite understandably wished to wait and see what role the U.S. planned to take in that part of the world after our defeat before they responded to our offer of consultations with them as a group.

“We were concerned about the domino theory.”

From Ford to Carter:
Q: As I recall there was also some antipathy in this country to getting more deeply involved in Southeast Asia after having had our fingers burned in Vietnam.
GEBER: Yes, and we were concerned about the domino theory, namely that the defeat of our policies in Vietnam may have adverse effects on the other Southeast Asian countries. It was to counteract these concerns, both in the U.S. and abroad, that President Ford made his famous speech in Honolulu in which he declared that the U.S. intends to maintain a strong presence in Asia (….) That was in 1975.

At any rate the definitive and favorable response from ASEAN came only after President Carter occupied the White House. The first U.S.-ASEAN dialogue took place in the Philippines in 1977. The U.S. delegation was chaired by Under Secretary for Economic Affairs, Dick Cooper, a brilliant economist and most effective representative of the Department in the economic councils of the administration. Foreign Minister Romulo of the Philippines, a great friend of the U.S., chaired the ASEAN side. The meetings went quite well, the Filipinos were gracious hosts.

“The US was represented only by an Under Secretary.”

Sour note:
The Manila meeting provided an opportunity to explain in detail the U.S. position to ASEAN but did not change the respective positions on this issue. The U.S. accepted requests for some aid, primarily for some feasibility studies in the energy field. The only slightly sour note that emerged came from some ASEAN circles after the meeting, that the U.S. was represented only by an Under Secretary, whereas ASEAN sent several ministers to the meeting. I thought that this was regrettable because few people could have represented the U.S. more authoritatively and more knowledgeably on the subject matters discussed than Dick Cooper. It reminded me of somebody’s facetious suggestion, that the U.S. needs two Secretaries of State, one who constantly travels to meetings and another who does the work at home.

“​​Could we skip the soup course?”

Crises in diplomacy:
The second meeting took place in Washington in 1978 and I was again coordinator of that meeting. Fourteen ASEAN Ministers came to the meeting. Foreign Minister Romulo again chaired the ASEAN delegation. On the U.S. side five Cabinet members participated, Mr. Vance chairing the U.S. delegation. The ASEAN Ministers were also received by President Carter.

Let me first entertain you with some of the peripheral crises surrounding the meeting, because, though amusing in retrospect, they are also instructive. It was standard practice in these ASEAN consultations that the host delegation offered a dinner on the first night of the meeting and the visiting delegation reciprocated on the second night(….) Shortly before the meeting was to open I discovered that the office in charge of the logistical support for conferences forgot to budget for these events. We scrounged around for money but with not much success. I sat with Dick Holbrooke, the Assistant Secretary, late one evening. He suggested that perhaps we could disinvite the lower ranking members of the ASEAN delegation. (My answer was: No). Could we skip the soup course? (Perhaps). In the end we had the dinner and the lunch, even including soup. But it confirmed my view, not for the first time, that Henry Kissinger was right when he said that when it comes to official entertaining and gift giving the U.S. ranks behind the least developed countries.

A day or so before the event Madam Ambassador Rosario of the Philippines, my ASEAN counterpart, came to my office, and rolling her eyes toward heaven told me that something terrible has happened. I was fearing the worst, but she told me that Mrs. Imelda Marcos, the wife of the Philippine President, was put on the Philippine delegation. Ambassador Rosario was not quite sure at that point whether Mrs. Marcos would replace Mr. Romulo as chairman of the ASEAN delegation. I assured her in my best diplomatic manner that we will welcome her and make her presence agreeable and useful, thinking all the while to myself that, thank goodness, this is your problem not mine. As it turned out, Mrs. Marcos attended most of the social events connected with the meeting and spent the rest of the time in New York, doing some shopping.

“Nobody could have staged a more theatrical entrance.”

Jimmy Carter hosting a meeting in the Oval Office, 1977, Unknown author | US National Archives and Records Administration
Jimmy Carter hosting a meeting in the Oval Office, 1977, Unknown author | US National Archives and Records Administration

The big meeting:
The meeting with President Carter was set for noon on the second day of the meeting. The ASEAN Ministers were to ride over in a cavalcade from the State Department to the White House. Knowing how difficult it is to get into the White House, I made fail-safe arrangement that I will get there at the head of the column and, giving my name, will vouch for the occupants of the cars behind me; should anything happen to me, my deputy, Rob Warne, would do it for me. We arrived at the west gate of the White House, the heavy iron gate was half open. A security agent came out to the car and I gave my name and showed my identification card. He walked back to the guard house and came out again and then walked back to the guard house, whereupon the open half of the gate was closed. It turned out that due to my precautionary arrangement, they only had Warne’s name and not mine, and Warne was nowhere to be seen. Finally, he arrived in a taxi all out of breath to rescue us; he was held up by an irate telephone call from the Chairman of the Asia subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, that he was not invited to the meeting in the White House.

In the morning we had a call from Mrs. Marcos that she wants to participate in the meeting with the President and wants to bring four military aids with her. I called her back on instructions that she is most welcome to attend the meeting but because the Cabinet Room in the White House has limited space she should leave the military aids behind. When the participants left the State Department for the White House, Mrs. Marcos was not there. President Carter entered the Cabinet Room shortly after our arrival, went around the room greeting the Ministers and providing photo opportunities. He finally took his seat and opened the meeting. At that moment the door to the Cabinet Room flung open and Mrs. Marcos entered in a bright red suit—with one military aid. Nobody could have staged a more theatrical entrance.

“​​I feel some satisfaction that our relations with ASEAN are deemed important”
The happy ending:
As to the substance of the meeting, everything went very well. It was a useful exchange of views on many subjects of mutual interest. The ASEAN delegation seemed to be favorably impressed by the high level attention they received and the competent presentation of U.S. approaches to the several issues discussed (….)

That meeting was my last activity in the Bureau of East Asian Affairs, and although I have not followed closely what happened subsequently in the U.S.-ASEAN dialogue, I feel some satisfaction that our relations with ASEAN are deemed important enough that the Secretary travels once a year for consultations when ASEAN holds its summit meetings.


University of Budapest and Consular Academy in Vienna 1934–1938
University of Chicago 1938–1941
Djakarta, Indonesia—1954–1957
Foreign Service
Vienna, Austria—Economic and Commercial Counselor 1967–1972
Washington, DC—Director, Office of Economic Policy EA 1973–1979
Seoul, South Korea—Economic and Commercial Counselor 1979–1980