A little-known Californian businesswoman and philanthropist is tipped to be America’s next ambassador to Singapore, a crucial and overdue appointment to one of Washington’s closest strategic partners in the Asia-Pacific.
Barbera Hale Thornhill, president of Impact Design, a Los Angeles-based interior design firm, was nominated for the role by US President Donald Trump on September 19.
Thornhill’s nomination came two days before Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong began a week-long official trip to New York City, where he is due to speak at the United Nations General Assembly.
Lee is expected to meet with Trump, and although no meeting has been announced, he could also be introduced to the president’s ambassadorial pick.
But there are already doubts as to whether the prospective envoy will be able to reaffirm relations with a long-standing ally that has been notably impacted by Washington’s trade war and openly questioned the Trump administration’s policy direction.
America’s top diplomatic posting in the wealthy city-state has been vacant since January 2017, when former Ambassador Kirk Wagar, an appointee of President Barack Obama, customarily stepped down.
As with other unfilled Asia positions at the State Department, some had perceived the vacancy as a symbol of the administration’s dysfunction and wavering US commitment to the region.
While Thornhill’s appointment could help to alter those perceptions, questions are already being raised about the nominee’s suitability for the role.
The prospective envoy’s “extensive philanthropic work has addressed the needs of children affected by poverty, abuse and neglect, especially as Secretary of the Board of the Children’s Institute of Los Angeles,” read a White House statement that credited the nominee with promoting literacy, technology and cultural programs.
Thornhill, it said, is an active member of the Getty Research Institute Council, the Getty Paintings Council, the World Affairs Council, and the Pacific Council on International Policy. According to the statement, she attended the University of California, George Washington University and North Carolina State University.
She will be tasked with selling the Trump administration’s trade policies and use of unilateral tariff increases to address various trade imbalances, moves that have disrupted supply chains and hit economic growth in trade-reliant economies like Singapore. The city-state is now teetering on the edge of a recession, a downturn driven largely by Trump’s trade war.
Lee has long advocated for a robust US presence in Asia. More recently, though, Lee has signaled his unease with the Trump administration’s retreat from multilateralism, embrace of unilateralism and preference for bilateral deals while warning that the region risks splitting into rival US and China-aligned blocs.
While the US has pushed back against China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and accused Beijing of employing opaque financing practices to burden nations with sovereignty-eroding debt loads, a slew of vacancies and a reduced headcount at the State Department have hindered US efforts to secure regional buy-in to its Indo-Pacific counterstrategy.
“The administration is having difficulties finding good quality candidates to take appointee positions, whether there are ambassadorial positions, whether there are positions of the deputy secretary or assistant secretary level, and I think that’s true across the entire government, not just the State Department,” said a US official who requested anonymity.
“I don’t know if it’s because of the reputation, because of the policies or the way the policies have been executed. There’s something that is giving a lot of people pause,” the official said.
Frank Troise, managing director of private investment firm and merchant bank SoHo Capital, says he received a phone call from White House personnel in October 2018 with news that he was under consideration to be nominated as the next top ambassador to Singapore.
Members of Trump’s cabinet and key Republican donors to his campaign soon after began reaching out to Troise, asking him to consider the posting. In an exclusive interview with Asia Times, he explained why he opted not to pursue the post.
“I’m deeply troubled by the reputational risk that comes with pursuing an appointment with this administration – and the reputational damage that some appointees seem willing to accept, or even embrace, in their service of President Trump,” said Troise, a Santa Barbara-native and self-styled moderate Republican.
The American investment banker, who was previously a co-chair for the New Majority group behind California’s largest Republican Political Action Committee (PAC), moved to Singapore in 2014.
His firm, SoHo Capital, specializes in assisting Western and US firms with market entry into the Asia-Pacific and Singapore in particular.
While Troise said he values the notion of serving his country, the 53-year-old was not prepared to embrace an administration whose policies he believes have undermined US interests in the Asia-Pacific.
The Singapore ambassadorship “is no longer just a political appointment,” he said, “it’s of strategic importance to the United States.”
The only strategic consistency of American policy toward the region, according to Troise, has been the US Defense Department’s efforts to push forward an Indo-Pacific strategy in concert with major maritime powers such as India, Japan and Australia.
He described the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the Obama-era Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal as “politically and strategically tone-deaf, and possibly an abdication of American leadership.”
“Any nominee [for the ambassadorship] needs to educate themselves on the fundamentals of grand strategy,” said Troise, “and how the administration needs to work hard to align the instruments of national power to sustain American leadership in the region.”
To some in the American business community and diplomatic circles, the nomination of a political appointee, rather than career diplomat, was seen as unlikely due to the short amount of time any prospective envoy would have in the role ahead of America’s November 2020 presidential election.
Political appointees, who are usually selected from a president’s pool of ideological or partisan confreres, customarily tender their resignations when a new president is inaugurated. Private reactions to Thornhill’s candidacy presage the challenges she would likely face in the high-profile role.
“I’m genuinely puzzled by her nomination,” said the anonymous US official. “I’m not sure if she has a direct connection to Trump, or if she is in the orbit of an individual who is part of his inner circle. I think the government – and people – of Singapore deserve a stronger representative from the US.”
The official said it was unclear whether Thornhill is the kind of candidate “who will instill confidence in our friends and allies in the region.” A prominent Singaporean financial executive who requested anonymity shared similar views.
“I am quite surprised and disappointed at the same time that the US would deem fit to find an individual who, on the surface, doesn’t seem to carry the kind of credentials that I would have expected of a candidate for a position, for an office like this,” the executive told Asia Times.
“No disrespect to her as a person, but surely the position that we’re talking about here, the ambassadorship in Singapore, I think a very strategic part of the world, truly calls for a different set of skills and qualifications, I would have thought.”
“Part of an ambassador’s duties are representational,” the US official said, “and it could be that she’ll excel in that capacity. But I have concerns about her familiarity with the strategic issues in the region, or her understanding of the dynamics that exist between and among Southeast Asian states, China and India.
“If she’s a quick study and is politically savvy, and she comes to the job with an open mind, she might perform well. But if she’s a supplicant to the president or one of his subordinates, the potential for confusion about US intentions in the region is very high.”
The official said her lack of readily identifiable experience in international affairs, or in any professional connection that would link her to the region, will likely complicate her confirmation.
In May 2017, Trump nominated K T McFarland, a former deputy national security adviser, for the Singapore ambassadorship.
The candidate, however, asked for her nomination to be withdrawn when her confirmation process dragged on for months due to concerns about her testimony to Congress over communications with Russia and 2016 election-tampering allegations.
Since 2017, the ambassador’s customary duties in Singapore have been performed by Stephanie Syptak-Ramnath, a former charge d’affaires who left her post in July. She has since been replaced by senior US diplomat Rafik Mansour.
Despite the absence of an ambassador, US-Singapore political, business and trade ties are still considered to be on a strong footing.
The city-state notably hosted the historic first summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Trump in June 2018. The US continues to be the largest investor in Singapore, with foreign direct investments (FDI) worth over US$244 billion. Singapore is likewise Asia’s second-largest country investor country to the US.
“Singapore is an Asia-Pacific leader and plays an extraordinary role in the region, and a good working partnership with the United States is in the vital interests of both countries,” said SoHo Capital’s Troise.
“Our connections go well beyond facilitating and hosting. Singapore is a world leader in technology development, especially in the financial services space, and its linkages to China are essential to the world economy.
“The world’s growth is now in the Asia-Pacific. Not China. But understanding how China contributes to the world’s economic engine – and supports the prosperity of the planet – is going to fall on the nominee’s shoulders,” the former Republican fundraiser told Asia Times.
Though not a treaty ally, Singapore is a major defense partner and host to a key US logistics base serving the United States Pacific Fleet. It rotationally hosts US littoral warships and aircraft that conduct reconnaissance in the South China Sea, and US forces regularly visit Singapore’s Changi Naval Base and Paya Lebar Air Base.
“The nominee needs to listen closely to counterparts in the Singapore government, and take to heart the advice of those who have lived in the region for years and understand the regional dynamics,” Troise added.
“This means recognizing that economics, diplomacy, strategic communications and military policy are all inextricably linked, and that the gilded design whims of Washington DC can undermine years – or decades – of work.”