The Costs of Isolating Myanmar

President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush, joined by Republican and Democratic lawmakers, the leading presidential candidates, human right activists, and Christian evangelists, have been condemning the violent crackdown on protesters led by Buddhist monks in Myanmar.

While they have called for taking more steps to diplomatically isolate the military regime there and impose more economic sanctions on it, they seem to have failed to recognize that one of the major reasons for the U.S.’ inability to affect change in that embattled country has been the continuing American efforts to, well, diplomatically isolate the military regime of Myanmar and impose more economic sanctions on it.

"Reading the news coverage from Myanmar, I am sure I am not the only one struck by the numerous ironies of the current situation in Myanmar and the American response to it," observes Ambassador Chas Freeman, the former chief of mission in the U.S. embassies in Beijing and Bangkok, pointing to newspaper headlines reporting that the "U.S. urges China to help curb violence in Burma, prepare for transition" at the same time that the "U.S. bars Burmese military and government officials and their families from visiting the United States."

Indeed, Mr. Freeman and other realpolitik types in Washington are struck by the fact that the world’s only remaining superpower had been left with no effective diplomatic channel to communicate with the members of the military junta in Myanmar. Thus, Washington has no choice but to plead with the Chinese government to "do something" about the chaos and violence in that country.

Hence, while the U.S. has a mission in Myanmar, American officials seem to have limited knowledge about events inside the country and depend, in large measure, on news reports and information from refugees, exiles, and others in neighboring countries.

While continuing to call on the United Nations to isolate Myanmar, Bush administration officials have been pressing Chinese officials in private conversations to use their leverage with authorities in Myanmar to limit the violence and help manage a transition to a new government.

After all, unlike Washington, China and the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) do have extensive diplomatic and commercial interests in Myanmar, which explains why they communicate with and influence its military leaders.

"Once again, we have to turn to China, which does not share our perspectives or interests with respect to the issues at hand, because we have no credibility or influence with any of the players in an evolving situation," Mr. Freeman says. "Once again, our preferred means of exercising direct influence ourselves is a symbolic distancing of those players," he notes. As he sees it, this situation came about because officials and lawmakers in Washington sought to avoid the "moral contagion" of engagement with the government in Yangon and thus have no effective communication with them or their most likely successors, who probably do not include any candidates for office known to or favored by the West.

In fact, the Bush administration responded to the crisis in Myanmar by "symbolically deepening" U.S. inability to communicate directly with its government, Mr. Freeman stresses, thus empowering Beijing as America’s preferred intermediary. If anything, this kind of American policy ends up achieving a result which runs contrary to U.S. interests – helping Beijing become the central diplomatic player in Asia.

In a way, the current U.S. response to the developments in Myanmar is just another chapter in a failed American policy, including the long-standing unilateral U.S. trade and investment sanctions against Myanmar.

Indeed, by forcing U.S. firms to disengage from that country, that policy has harmed American economic interests and done nothing to improve the living conditions or human rights of the people of Myanmar.

Sanctions have denied citizens there the benefits of increased investment by American multinational companies – investment that brings technology, better working conditions, and Western ideas.

Moreover, unilateral American sanctions have alienated U.S. allies in the region and strengthened the hand of China but achieved none of the stated foreign policy aims of weakening the military regime and promoting liberal political and economic reforms in Myanmar.

A self-perpetuating cycle of sanctions, with the inevitable refusal of the regime there to implement reform, strengthened by internal resistance to U.S. sanctions, ends up leading to new and harsher sanctions against Myanmar, which is exactly what the Bush administration is trying to do now.

"America has been seen in the region as more interested in posturing than in results, instructing those neighbors with the greatest influence in Myanmar, including China, Thailand, and India, as well as ASEAN collectively, to fall into line with our preferred policy, especially sanctions," Mr. Freeman argues.

Instead, Washington should have tried to engage with them in dialogue about what ends Americans might have in common with these neighbors, or the internal opposition they could work with to achieve these ends.

Moreover, as an alternative to the failed policy of sanctions, the United States could allow U.S. companies to freely trade with and invest in that country. Such a pro-business approach to engagement would more effectively promote political, civil, and economic freedom similar to the changes that have taken place in China and Vietnam. But politicians and activists in Washington seem to be more interested in "feeling good" by posturing unilaterally and appearing to punish Myanmar’s leaders instead of trying to achieve gradual and imperfect changes there.

"Once again, we appear to have put ideology ahead of the interests of those closest to and most likely to be affected by instability in Myanmar," Mr. Freeman says. "And we are raising questions about our commitment to take into account the interests and priorities of regional allies and friends," he suggests.

An alternative policy would have been based on working in concert with ASEAN, India, Japan, and other allies in Asia who have an interest in seeing Myanmar return to stability.

"Having isolated ourselves, we do not know much about what is going on in Myanmar and must depend for our information on the very neighbors of Myanmar we have previously offended and now condemn for not following our lead in dealing with the situation," Mr. Freeman concludes.

The end result is that American policy would only stiffen the backs of the junta members and would not help the Chinese in their efforts to press the military leaders. At the same time, by promoting a central role for the Chinese in Myanmar, Washington may be igniting fears in India about Chinese intentions.

And let’s not forget that while some Americans are pleading for Chinese assistance in Myanmar, other Americans are threatening to boycott the Beijing Olympics if the Chinese refuse to end their support for Myanmar.

"Sanctions and disengagement are the diplomatic equivalent of unilateral disarmament," Mr. Freeman explains. "We are ceding our global leadership to others by our chronic inability to distinguish between interests and values and our propensity to employ sanctions as a substitute for war in circumstances where, inasmuch as our interests are too peripheral to justify war, they end up as a substitute for diplomatic engagement."

Copyright © 2007 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.