Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Time to rethink multilateralism?

by Joseph Ball

Mizzima News - Much has been made in recent weeks of Burma's burgeoning relationship with North Korea – illicit arms trafficking, assistance in obtaining "the bomb" and expert direction on the construction of tunnel facilities. Admittedly, these are interesting stories to follow. But by far the greatest, and most contradictory, gift the reclusive regime in Pyongyang has provided the generals in Naypyitaw with is the gift of how to survive in the midst of a hostile international community.

Acquiring nuclear weapons is very much a long-term prospect, and incorporates a process fraught with significant obstacles. The recently exposed tunnel complexes are ultimately of less practical military use and purpose than what is at times inferred. But how to plot a course through an international diplomatic minefield…well, that is a gift that gives and just keeps on giving.

In his talks with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon over the past weekend, Burma's military leader, Senior General Than Shwe, is reported to have explicitly related to the Secretary-General – regarding the refusal of permission for Ban to meet with detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi – that the junta will not be seen to kowtow to international pressure.

And so, they didn't.

In short, the crux of Pyongyang's curriculum in conducting international relations encapsulates a need to appreciate that the international community must alternately be placated and put in its place, while staunchly adhering to the belief that it is bilateral relations that definitively carry the day. Any welcomed access to international institutions is viewed as a result of a progression in bilateral relations, as opposed to the corollary – which would see bilateral acceptance coming on the heels of adherence to international prerogatives.

The most prominent example of Pyongyang both placating and confronting the international community is the on-again off-again six-party talks. While often held out as a possibility through which to address the crisis in Burma, the six-party talks, covering 2003 to 2007, have arguably resulted in no tangible progress of which to speak, with North Korea at present – sparked by international outrage over an April satellite launch – claiming it "will never again take part in such talks and will not be bound by any agreement reached at the talks." Pyongyang, too, will not be seen to kneel before any international community.

Meanwhile, the North has long held to a foreign policy prioritizing bilateral talks with the United States in order to address the fifty-six year impasse on the peninsula, as the United States is perceived as critical in assisting the country out of its economic malaise and in relieving pressure on the security sector.

However, the United States has not warmed to the idea of bilateral talks – opting instead to try and work through an international framework – leaving a North Korean regime increasingly feeling threatened and fixated on security concerns and, thus, ignoring the development of the state and people, though able in turn to blame sanctions for the state of the economy.

It should not be forgotten that it was a bilateral initiative launched by the United States toward North Korea at the close of the eighties that realized the most success, before souring over the course of the nineties. During the course of the thaw, regular exchanges between the two countries took place in such diverse theaters as academia, sports, journalism and cultural studies.

The Tatmadaw, Burmese military, is a highly nationalistic institution. As such, it attests to represent the state of Burma. And the state of Burma exists within a system of states. States have armies and defined national interests. The international community, practically speaking for the purposes of the junta, has neither.

In the aftermath of Ban's largely perceived failed visit, several voices are calling for ever greater international action to ratchet up the pressure on the junta. This is a pipedream. Burma's generals are acutely aware that the United Nations is not the equivalent of a World Government. For that matter, regional organizations are also of limited importance to the junta in its attempts to balance security and economic interests.

A practical limitation on regional, or international for that matter, organizations clearly played itself out this past week in Honduras. While much was made of the Organization of American States (OAS) determining to expel the Central American country this past Saturday, the fact is Honduras had already unilaterally rejected any authority of the OAS. Significantly, this means – barring some kind of agreement between the competing factions – that it will be up to individual states to decide how to punish the country. Of course, it will also be up to individual states to decide if it is in their greater national interest to pursue a positive relationship with the new government.

The argument that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) needs Burma more than Burma needs ASEAN is not new. It is not difficult to envision a non-ASEAN Burma quickly reaching bilateral trade and economic packages with a number of remaining member states.

Bilateral relations, as with North Korea's leadership, do matter to Burma's generals – and North Korea is but one example of this. Junta representatives were not sent to ASEAN or U.N. headquarters in recent months to seek consultation and exchange information on recent events inside the country and other matters. No, liaisons were instead sent directly to national capitals maintaining a working bilateral relationship with the regime.

Further, the visit earlier this year of former Singaporean Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong to Naypyitaw is likely one of the more significant visits by a foreign leader or delegation in some time. Serving as an ambassador for the interests of the Lion City – as opposed to any wider grouping – in the future of Burma, reported exchanges between Than Shwe and Goh took a decidedly different turn to, say, what the United Nations top diplomat experienced.

As with North Korea, Burma is interested in bilateral relations with North American and European powers in order to gain access to greater financial rewards and, by default, access to and acceptance within the international community. But, with little interest on the part of prospective partners, the regime instead consistently resorts to a disproportionate emphasis on security doctrine – ensuring its own survival to the detriment of the greater good.

It may be that there is no diplomatic, bilateral or otherwise, breakthrough presently waiting to be had concerning Burma's heretofore recalcitrant generals, but pretending that increased pressure from an international consortium is automatically the most effective means of assuaging change is to refuse to question and challenge an historically failed strategy.

If the United States and other national governments currently viewed as hostile to the Burmese junta are to try and wrest change from the generals, it may be time to contemplate more actively joining in the game already in progress – expanded bilateral relations – instead of waiting for the start of a game Burma's generals have no intention of ever seriously playing. Results certainly won't be easy or swift to come by, but the last decades prove this of all strategies thus far employed.

For those obsessed with the primacy of multilateralism and international action…think of it as a strategy of enhanced multilateral bilateralism on the part of the international community.

And, it unfortunately has to be noted, the adoption of additional sanctions by sovereign governments does not count as pursuing a bilateral policy – as it has been remarked upon seemingly ad infinitum of the need for international acceptance of a sanctions policy vis-à-vis Burma if sanctions stand a chance of critically affecting the existing socio-political power matrix.

In the meantime, headlines will continue to be dominated by evolving "diabolical" bilateral workings between Pyongyang and Naypyitaw in concert with a litany of calls for increased international pressure to counter the growing threat. As well as, it should be noted, calls for China to increase bilateral pressure on the junta. But where's the bilateral carrot and stick game from governments of a different political ilk to that of Beijing?

In the absence of an altered strategic approach, Burma's generals will continue to ape, intentionally or not, the North Korean perfected and contradictory response of over emphasis on military security at the expense of socio-economic and political development and a truly national agenda. But, despite its considerable shortcomings, it is a strategy thus far proven to at least do one thing – maintain the political status quo in the face of stiff international consternation.

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