Monday, August 24, 2009

Principles impede progress in U.S. Burma policy

(Policy Examiner) -Secretary of State Hillary Clinton must order a U.S. Burma policy review that will consider abandoning fruitless principles in favor of practical, measurable reforms. The United States has maintained sanctions against Burma’s military junta for two decades. During that time, the situation in Burma has deteriorated considerably by almost any standard of measurement.

While the United States has been busy isolating Burma out of a sense of moral indignation, tens of thousands of political prisoners have been detained in deplorable conditions; democratic elections have been suspended; private property has been routinely seized by the government without due process; multiple peaceful demonstrations have been suppressed with state-sanctioned violence; nonprofit organizations have been largely prohibited from provisioning humanitarian aid to Burma’s unhealthy, indigent population, even after devastating natural disasters; and Burma’s ruling regime has forged an intimate military relationship with North Korea, the world’s most unsavory rogue state.

Viewed in strictly utilitarian cost-benefit terms, such a poor record of policy performance suggests that continuing a sanctions and isolation approach will only worsen the situation in Burma over time. John Stuart Mill would turn over in his grave at the idea of allowing such a failed policy to continue.

The actions of the Burmese government are, in part, a function of its imposed isolation from the international community. Following the devastation of Cyclone Nargis in 2008, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates stated that tens of thousands of Burmese died because their government initially refused aid from many countries, to include the United States. Recent concerns that Burma could obtain a nuclear weapons capability--thanks to its recently rekindled relationship with North Korea—additionally underscores the importance of considering a reform of U.S. policy toward Burma.

To the extent that Burma remains connected to the outside world, it does so through trade and aid relationships with China, India, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member countries. Current U.S. Burma policy serves as an unnecessary point of friction with these important U.S. strategic partners. Further, as long as China, India, and ASEAN maintain their ties to Burma, there is almost no possibility that the punitive dimension of U.S. sanctions toward Burma will have any positive impact.

The time has come to change America’s approach to Burma. The Director of the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation, among others, has argued that current U.S. Burma policy should continue because it is “right.” This view seems to advocate that Burma policy should be based on principle, not effectiveness.

A better approach would be to reach out to China, India, and ASEAN to identify points of possible commonality in their respective approaches to Burma. A truly multilateral strategy addressing Burma would be a significant improvement over America’s current policy. Even if a single common approach among all these actors cannot be achieved, the United States should still consider engaging Burma in diplomatic and track II dialogues, possibly scaling back sanctions against Burma in the process.

Arguments for punishing Burma on the basis of a moral imperative are no stronger than arguments for engaging Burma for equally powerful moralistic reasons; the humanitarian cost of sanctions has been too great. Some might argue that the United States would set a dangerous precedent for other rogue states to follow by spurning international norms and the rule of law only to have the United States ultimately willing to reestablish relations. But this line of argumentation venerates principle above effectiveness, which is precisely the opposite of how good public policy should be made.

Establishing a constructive Burma policy starts with a comprehensive policy review. The national security, geopolitical, and humanitarian costs of avoiding such a review are simply too great.

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