America and Myanmar: Be Realist, but Be Liberal, Too

President Obama just got finished with a trip to Myanmar. This trip is of massive significance, because Myanmar has been a pariah state since the 1990s. The trip is a sort of reward to Myanmar for making positive changes. This is a situation in which sanctions seem to have worked: Myanmar did not like its pariah status, in part because strict Western sanctions meant that it had to rely heavily on China. Myanmar is now looking to diversify its options. This also comes at an opportune time for American policy: America is in the middle of a strategic “pivot” towards Asia. Sanctions have thus been in place for liberal reasons like promoting democracy and human rights and encouraging the release of Aung San Suu Kyi. Removing some of those sanctions is also a way to encourage Myanmar to continue improving. At the same time, however, they also serve a strategic, realist purpose. Has the shift towards good relations with Myanmar been too fast? In other words: Is America getting overly concerned with balancing against China and leaving liberal causes by the wayside?

Myanmar has made some very positive changes towards more openness and democracy. Aung San Suu Kyi has also approved of these changes and the loosening of sanctions against Myanmar in order to support continued change. Myanmar's legislature now includes mostly elected politicians and it seems to have some real influence on governing, which is a welcome change to full-on dictatorship. However, these changes are still limited and, perhaps more importantly, imminently reversible. There are still problems with the repression and mistreatment of ethnic minorities and there are still conservative factions within the army that are opposed to further opening. Myanmar is thus not there yet. Some sanctions, however, are also still in place. They should not be fully removed until the country has arrived at liberal democracy. Are we moving too fast? It seems the most onerous sanctions are already gone. There is also a further danger: Myanmar may see the US “pivot” towards Asia as a reason the United States will want to embrace Myanmar no matter what it does. What's more, the country's leaders would have reason to think this.

In the autumn of last year, the Obama Administration announced a "pivot" towards Asia. The main reason for this strategic shift is that the Administration rightly sees Asia is the future. Specifically, though, it has seen that US allies in the region are increasingly nervous about the rising power of China. Since 1945, with a few glaring exceptions such as the Korean and Vietnam wars (which are not necessarily considered exceptions, but let's leave that for now), the Asia-Pacific region has experienced what is known as the “Pax Americana.” The US presence in the region, including important security guarantees to allies like Japan and South Korea, has meant that countries there have been free to concentrate on economic development and have not needed to worry about the military prowess of their neighbors. Japan has a military that, according to its own constitution, is purely for defensive purposes. It also has no nuclear weapons, though it certainly has the capability to develop them. This stability will be at risk if countries in the region feel that the United States can no longer maintain the status quo there and that they themselves must be able to defend themselves against a rising China.

It does not matter whether or not China or its neighbors actually seek war. What matters is that little bit of fear in the back of leaders' minds that makes them think they had better be prepared – just in case. The result could be a buildup of arms in the region, possibly including Japanese and South Korean nukes. Each build-up would then serve to make each country's immediate neighbors more nervous, encouraging them to build up as well. This conundrum is known as the "security dilemma.” The US presence in East Asia has so far prevented this outcome, and the Obama Administration seems to wish to continue doing so for as long as possible.

This focus on broader strategic goals is good. Over time, of course, the US may not be able to maintain the Pax Americana. But in the short to medium term, it makes sense to try (I won't discuss the pitfalls here). The risk in the case of Myanmar, however, is that the US places realist strategic goals ahead of liberal ones. Generally, if the choice comes down to those two, then I support realism. We do not yet have to choose, however. America can still pivot towards Asia and it doesn't necessarily need Myanmar to do so. What's more, balancing is occurring anyway. China's neighbors are uncomfortable with its power and with its maritime claims in the South China Sea. These countries have been cultivating better relations with each other and with America already. The region's other superpower, India, has also grown much closer to America. America's pivot towards Asia is therefore in many Asian countries' own self interest. America doesn't need to bribe them much (though it should cultivate good relations with them). There is thus no need yet to sacrifice liberal causes on the altar of strategic realism.

America can thus both stick to its principles of support for democracy and human rights while keeping an eye on important strategic goals like stability, security, and, in the end, peace. Hopefully, the Obama Administration and future American Administrations recognize this and will continue to keep the pressure on Myanmar whenever needed in order to keep rewarding it for moving in the right direction. Hopefully, too, both the leaders of the United States and Myanmar realize that the loosening of sanctions is every bit as reversible as Myanmar's own move towards democracy and its promotion of human rights.


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