A Shift in Foreign Policy: The Battle of “Democratization”


Yangon, MYANMAR

11 JULY, 2010

I’m sure you might be interested to hear about my recent trip to Yangon, Myanmar, but I wrote this post from my hotel room in said city. So I figured I’d let the experience settle in for a week until my next post.

For this one, I’ve been thinking a lot about the broad picture of US foreign policy and the trends emerging among the developing world’s governments and political transitions brought about by elections or lack thereof. Specifically, after the crusade of democracy launched by President George W. Bush during his terms in office, it’s time to reassess our priorities, our motives, and the nature of international relations in the larger developing world as they really are.

Perhaps the world need not be so obsessed with bringing the torch of liberal, democratic reform to places where the idea of democracy itself remains foreign and at times when it’s inexpedient. More importantly, as some experts have recently begun to suggest, we should consider promoting transparency and economic development as effective avenues toward enlarging socio-political, democratic consciousness, while also promoting grassroots community mobilization.

In Myanmar, for example, one of Transparency International’s and Freedom House’s lowest ranking countries, a number of international donor agencies like UNOPS, the UNDP, and NPA (Nowegian People’s Aid), as well as foreign embassies’ development initiatives, such as the US Embassy’s Small Grants Program, or the British Embassy’s DFID (Department For International Development), already realize this necessity. Their foci are different, but all use a similar vocabulary: addressing “imbalances in power and resources” and “creating space” by promoting civil society at the NGO level of community-based initiatives.

History has shown that, with a solidified middle class, improved infrastructure, and engagement by the world’s international agencies, a developing nation is more likely to proceed down the long path toward democratic institutions and a more liberal national consciousness. Isolation, sanctions, and non-engagement, on the other hand, will produce little or no effect.

While sanctions may have worked in South Africa in the 1990s, they have proven no success in limiting Iran’s nuclear ambitions and they have had little sway over Myanmar’s military junta in their efforts to secure military ties with China, Russia, Laos, and—most recently of concern—with North Korea. It seems the US is finally reconsidering this approach of hardline sanctions (imposed since 1997) and isolation, after witnessing the junta’s unprecedented hoarding of wealth generated by natural gas reserves, along with growing economic ties between Myanmar and regional partners like India, China, and Japan.¹

But this process will be impossible unless our national representatives and the heads of foreign affairs present a consistent picture to the outside world. The current realities of our simultaneous policies toward Myanmar, for example, of stiff sanctions, on the one hand, and renewed engagement, on the other hand, do not offer any credibility to the sincerity of our hopes for change.

A recent article in The Myanmar Times discusses the delicate issue:

The US is aware that re-engagement is a better strategy than sanctions to achieve its foreign policy aims. However, it is discouraging to see the US still retains sanctions while beginning the re-engagement process through high-level dialogue…After [more than] a decade, it’s clear that while economic sanctions imposed on Myanmar might feel [morally] right they have produced the wrong results. Encouraging Western investment, trade and tourism might feel wrong, but maybe – just maybe – will produce the better result for all.²

This sounds like an underhanded plea by strict, government-controlled media, but it does represent the opinions of many experts, foreign and national, both internal and external. The various arguments for and against sanctions are by no means resolved, and it’s neither here nor there to say which side is right. However, the Obama administration does seem to represent a sea change in foreign policy in the world, and, for the purposes of this discussion, in Southeast Asia. It can only help to better understand the positions of both sides.

It is clear that the sanctions haven’t hindered Myanmar’s military government and its cronies from accumulating massive amounts of wealth from illicit trade and rampant corruption. And it is clear, moreover, that the government is not concerned with the needs of its people, as Myanmar still holds one of the lowest ratings of international development standards. Perhaps the situation on the ground remains unknown to those outside the country, but the fact is that there is significant space in which civil society has been operating and working to establish a hard-won network of relief agencies and development funds, often cooperating with local authorities when necessary. It seems obvious that these local NGOs and community organizations are doing more good than the international campaign for sanctions led by the US government. It is now time to reassess what makes for effective foreign policy.

We shouldn’t necessarily see the process of democratization as the sort of hard hitting, quick-winning formula taught us by past foreign policy (Kissinger comes to mind): imposing stiff sanctions, resulting in a bottleneck pressure on the regime, which falls and hands over power to the opposition party, free market economy ensues, and the people are immediately delivered the promise of wealth, freedom, and happiness. This is the standard, idealized theory of top-down democratization. Rather, the more realistic picture, if we were to place bets, would be to look to the slow process of change from the ground up. Let’s allow civil society groups in Myanmar to continue to do what they are doing: taking significant roles in expanding education, constructing sustainable agriculture techniques to stabilize the micro-economy of vulnerable subsistence farmers, delivering sorely needed treatment and livelihood training to PLHIV (people living with HIV/AIDS), and, more recently in the wake of upcoming elections, conducting voter education and training people living in distant, rural areas in the ins and outs of the 2008 constitution. This process has been developing for some time in Myanmar; it simply hasn’t been fully recognized.

In my blog post two weeks ago, entitled “Dueling Dunces,” I argued that there was an unnecessarily constructed rift between development aid and political aid. The US government, since the era of Kissinger has seen its role largely as the heavyweight of political aid, supporting political opposition groups and politically motivated civil society movements. We have become so focused on what we see as top-down “democratization” that we now ignore the more active elements of the grass roots political movement because it has taken the guise of non-political development initiatives. Civil society has found this guise to be more practical in avoiding the scrutiny of the state in countries like Myanmar.

Last week in Newsweek, Jason McLure highlighted a similar plight in aid to Africa. One of George W. Bush’s most commendable accomplishments during his time in office was increasing aid to the African continent. We’ve made considerable progress in education, agriculture, and in battling diseases like HIV and malaria. But despite our best efforts, democracy appears to be losing ground, as countries like Uganda and Rwanda have distorted the democratic renaissances that were started there in 1980s and 1990s respectively, and the powerful Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front has recently used widespread voter intimidation in order to secure a majority of parliamentary seats for that nation’s ruling Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi.³

Understandably, Obama’s policy advisor for Africa, Johnnie Carson, has made democratization his top priority. But we must clarify what the term means. Closing aid programs to authoritarian states may be one form of taking the moral high ground and defending global human rights, but it’s also a serious gamble. “Cutting aid to authoritarian states like Ethiopia means not only halting some programs that help the poor but also losing influence in the region, a move that could haunt Western policymakers in future crises,” warns McLure.

Development aid and political aid are never mutually exclusive. If we can begin to understand that, by funding small-scale, local development programs we can encourage community responsibility and expand pockets of civic power, then we can engender a more democratic society in the long term. The seeds of democratic consciousness are already being sown by the growing integration between international NGOs and community based organizations (CBOs).

While the US stands aloof from the situation on the ground in Myanmar, a strikingly similar outcome to the trend in Africa may result. We are already seeing the significant influence over Myanmar’s internal affairs of neighboring economic giants like China, India, and Japan. While we dawdle, these governments’ investments in Myanmar’s crooked, nationalized industries of natural gas and mining are giving them more leverage without moving the nation closer to democracy. If we act now to adapt a policy of engagement vis-à-vis development, we might still be able to steer Myanmar in a better direction and give the developing world more hope that we still care about their welfare.

¹ China outbids the other two by far and holds the largest stake in Myanmar’s development of oil pipelines and natural gas reserves. For more on foreign direct aid (FDA) to Myanmar, see David Steinberg, Burma/Myanmar: What Everyone Needs to Know (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).

² U Than Tun, “US Re-engages the ‘Forgotten Front,” in The Myanmar Times. May 3 – 9, 2010.

³ McLure, Jason, “Why Democracy Isn’t Working,” in Newsweek, June 28 & July 5, 2010.

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This entry was posted in Burma/Myanmar, Civil Society, Foreign Policy, Southeast Asia. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to A Shift in Foreign Policy: The Battle of “Democratization”

  1. Con trau di choi Yangon a? Xin con nhin “Thong tin HIV ve Mien Dien” hay “HIV Information for Myanmar [him]” o http://him.civiblog.org. Cam on.

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