Reading the Washington Post this morning, I am sure I am not the only one struck by the numerous ironies of the current situation in Myanmar and our response to it. Some excerpts, under the heading "US Urges China to Help Curb Violence in Burma, Prepare for Transition," with parts underlined and somewhat reordered to clarify the underlying logic of this travesty of American diplomacy:
" The White House is focusing its diplomacy on China largely because it has little independent influence over the military-led government in Burma, which has engaged this week in a crackdown on protesters led by Buddhist monks."
"Yesterday, the State Department announced that three dozen Burmese military and government officials and their families will be barred from visiting the United States."
"U.S. officials have limited knowledge about events inside Burma -- including the death toll, so far -- and depend, in large measure, on news reports and information from refugees, exiles and others in neighboring countries. The United States does have a mission in Burma, but the ability of diplomats there to report has been limited..."
"Senior Bush administration officials have pressed Chinese officials in private conversations this week to use their leverage with Burmese authorities to limit the violence and help manage a transition to a new government ...."
"China, which has extensive commercial interests in Burma, has received a blunt message from the United States: 'You wanted to become a big power -- part of being a big power is you will be held responsible for your client states,'... U.S. officials have also urged China to consider some form of refuge for Burmese leaders, to help speed a transition to a new government....
" The administration is calculating that Beijing, a major protector of Burma, will not want to risk world opprobrium if widespread bloodshed is caused by its long-time ally."
Once again, we have to turn to China (a country that 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. Once again, our preferred means of exercising direct influence ourselves is a symbolic distancing of ourselves from those players. This situation came about and is unfolding this way because:
-- we sought to avoid the moral contagion of engagement with the governments in Yangon/Naypyidaw 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;
-- we have responded to the crisis in Myanmar by symbolically deepening our inability to communicate directly with its government, thus empowering Beijing as our preferred intermediary, assuming we have any interest in actually attempting to influence the situation as opposed to striking political postures over it;
-- having deprived ourselves of all influence in Naypidaw, the one effort (commendable as it was) to reengage with Myanmar made by us had to take place, symbolically, in what we now seem to regard as the paramount diplomatic capital of Asia -- Beijing;
-- that effort aside, we have 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 methodology, especially sanctions, rather than engaging in dialogue about what ends we might have in common with these neighbors or the internal opposition and how we might best work together to achieve these ends;
-- once again, we appear to have put values (ideology) ahead of the interests of those closest to and most likely to be affected by instability in Myanmar, thus raising questions about our commitment to take into account the interests and priorities of regional allies and friends;
-- we are giving every appearance of continuing to posture (if not act) unilaterally (or at most bilaterally with China) rather than in concert with ASEAN, India, Japan and other allies in Asia with 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;
-- our message to the Myanmar junta ("eat shit and die, or at least move to China") is more likely to stiffen their already very stiff backs than to limber them up and is very likely to be seen by the Chinese as distinctly unhelpful to behind-the-scenes efforts to persuade the junta to adopt a less confrontational approach that might serve the primary interest of China, India, Thailand, and others on the scene, which is the stability of Myanmar and relationships with it;
-- we are asking the Chinese to help arrange a successor government in Naypidaw (presumably one to their taste), thus confirming their paramount influence there, while underscoring our own powerlessness and confirming Indian paranoia;
-- by urging such a role on the Chinese, we are encouraging them to exercise the very sort of hegemonic influence over their Myanmarese neighbors that would form the basis for an Sinitic version of the Roosevelt corollary to the Munroe Doctrine and inviting them to establish their sway over a widening sphere of influence along their borders; and
-- our interaction with the Chinese is full of bluster and threats related to Chinese national pride in the Olympics and highly unlikely to instill a propensity in Beijing for it to cooperate us on other matters.
Sanctions and disengagement are the diplomatic equivalent of unilateral disarmament. 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. Our pathetic inability exercise helpful influence in Myanmar ought to lead to a reexamination of such counterproductive American diplomatic practices as they apply in other contexts. But I very much doubt it will.