Hillary Clinton has indicated that the United States is considering a major shift in its policy toward Burma, most notably by lifting the economic sanctions that have restricted trade and investment in one of the world's most brutalizing regimes. While maintaining that the Obama administration is still considering its options, Clinton asserted that "the path we have taken in imposing sanctions hasn't influenced the Burmese junta." She added that engagement--the approach undertaken by Burma's neighboring countries--also failed to convince the authoritarian leaders to change their course.
Why hasn't America's approach made a difference? Well, other powerful actors--namely China and India--have stepped into the void, fostering lucrative partnerships with the regime. The military rulers have exploited the country's vast natural resources--not only its infamous gemstones, but also timber, metals, and natural gas. Moreover, the regime has continued to receive mixed messages from the international community: While the U.S. and E.U. have loudly condemned the regime, the Association for Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has supported "constructive engagement" that has ensured that the regime has never been diplomatically isolated. Altogether, the Burmese junta neither needs nor wants to seek out America's approval.
It's encouraging to hear Clinton's admission that both sanctions and engagement have failed to bring any reform to Burma in the past 20 years. So what can be done instead, and how can the U.S. adopt a leadership role? Michael Green and Derek Mitchell have laid out some provocative alternatives in Foreign Affairs, suggesting that the U.S. go through China and India--Burma's "greatest enablers"--and make Burma more of a priority in diplomatic talks: "In discussions with Beijing, Washington could make China's Burma policy another test of its readiness to be a ‘responsible stakeholder,' much as it has already done in regard to Darfur," the authors write.
Clinton has already given strong signals that the U.S. will be more actively involved in Southeast Asia than under the Bush administration-not only by visiting Jakarta on her first overseas trip, but also by agreeing to attend a ministerial summit that Condi Rice "tended to skip" and to sign an ASEAN treaty of "amity and cooperation" that Bush refused to agree to. Meanwhile, the reasons for prioritizing Burma are becoming all the more urgent. As Green and Mitchell point out, the country is more than a political and humanitarian disaster--it's fast becoming a serious international security threat. Given such threats, the U.S. shouldn't hesitate in taking a leadership role in addressing the Burma crisis--not by going it alone, Rambo-style, but by diplomatically engaging and pressuring those most likely to influence the regime.