The Duck of Minerva

Why not invade Burma?


11 May 2008

With the unfolding of the humanitarian tragedy in Burma following the cyclone, people are once again (re)learning how awful that regime is (by one popular account, the 3rd worst dictatorship in the world—don’t laugh, even Drezner loves the list).

Back in The Day, when the Axis of Evil (you remember that—Iran, Iraq, North Korea) came out, I used to go through a little exercise with my students called what makes a country Evil? In particular, I would ask them why not include Burma on the list? An “evil” regime by all accounts that is certainly not friendly to the US, but it gets nary a mention by the President. In fact, he seems to have sub-contracted Burma policy to the First Lady.

The Junta is supremely isolationist, concerned with its own hold on power, but largely staying out of world affairs. As far as we know, they don’t really involve themselves in the wild world of weapons of mass destruction or international terrorism. They generally don’t bother the US, and as a result, we generally don’t bother them.

One might even ask, why not invade Burma? After all, they do have a civil society looking to engage in a democratic transition, a relatively peaceful religious community, and a leader in waiting (with a Nobel no less). They even have some natural gas that is supposed to be valuable.

Interestingly enough, given the Junta’s poor performance after the cyclone and steadfast refusal to accept the international aid offered, a French proposal emerged to force aid into the country. The idea was quickly rejected, but it was revealing in that it showed just how limited international influence can be on a stubborn regime with little connection to the rest of the world, absent the threat of military force.

From the Junta’s perspective, as many have noted, this whole situation is a danger. The poor response to the disaster threatens their legitimacy on the eve of a sham vote to legimate their hold on power. However, allowing in hundred of international aid workers and thousands of tons of international assistance is also a danger, in that it not only questions the legitimacy of the government, unable to care for its own people, it also creates a social structure outside of government control. Aid distribution networks, moving materials and information, are the very sorts of civil society that a totalitarian regime must quash to prevent opposition movements from capitalizing on these tools to further threaten the government. An interesting point of reference are the North Korean famines of the mid 1990’s. After severe weather (and poor government planning and response) wiped out crops, the country had no food. It too resisted offers of assistance, similarly threatened by the potential ‘contamination’ to its domestic society that international aid workers and distribution networks might bring. North Korea eventually did get some aid, but much of it came in the context of the nuclear negotiations and subsequent Sunshine diplomacy with the South.

In that case, two things were important. First, the US led the international response. Fully engaged in the process, the US was able to lead the international community in negotiating with the DPRK. The US is again playing a lead role in Burma, but is somewhat, shall we say, distracted by Iraq, Afghanistan, and the whole GWOT thing. Second, North Korea and the US were engaged in a larger game at the time, the nuclear negotiations, and that provided an opening for the food aid. The DPRK was already trying to extract some sort of payment from the US, and the US had several things it wanted from the DPRK. So, food aid could enter into the discussion at some point. Burma has nothing we want, really, and we have had nothing substantive to say to them in quite a while.

So, unless the US and the “international community” want to force their way into Burma to deliver a planeload of high energy biscuits, there is unfortunately very little they can do to get aid to those in need. It reaffirms the importance of the state—even a weak state such as Burma—to set its own tone for its domestic affairs when the big boys of the neighborhood (China, the US, the EU) are unwilling to play hardball.

Moral of the story: if you’re evil, we’ll go to the mattress to take care of business. If you’re just plain bad, you’re probably in the clear.