The Biden administration perhaps never thought that its first foreign policy challenge will come from Myanmar, a small country tucked away in South East Asia and one of the members of the powerful Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). Aside from the customary denouncements of the military coup from Washington, capitals of Europe and parts of the Asian Pacific, the big question before policy makers is how to make the brass hats walk back, a journey that has hardly been witnessed in the international system. If the junta in Myanmar has no inclination of any re-think and is giving all indications of a tightening of the noose, what are the options available? And if no action is not an option, are sanctions the only way out of a difficult situation?
The efficacy of sanctions as an instrument of foreign policy is a debate that has gone on for quite some time, not just in the academic community but also within nation states. At the time of the crisis in South Africa in the early 1980s and the first voices in the international community against the abhorrent system of Apartheid, President Ronald Reagan at first took the position that sanctions would only be counter-productive.
“If Congress imposes sanctions, it would destroy America’s flexibility, discard out diplomatic leverage and deepen the crisis,” Reagan said in 1986. And conservative columnists like George Will argued that “the current campaigning against South Africa is a fad, a moral hula hoop, fun for a while”.
But soon Reagan and his administration had to face reality: the moral outrage of America and the West continuing to do business with the racist regime in South Africa forced individual states like to come up with legislations against investments in companies doing business with South Africa. If the United States, the argument went then, could boycott the Moscow Olympics because of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, what about sending a similar message to South Africa’s white rulers? But the issue of sanctions faced the same arguments then as it does now: would blacks in South Africa be better off being employed by American/European multinationals or if the business houses stayed away as a way of pressuring the government?
The argument that economic sanctions are far better off than going to war might be a bit stretched as a basic question would have to be asked if a country that is sanctioned is going to “hurt” in the real sense of the word. A country like Myanmar (or Burma as it was known earlier) for the most part had only brass hats serving as leaders with only a brief interlude with democracy or a so-called civilian way of governance. In the present context, the last word is yet to be said on what exactly precipitated the coup: a fear in the Generals that they are being slowly stripped of their position and power in government and in the legislature or rumblings and factionalism within the armed forces itself? The top uniformed soldiers will hardly lose any sleep if the West imposes travel ban on individuals.
Plus it has to be borne in mind that track record on economic sanctions as an alternative to conflict and hence saving lives is also a bit stretched. The examples that come to mind are the Gulf War in the aftermath of the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein and what happened in Slobodan Milosevic’s Yugoslavia—punitive economic measures failed resulting in a major military showdown involving the United States and allies. In fact an argument has been made that sanctions by ways of arms embargo substantially weakened the Bosnian Muslims facing the onslaught of the Serbs. It is said that as of 2020 some 24 nations are on the American sanctions list—principally for supporting terrorism or violation of human rights.
“Constructive Engagement” is a phrase the United States and the West frequently used when it came to dealing with South Africa in the 1980s; but frowned upon the same when the ASEAN pointed out that that was best way to bring Myanmar around in the 1990s. There is at least a two-fold problem with economic sanctions when it comes to Myanmar: first, nations in East and South East Asia will be badly hurt as opposed to Europe or the United States; and secondly, as with most cases, the ruling elite or the brass hats are hardly the ones feeling the pinch; it is often the common person in the street.
Statistics show that as of September 2020, total foreign investment is around US$ 5.5 billions with that of the United States only in the neighborhood of US$ 330 millions. The bulk of foreign investments are from Singapore, China, Hong King and Thailand. The uncertainty will nevertheless have its toll, sanctions or otherwise and will impact on the country where economic growth is already seen as sluggish and in the neighborhood of 2 per cent with a rise in poverty partly as a result of the pandemic.
Perhaps the most sanctioned country in the world today is North Korea which has been under the scanner of the United States since 1950. Aside from the individual measures of Washington, Pyongyang also faces the wrath of Europe and the United Nations, not on their own account but as a result of pressure from successive administrations in Washington. Yet there is hardly anything to indicate of top Generals and Kim Jong Un feeling the pressure—the rest of the country feels the brunt in the most cruel manner with little to no food and diminishing supplies of heating oil. The United States has ratcheted up the pressure so hard on the international community that even a country like China has started to wilt in its support for the regime up North. Next to North Korea will be Iran for its pursuit of a perceived non-civilian nuclear program.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu said once, “Tough sanctions, not constructive engagement, finally brought the release of Nelson Mandela and the dawn of a new era in my country. This is the language that must be spoken with tyrants—for sadly, it is the only language they understand”. In a growing interdependent world, nations would be reluctant to go with a tight fisted approach; for among other things it may have unintended consequences like pushing Myanmar further into the embrace of China which may not be opposed to add on to its list of vassals.
(The author is a former senior journalist in Washington DC, covering North America and the United Nations. He currently teaches journalism and mass communication at the College of Science and Humanities, SRM Institute of Science and Technology, Chennai.)
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