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Burma and the Democratization of Global Politics

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Burma has lately been relegated to the op-ed pages, yet news continues to trickle out of the country. The US has continued to tighten sanctions on the junta's generals, and simultaneously, calls for India and China to pressure the military continue to grow.

For some, the Burmese conflict is seen as a watershed for China's future role in the world order. As the IHT commented, would China, with its new found wealth and power, be a responsible nation that strove to further universal human values such as democracy, or would it be opportunistic and display its (thus far suppressed) hegemonic ambitions?

If the quandary of how to approach Burma was uncomfortable for China, it has been embarrassing for India. Indian diplomats never tire of reminding the world that India is the world's "largest" and "fastest growing free market" democracy. So how can a democracy support a dictatorial junta's suppression of popular protest?

Both countries did indeed fail to pressure, or even criticize, the junta. But their response and the subsequent denouement of the crises are not as illuminating for judging the stands India and China took. Rather, it is a compelling commentary of how global values are judged and global politics now functions.

Why This is Not Hypocrisy

It is easy to judge these two countries, because there is an obvious contradiction between their espoused values and actual practice. Yet, as Robert Gates, the US Defense Secretary said recently, "It is neither hypocrisy nor cynicism to believe fervently in freedom while adopting different approaches to advancing freedom at different times along the way."

It is also prudent to consider if these countries did indeed have substantial leverage over the outcome. While they are close "allies", they are allies that compete with each other for Burma's resources – oil and geography. This makes their cooperation unlikely, if not impossible, and consequently reduces their individual leverage. Moreover, it is unclear if sanctions would have worked. They have not worked in the past to dislodge dictatorships in Cuba, North Korea, Iran, or Syria. It is unclear why they would have worked now.

Towards an Oligopoly of Value Brokers

The impracticability of action does not, of course, excuse India (or China). It begs the question of whether India should have chosen morals over geopolitical considerations, in deciding its foreign policy.

The idea of an enlightened state furthering enlightened principles is attractive. Yet, it is also fraught with risk. Take Iraq, where American ideals of liberty and Bush’s doctrine of crusading for democracy have justified Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and the uncounted (and probably countless) deaths of Iraqis. Indeed, the American misadventure in Iraq has soured the taste of many for democracy itself. As Daniel Henninger, deputy editor of the WSJ, recently pointed out, “democracy has been demoted.”

There is one more problem with an enlightened state. Whose values will it apply? Some argue that we can all agree on certain universal values, such as democracy. Yet, even that cannot be universal if a large portion of the world's population is not living in a democracy and many do not seem to care or know better. As Teresita Schaffer of the Center for Strategic and International Studies pointed out even democracies such as America and India do not agree on its value to others:

Both nations have different views about how their common democratic heritage should affect foreign policy. For Americans, it is natural to want to advance democracy. For India, however, democracy is not necessarily a product suitable for export….one aspect of India’s anti-colonial history that remains strong is its passionate commitment to maintaining and respecting national sovereignty. India not only resists external interference, but is reluctant to make a public issue of other countries’ systems of government.

So perhaps democracy and all other values are only conditionally universal. If that is the case, then it is better to have many states deciding which values to pursue, rather than having one state – enlightened or not – doing so for the rest of us.

It is here that Burma's loss underlines a gain for the rest of us.

This is the first time in recent history that India has supported a patently dictatorial regime. In that, it follows America's example of realist foreign policy and support for a long line of dictators. But my point is not to prove America's hypocrisy. Rather, it is to illustrate that America no longer has the monopoly on propping up dictators. What is remarkable about this situation is not whether the Asian view is wrong, but that it is the Asian view – correct or not – that prevailed.

The Democratization of Politics

This is a harbinger of a massive change taking place at many levels.

The first is political. America and Europe no longer set the agenda and decide which dictators to support or kill. Not only has the debacle in Iraq damaged America's ability to do so, the emerging powers are more adventurous than ever before. China supports dictators in Africa and serves as the closest ally to North Korea, Burma, and Pakistan. India itself supports the violent actions of Sri Lanka's current government, was slow to criticize Nepal's king when he imposed direct rule a few years ago, and resists pressure on Syria and Iran.

The second is commercial. The old powers of the WTO (US, EU, Canada, and Japan) no longer decide unilaterally how international trade is to be conducted. Rather, power to make or break a deal rests equally with Brazil, India, and South Africa that have collectively stalled the current Doha round. Another example is the spate of compulsory licenses issued by Brazil and Thailand. These reverse decades of tightening international intellectual property laws, and the inability of the west to punish the offenders shows they no longer have unilateral leverage.

Finally, the Burmese saga illustrates the ongoing conflict of values. Here, America stood for promoting democracy while India and China both preferred to promote non-intervention. Once again the developing nations were more willing to challenge western conceptions of values. Till very recently, these countries were being saved by western governments and NGOs from their own ignorance. Today, some of them are important enough to be counted and heard. And that is good.

It may be too early to herald the emergence of a truly multi-polar world, but we are certainly moving in that direction. Call it the democratization of politics, of which Burma is the unfortunate casualty. This will be viewed by those that loose power – America and Europe – as undesirable, for it makes agenda setting difficult. But what is bad for Burma is good for those that gain power in the process. And let us not loose hope for Burma either. Despite its espousal of sovereignty, India helped liberate Bangladesh when America was supporting the oppressor. So also, these powers may yet support Burma's eventual transition to democracy. But they will do so at a time of their choosing, in a manner of their choosing.

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About gnomeofzurich

  • Sam

    “India itself supports the violent actions of Sri Lanka’s current government”

    And so India should, after arming, training and funding one of the most deadliest terror groups in the world – the Tamil Tigers.

  • Marcia L. Neil

    Of course, the ‘K. C.’ in ‘K. C. and the Sunshine Band’ includes others, too, apart from the Chinese anthropology author. Consider whether, now, the monk shown in a photo dead and lying in water is a relative of the monk said to be stabbed in Golden Gate Park, within the city boundaries of San Francisco, CA, peninsula — while what? Fielding demands to have an accurate bloodline history from the Chang family? Are we all supposed to vote that they be interrogated until they die somewhere — is that democracy in action?

  • moonraven

    The most important statement in this piece is that this is the FIRST time India has supported a patently dictatorial regime.

    OPENLY supported, maybe.

    What about all the patently dictatorial regimes that the US has OPENLY supported:

    Papa Doc and Baby Doc
    The Somozas, Father and Son
    Pinochet (they put him in power)
    ALL The Various Argentinian Generals}
    Fredinand Marcos
    The Shah
    Saddam Hussein (he was their guy longer than when he wasn’t their guy anymore)
    Pérez Jiménez in Venezuela (even received a MEDAL from Ike)
    Several in Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay
    Ditto for Bolivia (Hugo Banzer more than once)
    and a LOOOOOOOOOOONG list of etceteras–including almost next door in Pakistan.

    THe US putting sanctions in Myanmar is just bullshit.

    Give me a break.

    The US has spread tyranny and dictatorships around the planet like peanut butter.

  • Ruvy in Jerusalem

    “The US has spread tyranny and dictatorships around the planet like peanut butter.”

    You like that line, don’t you, Marthe?

    You don’t mind if I use it in my own pieces, do you, since Blogcritics will not pay you for any articles you post?

    It is a great line – and I feel an article coming on…..

    Have a good week,

    PS I remembered reading in my Time/LIFE books long ago that Venezuela had a dictator who was a stutterer – that was Pérez Jiménez.

    PPS If you really do want credit for the line, just sing out…


  • moonraven

    Hi, Ruvy.

    Please quote me, since you know the name I write under. I despise peanut butter–it is just so insipidly gringo.)

    Pérez Jiménez was the Venezuelan dictator who received the Legion of Merit (US’s highest civilian honor) from the hands of DD Eisenhower.

    I believe that makes my point very nicely.