It was the first time since 1955 that a sitting U.S. secretary of state had visited Myanmar, also known as Burma. The urgency behind such a historic visit was, not surprisingly, concerns about nuclear proliferation. Intelligence has suggested that Myanmar has secretly been collaborating with North Korea to acquire missile technology as a step toward building nuclear weapons.
But rather than merely threaten sanctions or persuade Myanmar’s leaders that it would do better to stay out of the nuke game, Hillary Clinton had to court the country as an economic ally and a bulwark against the rising military influence of China in the region.
For a country that has been off the national stage — except for the reports from human rights watch groups on its abuses — Myanmar is now seen as an important fulcrum for the U.S. in the region. It is a fulcrum the U.S. hopes to use to leverage more economic influence in the Pacific Rim region.
Although a country whose name most Americans likely cannot pronounce much less find on a map might seem an odd choice for the focus of foreign policy, that focus reflects the challenges the U.S. faces in the coming years. China and India are likely to become the economic and military giants of the early 21st century, and the U.S. cannot afford to watch from the sidelines.
The U.S. role in Southeast Asia is to help broker conflict resolution but also to carve out a place in that emerging economy. Courting Myanmar and other nations in the region as allies can help on both fronts.
But then comes a familiar conundrum — what if the likely object of U.S. affection has a horrendous record on human rights? President Barack Obama called some developments in Myanmar toward more tolerance of oppositon “flickers of progress.”
Trying to build a fire to further warm relations on such flickers could lead the U.S. into dangerous territory. Too many times — Vietnam, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan, to name a handful — the U.S. backed corrupt, repressive regimes whose policies were useful for this nation’s economic and military purposes. But when those regimes were deposed from within, the liberated people had no faith in the U.S.
Clinton said her talks with Myanmar President Thein Sein were “substantive, candid and long.” The president said he is committed to “reform, reconciliation and economic development for his country,” she added. That balancing act, between lending a helping hand and holding the bar high, is the right tone.
Clinton also met with Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who, after spending 15 years under house arrest, is now seeking the presidency of her country, thanks to the movement in Myanmar toward reform.
Not only is the balancing act between encouraging reform and holding rulers accountable a familiar place for U.S. foreign policy, so is the role the secretary might play in singing the praises of democracy.
It’s easy to imagine the conversation Clinton might have with President Thein Sein or any other autocrat: Yes, when a free press and opposition parties are allowed, it’s harder to move forward with an agenda. Yes, it gets messy and yes, the compromise versions of policy may not be satisfactory. But when people are free to disagree, the push and pull of democracy strengthens, not weakens the nation’s fabric.
Clinton, as wife of a president who was impeached and whose party lost power, yet now is her country’s lead emissary, is a living example of that dynamic.