Almost three weeks after taking office and still severely understaffed, the Biden government is already facing several major, cumbersome foreign policy challenges. The coup in Myanmar, Moscow’s crackdown on widespread protests, and the political turmoil in Haiti (where President Jovenel Moïse refused to step down at the end of his term in office) seem to call for a strong response from Washington – especially given the large number of government. advertised promises to put democracy and human rights at the center of its agenda.
So far the White House has been cautious. Measures have yet to be taken, or even promised, against Russia or Haiti, going beyond righteous and confusing statements to the former and confusing statements to the latter. In Myanmar, after eleven days of deliberation, new sanctions were announced on Wednesday that would target the country’s military and freeze $ 1 billion in US-held assets by the Burmese government.
These steps are welcomed by human rights and democracy advocates, who have pressured the White House to do more on all of these cases. But as well-intentioned as they are, they probably won’t matter much – something Biden’s foreign policy team is smart and experienced enough to understand.
Consider the new US moves against the Tatmadaw (the name by which Myanmar’s military is known). The first problem with them is that most of the country’s leading militaries are already sanctioned: those imposed in 2019 in response to the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya population in Myanmar. The second, as Harvard’s Stephen Walt pointed out in Foreign Policy last week, is that the United States has limited business ties with Myanmar – bilateral trade is around $ 1.4 billion a year, about a tenth of annual trade Myanmar’s with China – which means it doesn’t cut that much. And the third is that the new sanctions could bring Myanmar closer to China, which seeks to take advantage of the growing hostility between Washington and Naypyidaw by replacing lost American aid with its own.
The Biden administration says these sanctions are different from those imposed in the past, in part because they are coordinated with US allies. However, analysts like Gregory Poling of the Center for Strategic and International Studies doubt that Japan and Singapore – some of Myanmar’s largest investors, which means they could most effectively exert pressure – share Washington’s interest in disrupting trade flows.
As real as all of these obstacles are, in such a case there is an even bigger problem with imposing sanctions: they seldom succeed in getting countries to change their behavior
Past experience and social science studies show that cuts in aid and other forms of financial punishment only move the needle in very few cases: When the target country is as weak, poor and without other forms of ingestion as it can not survive without help and when the donor and recipient countries are closely linked by several economic and other ties. Examples of such cases are South Korea and the Philippines at the time when both were ruled by authoritarians who were heavily dependent on US support.
Russia and Myanmar don’t fit this model (although Haiti could). After all, Tatmadaw and Putin and his friends are already under US sanctions, and the fact that they are staging a coup (Myanmar) and suppressing public protests (both Myanmar and Russia) shows how little US pressure is on their calculations both was included.
This does not mean that the Biden government wrongly cracked down on Myanmar, as it did this week. Such gestures, if somewhat hollow, can still do some positive things: signal US support for key values; reminding other strong men that Washington will not ignore their abuses; and build the courage of local people who are fighting for their rights by reminding them that the United States is in their corner.
Given the limited concrete impact sanctions are likely to have, perhaps the best Washington could do right now to focus on restoring its own terribly torn reputation and perceived commitment to democracy, human rights and the rule of law. This can include convicting wrongdoers and imposing sanctions. Given the almost universal skepticism that is being felt around the world these days about America’s democratic credibility – and extensive academic studies showing that standing and credibility really do make a difference, especially in a world where conventional military might is less and less important – what matters most is that the United States could ensure that the impeachment process of former US President Donald Trump is successful, at least as far as political reality allows.
In an ideal world, the Senate would convict Trump of inciting a January 6 riot and prevent him from ever taking office again. Given the faint heartedness of most Senate Republicans, that result seems unlikely, of course. In this case, the next priority should be to ensure that the process still appears fair and rigorous.
Success would pay off in a number of ways. First, it would undermine the authoritarian’s favorite comeback in American criticism today: that the United States is a hypocrite that cannot be stood on. Second, this would restore the country’s status as a role model for struggling or emerging democracies and fulfill Biden’s promise to lead “not only by the example of our power, but also by the power of our example”. Third, and related to it, it would increase the likelihood that US allies would gather on Washington’s side.
Whatever the outcome of the final Senate vote, the bottom line is that what is happening in Congress should not be seen as a sideshow that distracts Washington from more important foreign policy priorities. On the contrary, publicly restoring America’s commitment to the rule of law and the notion that no one stands above it is key to restoring its reputation – the essential foundation for everything Washington seeks to achieve internationally in the coming days and months.
The prioritization of these efforts over specific interventions in countries around the world currently facing oppression may seem persistent – but only if you believe that these interventions would otherwise be effective. As difficult as it is to acknowledge, the record shows that it probably wouldn’t – especially now that America’s standing is so low. If the Biden administration is really to help Haiti, Myanmar, Russia and others – and all the signs point to it – it must first focus on repairing the United States. Everything else will flow from it.