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The Myanmar Coup Is the First Test for Biden’s Democracy Agenda

Washington’s response should be swift if Biden expects the world to take his commitment seriously.

By , the CEO of the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.
Myanmar residents in Thailand hold up portraits of State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi during a demonstration outside the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok on Feb. 1.
Myanmar residents in Thailand hold up portraits of State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi during a demonstration outside the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok on Feb. 1.
Myanmar residents in Thailand hold up portraits of State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi during a demonstration outside the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok on Feb. 1. LILLIAN SUWANRUMPHA/AFP via Getty Images

In 2012, I co-authored a piece with Dan Twining in the Washington Post warning that the Obama administration’s decision to lift the investment ban on Myanmar was going too far, too soon—and that the United States would come to regret handing away all its leverage while Myanmar’s military still had so much control over the country. That day has now come. On Jan. 31, the military staged a coup that ousted State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi just as she was poised to lead an overwhelming majority in parliament after her party’s landslide victory at the polls last November. For the generals who held real power behind the scenes, the prospect of a complete democratic transition was too much. And so they struck, claiming with a new standard for truth set by former U.S. President Donald Trump that there was “massive election fraud”—a charge no independent observers accept, just as no U.S. court accepted Trump’s outlandish claims.

This was all foreseeable despite the champagne corks popping in 2012 among the spinmeisters in the Obama White House about having played the Myanmar card against China by normalizing U.S.-Myanmar relations. Now the veterans of that policy, many of whom have reentered government under the new Biden administration, will have to pick up the pieces. In some respects, finding a way for Washington to react to Myanmar will be much harder than it was during the Obama administration. The United States already gave the military what they wanted most in 2014: removal of restrictions on investments in the oil and gas sectors that would lead to injections of cash into their coffers. Though the United States imposed targeted sanctions in response to the Myanmar military’s crackdown on the Rohingya minority in 2019 under the Global Magnitsky Act, more stringent sanctions are now much harder to reimpose. Myanmar’s immediate neighborhood also looks less democracy-friendly today, with a military junta in charge next door in Thailand and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte suppressing political dissent and unleashing extrajudicial violence in his country. Finally, China’s political and economic influence is now seen in Southeast Asia as greater than that of the United States. Beijing will have no problem cozying up to a new authoritarian government against the people of Myanmar.

On the other hand, there are some new tools in the kit for the Biden administration. Australia, Britain, and the European Union have already signaled that they will take a firm stand against the coup. Japan has always been much more careful to sustain engagement with Myanmar, but Tokyo has increasingly emphasized democratic values in its foreign-policy competition with China. For example, the government of Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has pressed the Biden administration to keep the words “free and open” in the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy it convinced the Trump administration to adopt. The Biden team has agreed, but it should now make Tokyo pay the price of admission by joining Washington in imposing consequences when freedom is curtailed. Also important are developments in neighboring Thailand, where popular dissatisfaction with the military leadership is boiling to the surface. While this has inclined the government in Bangkok to be more supportive of the new Myanmar military leadership, it also suggests that popular anger at democratic backsliding in Southeast Asia is a growing force, including among the citizens of Myanmar, who have now had some experience with elections and democracy.
Ironically, the first test for Biden concerns the country where the Obama administration threw out the democracy emphasis of its predecessors.

In 2012, I co-authored a piece with Dan Twining in the Washington Post warning that the Obama administration’s decision to lift the investment ban on Myanmar was going too far, too soon—and that the United States would come to regret handing away all its leverage while Myanmar’s military still had so much control over the country. That day has now come. On Jan. 31, the military staged a coup that ousted State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi just as she was poised to lead an overwhelming majority in parliament after her party’s landslide victory at the polls last November. For the generals who held real power behind the scenes, the prospect of a complete democratic transition was too much. And so they struck, claiming with a new standard for truth set by former U.S. President Donald Trump that there was “massive election fraud”—a charge no independent observers accept, just as no U.S. court accepted Trump’s outlandish claims.

This was all foreseeable despite the champagne corks popping in 2012 among the spinmeisters in the Obama White House about having played the Myanmar card against China by normalizing U.S.-Myanmar relations. Now the veterans of that policy, many of whom have reentered government under the new Biden administration, will have to pick up the pieces. In some respects, finding a way for Washington to react to Myanmar will be much harder than it was during the Obama administration. The United States already gave the military what they wanted most in 2014: removal of restrictions on investments in the oil and gas sectors that would lead to injections of cash into their coffers. Though the United States imposed targeted sanctions in response to the Myanmar military’s crackdown on the Rohingya minority in 2019 under the Global Magnitsky Act, more stringent sanctions are now much harder to reimpose. Myanmar’s immediate neighborhood also looks less democracy-friendly today, with a military junta in charge next door in Thailand and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte suppressing political dissent and unleashing extrajudicial violence in his country. Finally, China’s political and economic influence is now seen in Southeast Asia as greater than that of the United States. Beijing will have no problem cozying up to a new authoritarian government against the people of Myanmar.

On the other hand, there are some new tools in the kit for the Biden administration. Australia, Britain, and the European Union have already signaled that they will take a firm stand against the coup. Japan has always been much more careful to sustain engagement with Myanmar, but Tokyo has increasingly emphasized democratic values in its foreign-policy competition with China. For example, the government of Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has pressed the Biden administration to keep the words “free and open” in the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy it convinced the Trump administration to adopt. The Biden team has agreed, but it should now make Tokyo pay the price of admission by joining Washington in imposing consequences when freedom is curtailed. Also important are developments in neighboring Thailand, where popular dissatisfaction with the military leadership is boiling to the surface. While this has inclined the government in Bangkok to be more supportive of the new Myanmar military leadership, it also suggests that popular anger at democratic backsliding in Southeast Asia is a growing force, including among the citizens of Myanmar, who have now had some experience with elections and democracy.
Ironically, the first test for Biden concerns the country where the Obama administration threw out the democracy emphasis of its predecessors.

Finally, there is the Biden administration itself. The Obama administration lifted sanctions in 2014 in a realpolitik game vis-a-vis China where senior U.S. officials pooh-poohed the democracy agenda of the outgoing George W. Bush administration—in particular, the latter’s isolation of Myanmar. However, during his election campaign in 2020, U.S. President Joe Biden ran on the importance of the United States’ democratic norms and has promised to put them at the center of his foreign policy. One early sign of where Biden and his team now stand on the issue is the White House reference to “Burma” in its official statements since the coup. The U.S. government had steadily shifted from using “Burma” to calling the country “Myanmar”—the name chosen by an earlier military junta in 1989 and accepted by the United Nations, most Asian governments, and media such as Foreign Policy. When asked whether the use of “Burma” was meant to be discourteous, White House Press Press Secretary Jen Psaki replied: “I don’t think that’s the conclusion you should draw.” But it was clearly not meant to signal business as usual, either.

Monday’s coup is the first real challenge to Biden on his democracy agenda—and ironically, in the country where the Obama administration chose to throw out the democracy emphasis of its predecessors. There should be real urgency to the new administration’s response if Biden expects the world to take Washington’s renewed emphasis on democracy seriously.

Michael J. Green is the CEO of the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a distinguished scholar at the Asia Pacific Institute in Tokyo, and a former senior National Security Council official on Asia policy during the George W. Bush administration. Twitter: @DrMichaelJGreen

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