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What America Should—and Shouldn’t—Do About Myanmar’s Coup

The collapse of a fledgling democracy is a cautionary tale for Washington’s foreign-policy establishment.

By Stephen M. Walt, the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
An anti-coup protester holds up a portrait of Aung San Suu Kyi in front of the Myanmar embassy on Feb. 4 in Bangkok.
An anti-coup protester holds up a portrait of Aung San Suu Kyi in front of the Myanmar embassy on Feb. 4 in Bangkok. Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images

Kudos to all of you who had “Coup in Myanmar” on your “Unexpected Foreign-Policy Challenges for the Biden Administration” bingo card. If nothing else, the latest military takeover there confirms a point I made a few weeks ago: Foreign policy is a realm of constant surprises, and no global leader can anticipate everything that might occur on their watch.

That said, leaders do get to decide how to react. And the good news here is that events in Myanmar do not require much in the way of a U.S. response. The coup is far from a salutary development, but the military’s decision to reject the landslide victory by the National League for Democracy in the November 2020 elections and to detain members of the civilian government—including nominal leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has now been charged with some comically obscure violations—does not impinge on vital U.S. interests or require dramatic action.

A few observers—such as Anne Gearan and John Hudson of the Washington Post—have labeled the events in Myanmar “an early test of American moral authority” under the new administration. Only a foreign-policy elite addicted to telling the world what to do would see it this way. Granted, President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have both pledged to give human rights greater priority in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy, and Biden repeatedly stressed his deep commitment to America’s democratic values. But realistically speaking, there’s little the United States can do to alter the trajectory of events in Myanmar, and nearly everyone understands this. It is only a test if the administration chooses to make it so.

In fact, there’s a pretty standard playbook that the United States follows in situations such as this, and Washington is already running that familiar script. The United States is certainly not going to invade Myanmar to restore civilian authorities to (partial) power. Nobody is proposing that the Americans impose a blockade, conduct a denial-of-service attack on its digital infrastructure, or sever all economic ties. The playbook calls for swift verbal condemnation (which the administration has already issued), a review and/or suspension of some aid programs, and (perhaps) some precisely targeted economic sanctions against a few individuals, most of whom have probably been sanctioned in this way before (and without much effect).

The plain fact is that the United States doesn’t have much leverage here. U.S. trade with Myanmar amounted to roughly $1.4 billion, but Myanmar’s annual trade with China is more than 10 times that (about $17 billion in 2019). Chinese investment in Myanmar’s economy is vastly greater than that of the United States. Indeed, Myanmar has been a prime target of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, although its efforts there have not gone as smoothly as Beijing officials hoped. U.S. foreign aid to Myanmar was a modest $180 million in fiscal 2020, roughly half of it either humanitarian relief or health-related assistance. Cutting that aid won’t affect the generals at all.

Because China is more deeply engaged in Myanmar and—surprise!—not nearly as upset by the coup itself, the impact of any sanctions the United States might impose on its own will be limited. Nor is it clear that a lot of other countries will go along. In the near term, therefore, the Biden administration’s response is unlikely to have much impact on the calculations of the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s military junta) or the reactions of the broader population.

Over the longer term, however, the United States (and possibly some other powers) do have one obvious source of influence. Although China has an extensive economic role in Myanmar and has helped mediate conflicts with several rebel groups there in the past, its relations with Myanmar’s leaders (including the military junta) have frequently been strained. These tensions are exacerbated further by China’s desire to use the country as a potentially important strategic hub. China has invested billions of dollars to develop the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, a combination of rail and port developments designed to bypass chokepoints like the Strait of Malacca and give Beijing easy access to the Indian Ocean. But China’s interest in Myanmar is a double-edged sword: When a large and powerful neighbor starts to see your territory as strategically vital, any sensible government has to worry about preserving its own freedom of action, even as it tries to take advantage of that neighbor’s largesse.

For Myanmar, therefore, better relations with the United States, Europe, and some of its Asian neighbors have been a valuable hedge against excessive dependence on China and the loss of autonomy that this might entail. That hedge will be harder to maintain if the generals abandon even a modicum of respect for democracy and try to turn the clock back to overt military rule. In its private communications with the junta—which I assume are taking place—the Biden administration should make that message loud and clear.

Some observers believe the changes that have taken place within Myanmar during the past decade may lead to a new wave of popular protests and force the release of detained civilian officials (including Aung San Suu Kyi) and an acceptance of the National League for Democracy’s electoral victory. I have no idea if such hopes are correct, and anticipating mass upheavals is a chancy business at best. If they do occur, however, U.S. diplomacy should focus on discouraging a violent crackdown and giving the junta a face-saving way to reverse course.

Finally, the entire saga of Myanmar’s turbulent experiment with democracy is a cautionary tale for those who still believe promoting democracy should be a central pillar of U.S. foreign policy. In their zeal to see dictators fall and liberal values spread, advocates routinely forget that creating new political orders is never easy and that old networks, ties, institutions, and values usually linger and frequently come back to life under the new regime. Turning a dictatorship into a democracy is a massive and highly contingent project of social engineering that invariably produces unintended consequences and rarely proceeds as expected.

In the case of Myanmar, it was clear before the coup that the transition to democracy was partial at best and that the military had not really given up power. It continued to control vast swaths of Myanmar’s economy and was in complete control over the repression of minority groups, such as the Rohingya. It was a democracy in form but not in substance.

Moreover, the disappointing trajectory of Aung San Suu Kyi herself—from heroic icon of the pro-democracy movement to a morally compromised enabler of the military’s genocidal campaign against the Rohingya—illustrates how hard it is to forecast how democratically elected leaders will perform once they gain power. Not every leader who wins an election turns out to be a Nelson Mandela; you’re just as likely to get a Hamid Karzai, Nouri al-Maliki, or Viktor Orban instead.

This is not an argument for abandoning prudent and restrained efforts to convince other countries of democracy’s virtues. Needless to say, that task would be easier if a sizable group of Americans—including some elected officials and former military commanders—didn’t seem rather comfortable with the idea of overturning elections and seizing power by force. Rather, the situation in Myanmar is a reminder that the spread of liberal values is a slow, erratic, and uncertain process, which can be damaged as much by overzealous efforts to speed up the clock as by amoral indifference. The real test for Biden is to show patience and restraint and not to view the unfortunate events in Myanmar as a defining moment of a presidency that has barely begun.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.