By Roland Watson
April 12, 2009

Foreign policy

Foreign policy is the collection of government positions and associated actions, on international issues and parties. It is, or it should be, designed to serve national interests. Foreign policy can also be public - announced to the world; private - revealed only in diplomatic communications; or even secret - known only to a few top "policy makers."

Another characteristic is that foreign policy can be real, intended to achieve a specific goal, or for appearances only. A clear signal of the latter is if the policy is announced publicly, but there is no follow-through action. Similarly, foreign policy may be active, again, with a specific goal in mind, or passive, meaning that the situation in question is accepted as it stands, if not ignored.

To repeat, a country's foreign policy should further its national interests. The national interests in turn are the interests of the people, including:

- Freedom and democracy and an associated open society and human rights
- Security
- The satisfaction of basic needs, for food and shelter, education, health care, etc.
- A strong, sustainable economy, including good working conditions
- A high quality of life, in an attractive and healthy environment
- Cordial relations with other nations
- Cooperation with members of the International Community on important issues and projects
- The achievement of specific goals when the country is in competition, or disagrees, with other nations

The government's top officials set the nation’s foreign policy. The two main challenges such officials face are defining the people's interests - on specific issues different groups may have varying positions and objectives; and then implementing programs that actually achieve these objectives. For the latter, the basic choice in international affairs is between a soft or a hard approach, between dialogue and negotiations or confrontation ranging from public disagreement to sanctions to more aggressive action.

The top officials set foreign policy, but this does not occur in a vacuum. They receive guidance from their staffs, and, of course, the media. They - and their staffs - are also lobbied by interest groups, including corporations, social and environmental advocacy groups, religious groups, etc. In addition, the officials need to make an effort to listen to the people directly, through all of the information channels that now exist through which individuals can express their views.

In practical terms, a nation's foreign policy reflects the skill and wisdom of its political leaders, and the interests of whomever among the above groups make their voices heard. This is the reason why, while foreign policy is supposed to serve the people's interests, it often does not. Some leaders are neither skilled nor wise. Also, the financial resources and legal rights of corporations enable them to be heard in ways that ordinary people cannot duplicate.

(Note: Businesses say that their interests are the same as the people's. As the financial crisis so vividly illustrates, though, this is regularly untrue.)

We have been referring to the foreign policy of democracies, but dictatorships of course have such policy as well. In a dictatorship like Burma, foreign policy supports only the regime, to the detriment of the people. Burma's military junta, the SPDC, has established alliances with other authoritarian governments, including China, Russia, North Korea and Singapore; and it secures funding by selling multinational corporations the right to exploit the country's natural resources.

A national interest not directly listed above is that it is now accepted that free societies should support the democratic aspirations of peoples who are subject to dictatorship. In this case the interest of the people is to support the interests of people in other nations. Similarly, on environmental concerns all the peoples of the world share an interest in respecting and protecting the rights of nature, by opposing habitat destruction, by working to reverse global warming, etc. An obvious problem is that corporations habitually influence policy makers to take actions that conflict with the desire of the people to assist oppressed populations and to defend the Earth.

Current United States policy towards Burma

The Obama Administration, through Secretary of State Clinton, has announced that it is reviewing America's policy towards Burma. To put this into context, we need to understand U. S. Burma policy as it now stands.

The words of the last Administration were frequently quite strong, but it is essential to parse their exact meaning. President Bush, Secretary Rice, and other State Department officials (as well as members of Congress) regularly spoke about Burma. In almost all cases, though, their singular demand was the release of political prisoners, beginning with democracy leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. There was, until quite recently, no public recognition of the SPDC's war against the country's ethnic minorities, much less the demand for a cessation of this aggression (which demand has yet to be made). The Junta has driven upwards of one million people from their homes in Eastern Burma. One hundred and fifty thousand are now refugees in neighboring Thailand.

It is curious that this human rights atrocity, which has been accompanied by murder, rape and forced displacement on such a scale that many analysts argue it rises to the level of genocide, was basically ignored. Of course, in consideration of the above framework, there could have been an aggressive but private policy effort through diplomatic channels. The problem with reaching this conclusion, though, is that one would expect to see corresponding action. The large scale resettlement of Burmese refugees to the United States is a notable action, but what it signals is a willingness to help relieve the symptoms of the SPDC's aggression, not confront the Junta and force it to cease and desist.

From the strong words, but lack of action, we can conclude that the Bush Administration's policy was for appearances only: to put on a good face for public consumption, particularly by Burma's pro-democracy movement. The Administration was unwilling to address, with Thailand, the complexities of organizing a cross-border assistance program, nor would it act decisively on its own (or with the U.K. and France), to drop aid from helicopters to the victims of Cyclone Nargis.

Most importantly, and all of the bluster notwithstanding, the Administration clearly did not have a policy to help bring freedom and democracy to Burma. The removal of Than Shwe and the SPDC, and freedom and human rights for the long suffering Burmese, are not an active United States policy goal.

One would think that such a goal would serve the American people's interests and hence the United States' national interests. The likely reasons that the policy diverged from this goal include the Bush Administration's preoccupation with Iraq and it overall foreign affairs incompetence, as well as deference to China and also corporate interests (specifically, those of U.S. oil company Chevron).

This illustrates another basic parameter of foreign policy, that for whatever reasons one country may defer to the interests of another. Indeed, nations around the world have deferred again and again to the United States. This changed somewhat with the Bush Administration, since many countries disagreed with a variety of Bush policies, on Iraq, preemptive action, global warming, etc. There is no reason, though, that such agreement, or cooperation, cannot be resumed, provided that the Obama Administration returns the U.S. to a leadership role and a sincere American policy to promote democracy and human rights, and by adding a strong commitment to protect the environment.

On Burma, the U.S. seemingly has deferred to China. This may be a direct payoff, for China's large-scale purchase of U.S. treasury bonds, or just one piece in a large and secret geopolitical puzzle. Whatever the reason, though, such deference clearly does not reflect the principles on which United States foreign policy should be based.

Tom Lantos Block Burmese JADE (Junta's Anti-Democratic Efforts) Act of 2008

The above is not only conjecture. Surveying the enactment of the latest U.S. Burma law, the Tom Lantos JADE Act, reveals a great deal about the Bush Administration's policy towards the country. How the Obama Administration will implement the law will also give strong clues to the direction its own policy review is taking.

The impetus for the Act was the crackdown by the SPDC on protesting Buddhist monks during the "Saffron Revolution." In response to this event, which occurred in September 2007, Congress acted quickly and decisively. The draft Act was introduced in mid-October and it passed both houses with virtually unanimous support by mid-December. At this point, though, the Bill got hung up in conference. The House version included a tax provision that would have forced Chevron to divest its stake in Burma's Yadana pipeline. The Senate version, following the lead of California Senator Dianne Feinstein - Chevron is based in California - did not.

While it occurred in secret, an advocacy war clearly erupted, and Chevron lobbyists ultimately prevailed. The tax provision was stripped from the Bill, the Senate and House versions were reconciled, and the Act was signed into law, finally, by President Bush on July 29th, 2008.

The supporters of the tax provision were overpowered by Chevron's lobbyists and also the underlying pro-corporation and pro-oil policies of President Bush and Vice President Cheney. An additional factor, though, was the position of U.S. based Burma activists.

To understand foreign policy on an issue, you also need to understand the policy of the leading advocates for that issue. For Burma and the Chevron provision, a member of Earth Rights International was quoted as saying that "whether Chevron is there or not, those dollars are still going to flow to the generals..." (ERI Legal Director Marco Simons, Chevron's dilemma over its stake in Burma, San Francisco Chronicle, July 5, 2008).

ERI is clearly opposed to economic sanctions, and corporate activism, which seems odd for a group that sues companies for complicity in human rights abuses (including Chevron in Nigeria - how’s that for consistency?). Using their argument you could justify any corporate or for that matter government action, with the standard propaganda line that "if we don't do it, someone else will." This is a shameful position. The dollars may flow to the generals, but they shouldn't be American dollars, including from American corporations.

Also, for the same Chronicle article a member of the United States Campaign for Burma commented that leaving the Chevron provision in would have doomed the bill, and that having its other provisions was a worthwhile achievement. This is a more realistic argument, but it leaves open the question of why USCB doesn't pressure Chevron using other means. A boycott of the company seems an obvious choice, and which USCB's student chapters would likely take on with relish. Such a campaign would duplicate the many successes of USCB's predecessor, the Free Burma Coalition, but to date it has not been tried. One wonders why?

What the above illustrates is that it is not only government policy with which we should be concerned. Do ERI and USCB have as a fundamental goal freedom for Burma or not? Similarly, what is the policy of the NCGUB, the NCUB and even the NLD? Is the goal an uncompromising demand for the removal of Than Shwe and the SPDC or not? The reason this is important is that the desire of the people inside Burma is clearly the end of the Junta. If the policy of other nations and also advocacy groups does not mirror this, we are doing the people of Burma a disservice, and also a disservice to all the people in other countries, including the U.S., who support their aspiration for freedom.

General United States policy towards Burma

It is important for the new Administration to recognize its own inexperience in international affairs. President Obama has limited experience, and as Secretary Clinton's early actions indicate, she too has much to learn. For the Secretary, she needs to understand that every word she utters on the international stage will be dissected ad nauseum. When she commented, before her trip to China, that human rights would not be on the agenda, this signaled to China - hopefully incorrectly - that the U.S. would no longer emphasize human rights in its relations with the country.

Similarly, she publicly announced that U.S. policy towards Burma was being reevaluated, including with the implication that it would be softened, with the relaxation or even the ending of economic sanctions. This revelation caused an uproar in the Burma community, and, as with China human rights campaigners, great concern that the U.S. will go soft on the SPDC. Years and years of effort to create pressure on the Junta could easily be lost.

It is common on domestic policy to "float" ideas: to say that a change is being considered and then observe the reaction. If the supporters outweigh the dissenters, you can feel confident making the change.

This type of approach is inappropriate in international affairs. The U.S. shouldn't float an idea, and then let the rest of the world fight about it. If you are going to change policy, decide on the change beforehand with the assistance of your advisors - there are many knowledgeable staffers on Burma in the State Department, the Defense Department and the Intelligence agencies. If you still feel the need to survey opinion, this should be done privately, in meetings with diplomats from other countries and also advocacy groups.

President Obama, in his Inauguration Address, said:

"To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist."

This was a basic statement of policy, and it is interesting to see its first applications. North Korea is continuing its belligerence, with actions that contravene previous commitments, to which the President has responded with threats. The President extended a hand to Iran, but which invitation the religious leader of the country - Iran is a theocracy - snubbed. Similarly, the new Administration appears open to engagement with the SPDC.

Of course, things may be more complicated than they appear. It is impossible to know the President's real thinking. The Administration may be promoting negotiation and engagement with the expectation that such offers will fail. President Obama can then toughen policy, using the defense that he has clearly and openly tried the nonconfrontational approach.

One change that is apparent is that the President wants to end the Bush Administration's unilateralism. On issue after issue the objective will be to organize other nations and parties, and to reach consensus.

This is laudable, but it will be a challenge to implement for Burma. At the moment, Burma - meaning the people of the country - is surrounded by enemies. China, India, Thailand and Asean are all actively working with the SPDC. Internationally, all the major players - the United Nations, United States, European Union, and East Asia powers Japan and South Korea - are fence sitters, secretly deferring to corporate interests and more generally waiting to see what happens. No one is truly on the Burmese' side. No one has their freedom as an active policy goal.

It is difficult to see how organizing a collection of enemies and fence sitters is going to help the people of Burma. First, the U.S. has to change its policy to unequivocally pursue the goal of freedom. Then, it needs to persuade such other parties to have this goal as well. Only after this is accomplished would organizing a coalition - a "group of friends," or "six-party talks" - be a positive development.

With United States policy towards Burma anchored in the goal of freedom, derivative policy decisions become much easier to make. For example, sanctions should not be abandoned. Instead, they need to be completed. The U.S. needs to amend the JADE Act to reinstate the provision that would force Chevron to divest. (Since Chevron's support of the SPDC is so great, with the Yadana pipeline giving - according to the JADE Act - at least $500 million to the generals each year, this one exception outweighs all of the different restrictions that have been imposed.)

The real risk with the policy review is that it may actually be hijacked by Chevron. The company prevailed in the JADE Act battle. Now it wants to win the war. Open Burma to U.S. corporations, let the money flow to corporate and corporate executive bank accounts, and the people of Burma be dammed!

This must be prevented. It is reasonable to have a policy review, but the results must fulfill the United States' national interests, meaning the American people's interests, not Chevron's. President Obama, in his election campaign, spoke often about the negative consequences of corporate lobbying. The global financial meltdown is only the most obvious example, but there are many others, including Burma and Chevron. The President must live up to his words. His policy must serve the American people and by default the Burmese, not Chevron and other pro-SPDC corporations.

JADE Act Section 10 report on Military and Intelligence Aid

Section 10 of the JADE Act requires the State Department to prepare, and publish on its website, a report on Military and Intelligence Aid to Burma. The report should have been published by the end of January, but on the date of this article it still had not appeared.

More than the public floating of the idea to soften or remove sanctions, this is the most disturbing signal from the new Administration about the direction of its policy review. The State Department is refusing to fulfill the terms of a United State Law. While we can't know for certain why this is the case, clearly something important is happening.

Section 10 is an historic legal provision. U.S. Intelligence keeps track of the military programs of many if not all of the world's nations. But State, and by default Intelligence, has never been ordered to reveal what it knows.

President Obama in his campaign also spoke frequently about the need for openness in government. The publication of the Section 10 report would set a new and welcome precedent in this area.

The problem is that the international arms trade is the most closed environment imaginable. As mentioned earlier, foreign policy has public, private and secret dimensions. The arms trade, and the policy it represents, is one of the most secret of all.

With the dispute over the Chevron provision, Section 10 may have been overlooked. Now, the Obama Administration has to deal with it.

A conspiracy theorist might argue that this report - and the embarrassing secrets it may contain - is such a problem that it is its existence, and not a desire for a more effective approach towards the SPDC, that is driving the policy review. The review, and an ending of sanctions, may be an artifice designed to create a need to draft a new Burma law, from which Section 10 can conveniently be left out. The report would then never have to be made public.

Dictator Watch intelligence, parts of which journalists and even the SPDC have confirmed (for the Junta, the locations of some of Burma's uranium deposits, and its deal to purchase a reactor), is that the generals have active nuclear and missile proliferation programs, involving Russia, China, North Korea and Iran. The Section 10 report likely confirms this, and perhaps in a way that would make top foreign policy priorities for the Administration, on North Korea and Iran, more difficult to achieve. The solution appears to be, change Burma policy to avoid the requirement to publish the report: sacrifice the people of Burma yet again to fulfill other objectives.

We hope this explanation is incorrect, and that there is some other reason the report has been delayed. To know this is the case, though, it needs to be published, now. We need its information not only to understand the SPDC's proliferation programs, and to advocate appropriate U.S. policy, but also to honor and fulfill the wishes of Tom Lantos, the human rights pioneer who cared so much for Burma, and for whom the Act is named.

(The report is also, under the terms of the law, to be prepared annually. Publication can only be put off for so long.)

Specific policy provisions

We can't speculate on the appropriate U.S. response to SPDC proliferation, without knowing the details, including the specific involvement of such other countries. Suffice it to say, though, that the proliferation must be stopped, and on this issue United States policy should be active, public and firm.

On sanctions, as mentioned above, they should be strengthened, not relaxed. Chevron should be forced to divest. Also, President Obama should use his new friendships in Europe to push for the same for Total, and to present a strong united front to the Security Council in calling for a comprehensive arms embargo.

In addition, yet another aspect of foreign policy is that it should be consistent (recall the case with ERI). The United States backs Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Daw Suu has called for sanctions. It would be incongruous to support her yet reject her policy, particularly since she is the leading spokesperson for the people of Burma.

Similarly, it is essential that the U.S. reject publicly the SPDC's upcoming 2010 "election," and in no uncertain terms. The election, if it is held, will be based on the fraudulent 2008 constitutional referendum. It has no legitimacy whatsoever. It is important to recognize that dictatorships regularly hold staged elections. North Korea's recent poll is a case in point. These sham elections are ignored and soon forgotten. The same will occur with the SPDC's outcome, if the U.S. remains firm.

It is disturbing, therefore, that some U.S. proxies reportedly have expressed positive views about 2010, suggesting that the pro-democracy parties might want to participate. This is bad policy, and it needs to be abandoned. The basic policy goal is freedom for Burma, and for this to be achieved there can be no support for the 2010 vote.

The greatest specific policy challenge is the humanitarian crisis: in the border areas, from Cyclone Nargis, and also from the suppression of the Saffron uprising and more generally the large-scale imprisonment of pro-democracy activists. The U.S. needs to develop policy on all of these issues, and which policy involves action, not only words.

For the residual impact of the cyclone, the recent rice donation is a positive step, but helicopter aid drops would have been better. (When President Bush refused to drop the aid, this was a wholly unwarranted sign of respect for Burma's criminal military regime.) For the political prisoners, the appropriate policy response is a strategy to free Burma, since only through this event will the prisoners be released permanently.

Relieving the crisis in the border areas is more complex, and can take two different approaches: a large-scale cross-border assistance program (ideally this would cover both Eastern Burma through Thailand and Western Burma through Bangladesh and India); and, once again, a plan to trigger the end of the SPDC, perhaps in combination with such assistance.

For Eastern Burma, an assistance program would of course require Thailand's cooperation, and this raises the question of its own policy towards Burma. In recent years Thai policy has been wholly supportive of the SPDC. Now that the Democrats are in power - one hopes they will not yield to the demands of Thaksin Shinawatra’s paid thugs - this may change. Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya has said that human rights would be a factor in Thailand's relations with the Junta. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva recently called the Burmese regime "a hideous blight on Asia's map of expanding freedoms and growing economies."

This is a welcome change. During Thaksin's rule, Thai policy did not reflect the interests of the Thai public. Instead, it served his personal business interests with the Junta and also the interests of Thai businesspeople involved in resource exploitation and human and narcotics trafficking.

Thailand's interests are clearly that Burma become democratic, in the near term to eliminate the effects on the country of the humanitarian crisis and also to reduce the drug trade. But Thailand would also benefit considerably over the long-term from an end to the regime. The two nations would likely develop close economic ties. Border locations such as Three Pagodas Pass and Mae Sot would grow at an exponential rate, as Burma recovered from fifty years of economic neglect.

Thailand's examination of its own policy creates an opening for the U.S. to promote cross-border assistance programs and also more aggressive action. For the first, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, said that America intended to work "to strengthen protections for civilians in conflict zones." Eastern Burma is the perfect location to turn this talk into action.

A humanitarian responsibility to protect program would have many elements and complexities, but it is squarely within the competence of USAID. One can envision the large-scale provision of rice, medicine, and educational materials. A related element would be supplying a communications network and electrical equipment, including solar panels, generators and batteries. For security, the U.S. could lead the way in organizing an international peace-keeping force, and also assist with training and intelligence. The nations of Asean should be asked to supply troops for the peace-keeping force.

This type of program is feasible, and it would have a dramatic positive impact. All it requires is political will from the new Administration to live up to Ambassador Rice's words.

A responsibility to protect program for Eastern Burma would also correct the already noted deficiency in U.S. policy that while it has a proper and strong emphasis on Daw Suu and Burma's political prisoners, it fails to take into account much less address the problems of the country's ethnic minorities.

The United States has traditionally been unwilling to recognize the ethnic organizations, such as the Karen National Union, as legitimate and legal entities and stakeholders. At the recent meeting between the KNU and Thailand’s Foreign Minister, though, they were accorded this status. If the U.S. will liaise with the SPDC on the rice donation, it certainly should do the same with the KNU to help internally displaced persons in Eastern Burma.

Power-sharing and top-down policy

For the Obama Administration to make these changes, it will have to counteract the significant momentum that already exists to accept the 2010 result and its corollary that Than Shwe will remain in power. This is the idea that power-sharing is both acceptable and inevitable. However, it is important to understand the history of the position. Daw Suu and the NLD have said that the military - the Burma Army - has a legitimate role in the affairs of the country. What they were clearly referring to was the role of the military in a post-SPDC, free Burma: what responsibilities, and scale and composition, the Army should have.

SPDC cronies and international backers, though, have surreptitiously restated this as the idea that power-sharing with Than Shwe himself and the other SPDC generals is acceptable. It is not. Any party that supports the idea of power-sharing with Than Shwe is in opposition to the basic policy goal of freedom for the Burmese people.

It is essential to grasp the implications of this version of the idea. The International Community, beginning with the United Nations Secretariat, which supports the 2010 vote, is offering Than Shwe and his fellow generals the opportunity not to be prosecuted for their crimes against humanity; to keep their ill-gotten riches; and even to continue their regime and its mass murder and plunder.

This is terrible policy. It denies justice to four and one half decades of victims - to tens of millions of people - and it is a rubber stamp permission for the Junta to keep committing its crimes.

The power-sharing idea is an example of "top-down policy," meaning policy that is created without the input or approval of the people. It is undemocratic. The only people who have the right to accept this type of "solution" are the people of Burma, and since they are unable to verifiably grant their consent, it is completely unacceptable. Just because the International Community, expressing the desires of international corporations, is impatient and wants to move, does not mean that it has the right to do so. Only the people have the right to decide their destiny.

We should not forget the backgrounds of the people who are promoting power-sharing with the SPDC. Ban Ki-moon, as South Korea's Foreign Minister, fully supported the interests of Daewoo, one of the most active corporations in Burma. Ibrahim Gambari was not only Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha's representative at the U.N., he is so placid with Burma's generals that you could easily grant him the title, SPDC Secretary Designate. Ban Ki-moon also just accepted, on April 8th, the credentials of the Junta’s new U.N. Ambassador, war criminal Colonel Than Swe.

The U.N. press notice says that Than Swe rose from Second Lieutenant to Colonel while serving in the Burma Army from 1975 to 2000. Our information is that he was attached to Light Infantry Division 44, based in Thaton, Karen State, and that he reached the level of Tactical Commander, responsible for three battalions. LID 44 was formed in 1979, and commenced large-scale offensives against Karen villagers beginning in 1982, which offensives continue today. The United States should protest the appointment, and force it to be reversed, just as Australia did in 2007 when it refused to accept as envoy from the SPDC Brigadier General Thet Oo Maung.

The U.S. should further organize other nations to expel the Junta from the General Assembly.

In addition to its backing from the U.N., Japan is helping the Junta arrange the 2010 charade. Many nations in Europe are also openly supporting the dictatorship's Roadmap.

Burma is now an industry, as any visitor to a press conference at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand will see. The members of this industry want it to grow. There is no time to wait for freedom and democracy, much less do what is required to bring them about.


This is the environment that the Obama Administration faces. It appears almost impossible to manage, but only if you forget one thing. President Obama must serve the people of America, and the people of America are definitely on the side of the people of Burma. The only logical policy, therefore, is to work with determination for freedom for Burma, whatever it takes.

If the Administration wants to begin with talk, then by all means talk, but have a backup plan in place if it fails, and remember that just because you want something to work, doesn't mean that it will.

1. Never forget that the goal - the only real goal - is freedom.

2. Organize multilateral support: in public to oppose the SPDC's nuclear and missile proliferation, and to extend and make uniform both economic and weapons sanctions; and in private, with China, Russia and India, to get them to drop their support for the SPDC, and with Thailand, to organize cross-border assistance.