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The Myanmar coup is tragic but belies better trends

The military takeover in Burma demands condemnation and opposition, but nothing further.

Anti-coup protesters discharge fire extinguishers to counter the impact of the tear gas fired by police during a demonstration in Yangon, Myanmar, Thursday, March 4, 2021.
Associated Press

“Myanmar coup poses test for Biden and the U.S.”

“First foreign policy test for President Biden.”

“Coup tests Biden’s diplomacy strategies.”

On Feb. 1, the military in Myanmar (also known as Burma) seized control of the government. To a remarkable degree, media in the United States define this as a direct challenge for the new Biden administration.

Quotations above are respectively from The Washington Post, the liberal newspaper based in the nation’s capital; Newsweek, a durable news magazine; and Voice of America, an overseas information arm of the U.S. government.

The military takeover of Myanmar is unfortunate and demands condemnation and opposition, but nothing further. No significant U.S. foreign policy interests are involved. No military threat to other nations is in evidence or on the horizon. Killing protesters highlights but does not alter the fundamental situation.

Moreover, Myanmar’s military taking over is nothing new, only the latest incident of an unfortunate history. The British Empire annexed the territory in 1885. In 1948, London granted independence to the Republic of Burma. Unfortunately, a military coup overthrew durable leader U Nu in 1962, and military rule continued into 2011.

President Joe Biden responded to the latest military takeover by imposing significant economic sanctions. The administration is also mobilizing international support for a return to civilian rule and publicly criticizing the military actions.

Today, Burma’s significance internationally derives primarily from the economic growth and success of the Southeast Asia region overall. Vietnam is a particularly impressive case, for reasons having to do with commerce rather than communism. According to a 2019 survey by U.S. News and World Report, the nation ranked eighth in a competitive ranking of 29 economies.

This put that country ahead of Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, which finished 13th, 14th and 15th, respectively. Heretofore, these powerhouse economies have been far more prominent in the realms of trade and investment. The previous year, Vietnam ranked 23rd.

The survey involved just under 7,000 business executives in decision-making positions. Respondents gave perceptions of each of the countries regarding eight characteristics, including corruption, economic stability, innovation, tax environment, technology and others.

Vietnam’s rapid climb reflects the government’s 1986 decision to open the doors to private investment and commerce. The term “doi moi,” which translates from Vietnamese as renovation or reform, became the formal label for these economic changes.

In November 2017, Vietnam hosted the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit. APEC is an important intergovernmental network for promotion of trade and investment. Vietnam also hosted the 2006 APEC summit.

The U.S. rightly encourages regional economic growth. Prime Minister Bob Hawke of Australia conceived APEC. President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker deserve credit for helping Hawke succeed. The Obama administration decision to station a U.S. Marine contingent in Australia underscores strong bilateral ties, dating back to World War II.

While Myanmar events are unfortunate, regional developments overall are positive. This is far more important for U.S. national interests.

“Realist” international relations analysts stress not power alone, but national interests, along with careful evaluation of specific international developments. While nation states overwhelmingly have control of armed forces, international organizations are expanding in membership and authority. The end of the Cold War has strengthened the United Nations and facilitated the success of current market economic systems.

Myanmar’s military is acting contrary to these profound trends.

Learn more: John J. Mearsheimer, “The Great Delusion”; Hans J. Morgenthau, “Politics Among Nations”

Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War” (NYU and Palgrave-Macmillan). Contact acyr@carthage.edu