Monday, June 23, 2008

Carrots for the General

Pencils ready? Here's today’s five-second brain teaser: What incentives succeed in getting autocrats to relinquish power peacefully? The use of sticks and carrots to bring about reform is fertile fodder for political theory, yet in practice the tools of the trade are limited and primitive. Privation of goods or commerce is common in today’s climate; chest-thumping and bellicose posturing, another favorite, is practiced by the entire animal kingdom. Carrots, as opposed to sticks, work wonders with children but see little success between nations. Why is that?

In the case of Burma under General Than Shwe and his military junta, no carrots have been tried, to my knowledge. Sticks in many shapes and sizes have been brandished and swung, to little effect. Economic sanctions, asset freezes, arms embargos and travel bans are currently in effect by the US and EU. I posed the question to a Burmese dissident last week. He reflected a moment, then smiled and said, ‘A missile launch pad in Thailand, that’s all we need’. No sticks, no carrots, just elimination: everyman’s fantasy. Were regime change so easy!

Western policies designed to weaken the junta have been contradictory, perhaps even self-sabotaging. The State Department claims its trade sanctions have encouraged ASEAN countries to adopt a more critical stance on Burma; this is correlation, not causation. ASEAN countries continue their waffling course of ‘constructive engagement’, meaning: do business and look the other way. The US was alone in pursuing sanctions for over a decade until the ill-fated ‘Saffron Revolution’ last September, at which point the EU implemented similar measures.

Critics of these sanctions, embargoes and other disincentives highlight their feel-good, symbolic character—much like Bush’s declaration of genocide in Darfur being followed by cooperation with Khartoum on terrorist intelligence matters. As with Sudan, sanctions against Burma arguably strengthen the hand of ruling authorities by creating a scapegoat for their own internal policy failures and narrowing the opportunity for Burmese to expand their economic, social, and cultural contacts with reform-minded nations. The conservative CATO institute, for instance, makes a case for re-opening commercial relations with Burma, arguing that investment and trade brings technology, better working conditions, and increased exposure to democratic ideas.

Burmese pressure groups and international human rights agencies have lobbied the UN for Security Council action to target Burma’s gas and oil industries, the junta’s primary source of revenue. Such a vote was never tabled, as China and Russia would surely veto on the grounds of the principle of non-interference, their almighty sacred cow and miracle panacea for any vexing political crisis.

But for those nations who huff and puff and try to blow the junta house down--to what effect? Sanctions that fail to cut off all revenue streams to an offending party are ultimately a non sequitur. And wherever there is oil, there is always political wiggle-room. Extraction rights to Burma’s vast offshore oilfields were accorded to China in 2007, along with contracts to build an overland pipeline leading—where else?—to China.

Read the remainder of this piece I wrote for 3quarksdaily.com here.

1 comment:

Sophia said...

My answer to your five-second brainer teaser question: perhaps the US and the EU should try this carrot. (Why not? It's worked before!). Offer these unscrupulous leaders a 'golden handshake.' Think Mobuto Sese Seko, Idi Amin, King Farouk, the Shah of Iran. Pension them off to a comfortable villa in the South of France and let them overindulge on wine, women, and song. Let them damage their own health and well-being rather than ruin the lives, livelihoods, and health of their own people.

Yes, I'm being somewhat facetious in my response, but just think of the lives it could save! Think of the time and resources (both human and financial) our governments, the UN, INGOs, etc. could devote to thoughtful humanitarian efforts instead. Imagine!