The Burma Card

Walter Russell Mead on how the Burmese junta is moving to diversify its geopolitical portfolio

From an outsider’s perspective, when the rest of the world had turned its back on the repressive military regime, China gave Myanmar everything it could want: including funding multi-billion dollar projects to build oil and gas pipelines, roads, hydropower infrastructure, and railways. And of course, China provided vast amounts of military hardware to the junta, no questions asked and no pesky NGO groups running around making complaints.

But being locked into an exclusive relationship with China had its price. Upset by a serious dependence on their northern neighbors, as well as unchecked immigration by Chinese nationals into northern Myanmar, the junta seems to have determined that it needed new friends.

We often forget that moral advances happen in a wider strategic context: the British anti-slavery campaigns and the civil rights movement are good examples. As Mary Dudziak argues in her landmark Cold War Civil Rights,

… the Cold War helped facilitate key social reforms, including desegregation. Civil rights activists gained tremendous advantage as the government sought to polish its international image. But improving the nation’s reputation did not always require real change. This focus on image rather than substance–combined with constraints on McCarthy-era political activism and the triumph of law-and-order rhetoric–limited the nature and extent of progress.

Archival information, much of it newly available, supports Dudziak’s argument that civil rights was Cold War policy. But the story is also one of people: an African-American veteran of World War II lynched in Georgia; an attorney general flooded by civil rights petitions from abroad; the teenagers who desegregated Little Rock’s Central High; African diplomats denied restaurant service; black artists living in Europe and supporting the civil rights movement from overseas; conservative politicians viewing desegregation as a communist plot; and civil rights leaders who saw their struggle eclipsed by Vietnam.

On reflection, it makes perfect sense. The moral claims advanced by the civil rights movement were no less compelling in, say, the 1940s. Yet the world changed in important and highly salient ways.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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