Detachment Is Policy: Why the Bush administration needs to lead the Asian democracies.
Ellen Bork
Weekly Standard
May 31, 2006


THE BURMESE JUNTA has repeatedly exposed the weakness of the international community. One organization in particular, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), has had its reputation besmirched by its inability to bring pressure on a regime which has a record of brutal repression and which thwarted the results of a democratic election in 1990. Operating on a principle of "non-interference" in the affairs of its members, the ASEAN has been predictably ineffectual.

Now it is the United Nation's turn to act. This week, the U.N. Security Council will receive a briefing from its undersecretary for Political Affairs, Ibrahim Gambari, about his recent trip to Burma. Whether there will be further action remains unclear. Gambari appears to be preparing the ground for a U.N. cave-in. Upon his return from Burma, he suggested that the junta which 16 years ago thwarted a democratic election and since then has plunged Burma into repression and ruin, appears ready to "turn a new page." On Saturday, perhaps in preparation for this page-turning, the Burmese administration extended the house arrest confinement of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been in and out of house arrest for 16 years--ever since the junta refused to recognize the overwhelming victory of her party and its allies in a democratic election.

THIS YEAR it will not be enough for the Security Council to be briefed, as it was last year. The matter needs to get on the Council agenda, and action needs to be taken. The stakes are very high for Burma--and for the international community.

If the United States and other democracies on the Security Council do not push as hard as possible for action in the Security Council or if China--or Russia for that matter--balks, a broader question will be forced into the open: Is there an alternative to multilateral conclaves at which the interests of democracies and dictatorships clash?

As the problem of Burma shows, this question IS especially pressing in Asia. The Bush administration came to office promising to pay greater attention to its democratic allies in the region. During his election campaign, George W. Bush said the America should "work toward the day when the fellowship of free Pacific nations is as strong and united as our Atlantic partnership." Vice President Cheney repeated this language while speaking in Tokyo in 2004.

Last year, Secretary Rice began referring to an already existing "Pacific community of democracies." The following month, at the Community of Democracies meeting, she said that "the democratic character of states must become the cornerstone of a new, principled multilateralism."

The administration has outlined a bold vision, but it has not followed through. To the contrary: Regional diplomacy has marched on without the United States--and at its expense.

Perhaps the administration feels no urgency. The inaugural East Asia Summit (EAS), meeting of last December was assessed by observers variously as "meaningless" and a "non-event." According to a Bush administration official, the EAS, which includes 10 southeast Asian countries, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and India, was a "black box." "Nobody knows what the East Asia Summit is other than leaders are coming together," Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Eric Johns told a congressional subcommittee last fall. "Once we figure out what it is, then we move on to determine what our policy would be toward the EAS."

But Johns's detachment is policy. For decades, the United States pursued its business through bilateral relationships and believed, rightly or wrongly, that it could afford to devote a small fraction of its attention to the region's multilateral organizations to which it belonged, and to those which it didn't.

Over time, things have changed. Kurt Campbell, a former Defense department official during the Clinton administration, wrote recently that "the action has shifted largely to pan-Asian venues . . . [which] either by design or inattention . . . have excluded the U.S." Campbell warns that symbolic exclusion could become substantive on many important issues and that a combination of American neglect and ineffective regional organizations might leave Asian countries to believe that they should "sidle up to China and cut the best deal possible."

IN OTHER WORDS, passivity will at a minimum guarantee that arrangements are made in which the United States has not had a part. And the difficulty in confronting Burma has shown how weak organizations that lack cohesion, purpose, and enforcement mechanisms can be.

Burma would be an extraordinary problem for the international community, no matter what. Its government and military have shown themselves to be brutal and contemptuous of the rights and welfare of their own citizens, as well as those of neighboring countries.

The Burmese junta is opaque and its motivations can be obscure. For instance, its recent, abrupt, and unannounced relocation of the capital to Naypridaw (which means "royal city") was executed at 6:37 a.m., which is widely attributed to the rulers' reliance on astrology in decision-making. Even if democracies cooperated seamlessly, they would not find an immediate solution to the Burma problem.

However, the real-world discombobulation of democracies has not been simply ineffectual: it has allowed the valuable political capital of the United States and its allies to dissipate.

Asia's diversity and history of conflict does not make it impossible to form a regional group of democracies. To the contrary, Asia's problems make organizing along these lines more urgent and feasible, not less.

It will take a lot of time to get all the pieces in place. Many obstacles--Japan's wartime past, for example--need to be cleared. But the alternative--drifting organizations with no barriers to admission, no particular purpose, and a weak or non-existent role for the United States--isn't in the best interests of anyone.

You can't beat something with nothing. Now would be a good time for the Bush administration to exert some leadership in the creation of an Asian forum that has both clout and principles.

Ellen Bork is deputy director at the Project for the New American Century.