Tag Archives: Foreign policy

How Burma Will Modernize

Learning to read in Burma.

The photo on the header of this blog was taken in Bagan, a city in the center of Burma that is home to thousands of ornate Buddhist temples.  I was sitting atop another of the thousand temples that litter the skyline, wondering how such a stunning place could have so few visitors.  The temples in Bagan are relics of a once-prosperous society.  Today, the country appears frozen in time, its potential ruined by a repressive military government that has left Burma in a developmental stasis for the last thirty years.

The strategic geography of Burma is undeniable.

But all of that is changing now.  Traditionally, the West has always viewed Burma as a basketcase – a country rich in natural resources beset by post-colonial woes and chock full of human rights violations.  Despite its hideous record of government and poor economic growth, Burma has always had a few things going for it.  First, it has a wealth of natural resources.  Diamonds, natural gas, oil, etc.  Second, it is strategically located between two of the fastest-growing economies in the world, China and India.  Combined, China and India make up a third of the world population and are contributing an increasing percentage of the global GDP.  When speaking about the future of geopolitics and the world economy, these two countries are increasingly part of the conversation.  And Burma, the basketcase of East Asia, sits conveniently between these two rising giants.  Given that Russia lies further north, and Brazil dominates the Americas south of the Equator, Burma holds the distinction of being the only country in the world to sit directly in between two of the BRIC countries.

It makes sense that China and India would want to facilitate trade as efficiently and cheaply as possible.  To do that, only one thing stands in the way: Burma.  Given the Chinese government’s track record of long-term strategic thinking when it comes to developing its future trading partners, China has taken an active role in building up the infrastructure in a future vital trading partner.  On Burma’s western front, India is taking a similarly proactive approach in making sure it takes advantage of the country’s location and resources.  And, amazingly, it sounds like it could be a win-win-win situation:

A Hindu rite of passage. Day one in Burma

Watching these developments, some have warned of a new Great Game, leading to conflict between the world’s largest emerging powers. But others predict instead the making of a new Silk Road, like the one in ancient and medieval times that coupled China to Central Asia and Europe. It’s important to remember that this geographic shift comes at a very special moment in Asia’s history: a moment of growing peace and prosperity at the conclusion of a century of tremendous violence and armed conflict and centuries more of Western colonial domination. The happier scenario is far from impossible.

The generation now coming of age is the first to grow up in an Asia that is both post-colonial and (with a few small exceptions) postwar. New rivalries may yet fuel 21st-century nationalisms and lead to a new Great Game, but there is great optimism nearly everywhere, at least among the middle classes and the elites that drive policy: a sense that history is on Asia’s side and a desire to focus on future wealth, not hark back to the dark times that have only recently been left behind.

And a crossroads through Burma would not be a simple joining up of countries. The parts of China and India that are being drawn together over Burma are among the most far-flung parts of the two giant states, regions of unparalleled ethnic and linguistic diversity where people speak literally hundreds of mutually unintelligible languages, of forgotten kingdoms like Manipur and Dali, and of isolated upland societies that were, until recently, beyond the control of Delhi or Beijing. They are also places where ballooning populations have only now filled out a once very sparsely peopled and densely forested landscape. New countries are finding new neighbors. Whereas the fall of the Berlin Wall reopened contacts that had only temporarily been suspended, the transformations under way are enabling entirely new encounters. There is the possibility of a cosmopolitan nexus at the heart of Asia.

Readers of this blog know that I have a soft spot in my heart for Burma and its struggle.  I’ve often ruminated on whether anything good would ever befall the Burmese people.  But now, with two of the four BRIC countries looking to one another for a mutually-beneficial partnership in the post-American world, things are finally looking up.

Trekking to Inle Lake

I will close with a long paragraph from the Foreign Policy article quoted above that speaks to the optimism in the Far East:

A new friend.

It’s a fragile opening. The president seems determined to push ahead, but his is not the only voice. There are other powerful ex-generals in parliament and in the cabinet, and the structures of repression remain intact. Burma is at a critical turning point.

And now, for the first time, Burma’s politics matter beyond its immediate borders. If this opportunity for positive change is lost, Burma may remain a miserably run place — but it will no longer be an isolated backwater. The great infrastructure projects under way will continue, as will the much longer-term processes of change. Asia’s frontier will close and a new but dangerous crossroads will be the result.

But if Burma indeed takes a turn for the better and we see an end to decades of armed conflict, a lifting of Western sanctions, democratic government, and broad-based economic growth, the impact could be dramatic. China’s hinterland will suddenly border a vibrant and young democracy, and India’s northeast will be transformed from a dead end into its bridge to the Far East. What happens next in Burma could be a game-changer for all Asia.

As it turns out, rather than sanctions and a tourism boycott, simple economics might be just what Burma needs to become a vibrant democracy after decades of brutal military rule.  I will look forward to going back.

Here are a few of my favorite pictures from this amazing place.  The photos were taken by my friend, Gemma North, a fellow Kiva Fellow in Cambodia.

My first trip to the Kingdom

How to Deal with Al-Shabab and a Failed State in Somalia

One of Somalia's many problems. (AFP Photo/Mohamed Dahir)

I’ve been reading a lot of opinions lately about the decline of the empire of the United States, where experts try to pinpoint the exact moment where we planted our flag atop the hill of global dominance and then began our descent down the other side (somewhere around the early 1990’s, according to the consensus).  In every calculation, the war in Afghanistan is either emblematic of a state in decline (they don’t call it the “graveyard of empires” for nothing) or something that actually precipitated the fall.  We defeated the communists at the end of the 1980’s – the high-water mark in our global position.  And one of the great ironies of that victory is that we secretly funded the mujahedeen in Afghanistan to fight the Soviet Union and, in doing so, kept the Russians mired in the same position we have found ourselves over the last ten years.  One of those mujahedeen was Osama Bin Laden, son of a Saudi billionaire who, with the help of the CIA, bankrolled the insurgency against the Soviets.  Bin Laden quickly turned against the United States (not that he was ever with the U.S.) and became the figurehead of the global jihadist movement until a few months ago when Barack Obama killed him.

People love to point out the fact that we funded the very people who have tried to kill us over the last two decades.  How could we do that, they ask?  The answer is relatively simple.  When a country doesn’t seem like a threat, no one really pays cares if we are potentially nurturing our future enemies, so long as we are able to channel them in support of our cause at the time.  And then, when the snake is all grown up, he bites.  And, in an ironic twist that would make George Santyana roll over in his grave we are doing it again.  Only this time, we are doing it in Somalia, the last truly failed state.

Ever-present Somalia.

It makes sense at this point to give some context about Somalia.  With a score of 113.6, it is consistently ranked number one on Foreign Policy magazine’s Failed States Index year after year.  Here is how it is described in the most recent ranking:

Relatively speaking, the first months of 2011 have been full of good news for Somalia, the world’s closest approximation of anarchy. For two full decades, the majority of the territory in this crescent-shaped country on the Horn of Africa has gone essentially ungoverned; an internationally recognized transitional government is fighting tooth and nail to control the capital. Yet after months of stalemate with Islamist insurgents, the momentum finally seems to be turning. Block by block, the national troops — with the considerable help of an African Union-U.N. joint peacekeeping mission — have made significant territorial gains in Mogadishu.

Yet Somalia is still in tatters. Out of a population of nearly 10 million, as many as 3 million are thought to need humanitarian assistance. Another 2 million have been uprooted in the conflict, and political infighting has paralyzed the nascent government. Neighboring Uganda has warned that the fractures stand to make matters worse, offering Islamist insurgent groups a chance to reorganize.

Perhaps the greatest fear looming over Somalia today is that it will become the next haven for al Qaeda fleeing Afghanistan. Somalia’s Islamist rebels, who call themselves al-Shabab, have already pledged their allegiance to the global terrorist network.

Here, demonstrators in Mogadishu denounce the United Nations mission in the country, accusing it of spending too much on flying diplomats in and out of Nairobi and not enough on fixing what’s broken in Somalia.

This was written prior to the recent famine, which has left over 30,000 children dead and is the localized food crisis in 20 years.  How to deal with the “basketcase” of Somalia has eluded successive U.S. governments for the last several decades.  Now, as the U.S. is faced with the prospect of Somalia becoming the next Afghanistan – a hub for global jihadist groups like Al-Qaeda – the issue has suddenly become much more pressing.  Jeffrey Gettlemen, the failed-state beat reporter for the New York Times, reports on the latest use of military contractors to fight Al-Shabab, the Islamic Fundamentalist group that only a mother could love:

The Pentagon has recently told Congress that it plans to send nearly $45 million worth of military equipment to bolster the Ugandan and Burundian troops. The arms package includes transport trucks, body armor, night vision goggles and even four small drone aircraft that the African troops can use to spy on Shabab positions.

Unlike regular Somali government troops, the C.I.A.-trained Somali commandos are outfitted with new weapons and flak jackets, and are given sunglasses and ski masks to conceal their identities. They are part of the Somali National Security Agency — an intelligence organization financed largely by the C.I.A. — which answers to Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government. Many in Mogadishu, though, believe that the Somali intelligence service is building a power base independent of the weak government.

One Somali official, speaking only on the condition of anonymity, said that the spy service was becoming a “government within a government.”

“No one, not even the president, knows what the N.S.A. is doing,” he said. “The Americans are creating a monster.”

The future of global jihad.

I have a great respect for the complexities of foreign policy, containment, defense, and dealing with a king cobra like Somalia.  But the African Union should be dealing with Somalia and taking responsibility of policing its own region.  Having a major presence there creates resentment in the same way that it has done Afghanistan.  It is a dangerous country and to allow it to effectively fall apart is not really an option either.  So I understand why these measures might need to be taken.  Still, I suppose this is how it starts.

Towards the end of the article there is another nugget of insight into the different ways of approaching a failed state with an Islamic fundamentalist problem:

In Washington, American officials said debates were under way about just how much the United States should rely on clandestine militia training and armed drone strikes to fight the Shabab. Over the past year, the American Embassy in Nairobi, according to one American official, has  become a hive of military and intelligence operatives who are “chomping at the bit” to escalate operations in Somalia. But Mr. Carson, the State Department official, has opposed the drone strikes because of the risk of turning more Somalis toward the Shabab, according to several officials.

Johnnie Carson is the highest state department official in Africa.  He is a career foreign service officer, and has cut his diplomatic teeth dealing with African governments since the 1970s.   By all accounts, he understands the cultural nuances that affect diplomacy in sub-Saharan Africa.  Reading this, I appreciate that someone like Carson is running the show.

I think that this sort of measured approach to dealing with a volatile and complex situation is reflective of Obama’s deliberative foreign policy.  Brute military force that rains collateral damage on civilians makes for fertile recruiting grounds for Jihadist groups.  It needs to be smartly applied, in combination with diplomacy and development.  But, as I wrote the other day, the latter two could end up on the receiving end of cuts at the end of 2012.  If that happens, the counterforce pushing back on the military operatives itching to put boots on the ground in Somalia will be marginalized. And history may be free to repeat itself.

The China-Africa Trade Boom

The following is a guest post by Joseph Cox, an MA candidate at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute and managing editor of the The Inductive, a blog about U.S. economic and foreign policy.

When polled, Americans always cite foreign aid as the budget item most in need of a good hatcheting, yet, there is also a deep suspicion of Chinese investment in Africa.

The fact is that Chinese investment in Africa dwarfs U.S. aid.  The Chinese have over $100 billion in trade with Africa a year(admitted, not the same thing as direct foreign investment), while the U.S. musters about $4.5 billion in aid.

Source: The Economist

This aid is not without controversy, especially on the ground. The Financial Times (warning gated) recently reported on Zambian miners upset at low wages paid by their Chinese bosses.  However, the end of the article gave the game away:

Despite simmering anger over October’s shooting and labour conditions, workers do not want Collum Coal Mine to close. In a country where two-thirds of the population lives on less than $1 a day, a poorly paid job is better than none at all.

“We’re not happy with the Chinese investment,” says Bernard Dolopo, local representative of the Mineworkers’ Union of Zambia. “But unfortunately we don’t have better investors than the Chinese.”

I have no doubt that working for a Chinese owned mine in Zambia is a miserable experience, but the fact that people are willing to work in those mines anyway demonstrates their benefit.  Likewise, I can understand why Africans are skeptical of Chinese immigration (its not like people from other countries have ever exploited Africans before).  But a decade of 5% GDP growth is a pretty powerful statement that something is working.

I think there is sustainability in this model since the Chinese also directly benefit, and the Africans can negotiate for a better deal later.

A basic truth in investing is that returns and risk are directly related, so the more risk the more return.  Otherwise, the available arbitrage would attract investors and drive down the return. Africa has been dramatically underdeveloped for years leading to massive investment opportunities with huge political risks.  Chinese government run companies are able to reap large rewards and mitigate the risk by (1) not destablizing incumbant governments no matter how illegitimate, it is all ice cream and no spinach for who ever is running the country when the Chinese come in and (2) if there was regime change, the Chinese would just pay the new person to keep the business rolling.

For all the talk from the west about how the Chinese should pressure the Africans on political goals, I think the Chinese have proven to be good examples on other fronts.  The Chinese government’s philosophy is that growth brings legitimacy and that it is possible to create the economic prerequisites for growth (property rights, economic opportunity, infrastructure, working markets, investment) without losing political control.  So, and this is just speculation, even if the Chinese aren’t encouraging political development I think they are (at least implicitly) encouraging growth.  If you look at growth in the developing world over the last decade it has been very strong.  I think this is basically because a lot of poor countries saw what China was doing and copied it. And the Chinese were happy to help them in exchange for access to resources.

So bravo China, here’s to a country with an economic strategy!