The Washington Post

Why Obama’s trip to Burma is such a big deal

President Obama stands by Burmese President Thein Sein at an East Asian summit in Bali. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

This week, the White House announced that President Obama will visit Burma (also known as Myanmar), long an international pariah that has just recently begun to reform, later this month. He will be the first president to do so, moving with astonishing speed on building ties with this strategically located nation long seen as one of the world's worst dictatorships.

How fast, exactly? Let's put it in context, comparing it with three of the most famous cases of U.S. rapprochement since the end of the Cold War. The U.S. has tended to move slowly when it comes to rapprochement with rogue states. First the country opens, rolling back the nasty dictatorship and aggressive foreign policy that got it isolated in the first place, then there are a few years of overtures. Finally, if the rogue state becomes sufficiently friendly, the U.S. signals its renewed ties with a visit from the secretary of state or even the president.

When South African President F.W. de Klerk began to roll back apartheid in early 1990, releasing Nelson Mandela from prison and lifting the ban on the African National Congress that now leads the country, rapprochement with America came slowly. The U.S. sent Secretary of State James Baker to Cape Town and Johannesburg that year, but didn't begin to lift sanctions until a year later, when South Africa dismantled its nuclear program. It wasn't until after de Klerk oversaw a peaceful, democratic transition – and shared a Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela – that the U.S. offered $600 million in aid. And it wasn't until 1998 that President Bill Clinton, by then fast friends with then-President Mandela, visited South Africa. Time from South Africa's opening to secretary of state visit: months. Time to presidential visit: eight years.

In October 2000, just days after a popular revolution ousted Yugoslav President Slobodan Milošević, the U.S. announced it would reestablish its diplomatic ties to the European dictatorship as it transitioned to democracy. By January, Washington dropped its nine-year-old sanctions, the start of a rapprochement that saw Yugoslavia (now Serbia) arrest former regime members and divide its borders. But no U.S. president has visited the country since 1980, and it was not until 2010 that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton traveled to Belgrade. Time from Serbia's opening to secretary of state visit: 10 years. Time to presidential visit: 12 years and running.

Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi probably ended up regretting his decision to resign his nuclear program in 2003 and begin cooperating with the U.S. on counterterrorism, but at the time it probably seemed smart. The U.S. lifted sanctions the next year, reestablished its Tripoli embassy in 2006, lifted its "state sponsor of terror" designation that same year, and sent Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for a very creepy official visit in 2008, the first since 1953. No president has ever visited the country. Time from Libya's opening to secretary of state visit: five years. Time to presidential visit: nine years and running.

What about Burma? The country's reform began with a bang in March 2011, when the rulers dissolved the half-century-old military junta and transitioned to a civilian government. Burma has gradually democratized (though its commitment to free elections remains largely untested), freed hundreds of political prisoners, relaxed restrictions and, perhaps most significantly for Washington, moved away from China, its longtime patron. Hillary Rodham Clinton traveled to meet with President Thein Sein and others that November, making her the second secretary of state to go, and Obama will become the first sitting president to ever go. The U.S. has lifted crippling sanctions, allowing foreign investment to flood in. Time from Burma's opening to secretary of state visit: eight months. Time to presidential visit: 20 months.

That might be a land-speed record for post-Cold War rapprochement. Some during and immediately after the Cold War were faster, but the coups and counter-coups and shifting alliances were unique to that bipolar era.

But what's driving Obama administration's remarkable enthusiasm for opening Burma right now? It seems largely to be part of the administration's mission to earnestly "pivot" to Asia; the president, on this trip, will also become the first to visit Cambodia. One big part of this strategy that doesn't get discussed much is the effort to integrate Southeast Asian countries, which are not thrilled about China's rising influence but need some help uniting against the neighboring giant. Perhaps the administration sees an opening to assert regional leadership now, while China's diplomatic outreaches remain clumsy and unconvincing. 

But there's another message that the rapid U.S. detente with Burma sends, whether deliberately or not: rogue states that open up might be able to expect rewards from the Americans, and quickly. The administration's willingness to let bygones be bygones with Burma, to work with the ruling regime instead of pushing its top figures into international criminal courts, and to reward its reforms "action for action," as the diplomats put it, would seem to establish some very tempting incentives for other rogue states.

To be sure, each rogue state is its own complicated case. The U.S. has a lot less baggage with Burma than it does with, say, Iran, so it's easier for Washington to put the past aside. And the Burma relationship is also less encumbered by domestic U.S. politics or by interest groups that might oppose a too-rapid opening. Still, you have to wonder how it looks from Caracas or Riyadh or even Tehran.



Success! Check your inbox for details. You might also like:

Please enter a valid email address

See all newsletters

Show Comments

Sign up for email updates from the "Confronting the Caliphate" series.

You have signed up for the "Confronting the Caliphate" series.

Thank you for signing up
You'll receive e-mail when new stories are published in this series.
Most Read



Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Next Story
Olga Khazan · November 9, 2012

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.