Global Ethics Corner: Is It Too Soon to Normalize Relations with Burma?

Nov 26, 2012

As Burma begins to reform its government, the U.S. has been quick to begin normalizing relations with the Asian state. Are geostrategic considerations overshadowing lingering questions about human rights as U.S. foreign policy pivots toward Asia?

Thanks to a series of recent reforms, Burma is shedding its decades-long status as an international pariah and the United States has noticed. While the U.S. tends to move slowly in normalizing relationships with once-rogue statesspending years between the lifting of sanctions and a presidential visitin Burma, the U.S. has moved fast. Really fast.

On November 19th, Barack Obama became the first sitting American president to visit Burma. This quick normalization is partly because Burma has important geostrategic implications for America’s oncoming foreign policy shift. During the second Obama administration, analysts say U.S. foreign policy will pivot away from the Middle East, and back to Asia. This visit to Burma is the first step in reasserting the U.S. presence in Asia.

Although the president’s visit might have been strategically savvy, it was not without criticism. Democracy advocates say Burma is too authoritarian to warrant normalized relations. Their major problem lies with Burma’s juntaa military elite that has lorded over Burma since 1962. Despite efforts to install a civilian president and parliament, critics believe Burma’s military still monopolizes power and represses the nation’s ethnic minorities.

But the Obama administration believes the reforms are real. It says Burma is experiencing a top-down democratic revolution that began in 2008, when the junta adopted its new civilian constitution. Since then, Burma has freed political prisoners, legalized unions, and liberalized the media. Whether these reforms will prove long-lasting is unknown. But it’s a chance the Obama administration is willing to takenot least because of Burma’s geostrategic importance.

As U.S. foreign policy pivots back to Asia, what do you think? Is it too soon to normalize relations with Burma? Or should the U.S. take a chance on Burma’s newly reformist government?

By Marlene Spoerri

For more information see

Maung Zarni, "Obama should not visit Burma," McClatchy, November 15, 2012

David Hoffman, "Obama is right to visit Myanmar (Burma)," The Christian Science Monitor, November 16, 2012

Max Fisher, "Why Obama’s trip to Burma is such a big deal," The Washington Post, November 10, 2012

Robert Kagan and Kurt Campbell, "The Obama Administration's Pivot to Asia," The Foreign Policy Initiative, November 20, 2012

Photo credits in order of appearance:
Speaker John Boehner
Jan van Raay
U.S. Department of State [also for photos 5, 12, & 13]
Totaloutnow [also for photo 6]
Stephen Brookes
United Nations Photo
Rusty Stewart
Burma Democratic Concern

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