OPINION: Burma coup shows why Biden must reject Great Man foreign policy

Former US President Barack Obama sits with Opposition Leader Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar in the Oval Office.
Ben Reicher PO ’22 argues that America’s traditional foreign policy approach relies too heavily on individual leaders. (Courtesy: Pete Souza via Wikimedia Commons)

The events of President Joe Biden’s tenure so far understandably have not afforded him much time to concentrate on foreign policy. But as his administration turns its attention overseas, where several highly troubling events that have taken place since Biden’s election demand America’s attention, it is clear that the country’s traditional approach to foreign policy needs fundamental change.

I won’t pretend that today’s international crises, like the coup d’état in Burma, have straightforward solutions. But if Biden is to have any success, he must break with one of the most harmful aspects of previous administrations’ foreign policy: the tendency to view foreign affairs through an individualist lens, as if all that is needed for positive change abroad is to remove the wrong people from power and install the right people in their place. 

Our first priority should be to do no harm, and the individualist approach to foreign affairs has proven damaging to America’s interest in protecting democracy overseas and devastating to the world’s most vulnerable and marginalized peoples. 

American foreign policy has long operated under a Great Man theory of history, the idea that change is driven by the actions of uniquely strong or charismatic individuals. Such an approach, one that reduces international politics to a story of heroes and villains, ignores that lasting change is bigger than any one person and must be rooted in broader social evolution of institutions and people’s attitudes.

Good examples of this outlook are the Bush Administration’s invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, where there was no preparation for what would come after America’s enemies du jour were removed: no plan to rebuild core institutions of governance and a badly lacking idea of both countries’ deep-seated internecine tensions. This oversight, the true scale of which has only recently become apparent, has resulted in dual political disasters to national objectives and, moreover, humanitarian disasters on the ground that show no sign of abating. 

But the Obama Administration wasn’t immune to individualist foreign policy, either. The most illustrative case was their support for Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent decades leading the opposition to the military regime in Burma. 

To much of the Western political establishment, Suu Kyi was a modern Gandhi or Mandela, the embodiment of her country’s hope for democracy and peace after decades of military rule. She is the daughter of Burma’s assassinated founding father, and was kept under house arrest by the military dictatorship for years, spending long periods separated from her family. Human rights activists worldwide rejoiced when, in 2015, Suu Kyi’s party won a decisive legislative majority, and she assumed the specially created role of State Counsellor — the de facto highest position in the government. 

It has since become evident that the popular image of Suu Kyi missed a lot. What didn’t receive much attention before she assumed power was her authoritarian leadership style and failure to delegate authority within her party, the National League for Democracy; the NLD’s refusal to field ethnic minority candidates; and her personal prejudice against Burma’s historically oppressed Muslim community.

On Aug. 25, 2017, the Burmese military began a genocidal campaign against the Rohingya Muslim minority in Rakhine State. Under the guise of counterinsurgency measures, the military has tortured and killed Rohingya civilians indiscriminately, causing an exodus of over 700,000 to neighboring Bangladesh. 

The military operates with very little civilian oversight in Burma, but Suu Kyi’s refusal to speak against the atrocities — her government has claimed the Rohingya burned their houses and fled of their own accord — instantly turned the West’s adoration into bitter condemnation. 

Not only that, but Suu Kyi actively abetted the genocide: She personally defended Burma from charges of genocide in The Hague, during which she maintained her long-standing refusal to even say the word Rohingya, furthering the nationalist lie that members of this long-persecuted minority are illegal immigrants.

Western nations and organizations have revoked countless awards and honors conferred upon Suu Kyi. But Western observers shouldn’t have been too surprised. The warning signs about Suu Kyi were there all along; everyone was too wrapped up in their hopes for Burma’s future, which they misguidedly placed on her alone, to look closely.

Naturally, the Trump administration said almost nothing about Burma. Trump also followed an individually focused foreign policy, although he didn’t judge leaders by the moral principles they purportedly represented, but by how much they professed to like him (and his hotels). Hence the shameful, and impotent in terms of achieving policy objectives, appeasement of dictators like Vladimir Putin, Mohammed bin Salman and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

On Feb. 1, the Burmese military seized power in a coup and detained Suu Kyi and her associates, and has since violently repressed popular protests. This ongoing crisis has no easy answer, and it’s unclear how responsive the military junta would be to American pressure, but Biden has no choice but to start viewing the international arena in a different light. He must recognize that, in a country where authoritarianism and internal conflict are so deeply ingrained, putting all of America’s hopes for democratic progress in one person was always bound to fail.

Equally importantly, so must the American public. The most important thing voters can do is insist on analyzing international politics more rigorously, avoiding a simplistic individualist perspective. Focus on the evolution of a country’s societal and governmental institutions throughout history, because that is how true democracy develops. By itself, a change of mindset won’t solve the world’s problems, but it just might keep the tragic mistakes of the past from being repeated.

Ben Reicher PO ’22 is from Agoura Hills, California. He joined his high school newspaper in ninth grade because he loved to argue, and hasn’t stopped since.

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