Guest Column

A Rare US Approach to Soft Diplomacy

By Reid Lidow 16 November 2012

Easily overlooked amid the flurry of reforms in Burma, a diplomatic retooling is taking place at the US Embassy in Rangoon. Cubicles that were once empty have found new occupants, relationships that had turned cold during two decades of political isolation are thawing and public diplomacy is flourishing.

Spearheading this silent shift is Ambassador Derek Mitchell, a diplomat whose ambitions extend beyond remaking the US-Burma relationship: Mitchell is writing the 21st century edition of how the US could engage adversarial states.

A respected Asian security affairs scholar, Mitchell made waves with a 2007 Foreign Affairs essay coauthored with Michael Green, entitled “The Battle Over Burma” in which he suggested a complete restructuring of US policy toward Burma, a policy framework he labeled as “stuck.”

In that piece—directed toward the Bush Administration—Mitchell and Green argued that “in order to participate fully and effectively, the US government will need to relax its strict prohibition on official high-level contact” with the Burmese government. The remedy, according to Mitchell and Green, would be fairly simple: “The president should appoint a special adviser to serve as the coordinator of US policy on Burma.”

One administration and two years later, Mitchell got his wish and was named the first Special Representative and Policy Coordinator for Burma, a position he held from August 2011 until June 2012 at which time he assumed the role of ambassador. What made this posture of engagement, adopted by the Obama Administration, so surprising was that it jettisoned the longstanding US habit of isolating adversarial states.

Geoffrey Wiseman, a former Australian diplomat and now a scholar on diplomatic theory and practice, identifies this US tradition of isolating adversarial states until certain conditions are met and acknowledges that it flies in the face of “diplomatic culture’s norm of continuous dialogue.”

This isolation only hampers earnest diplomatic efforts; should the US seek to engage Iran today, the Iraq of 2003 or the Burma of 1990, it had to go through backchannels which put more fingerprints on already cloudy policies. Instead, the Obama administration, and more specifically Mitchell, seem to realize that, in Wiseman’s words, “engaging, rather than isolating and imposing preconditions on adversarial states” will support the “conflict-resolving potential of sustainable diplomacy.” US policy in Burma is shaking up longstanding diplomatic assumptions.

Speaking before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee during his June 2012 confirmation hearing for the ambassador position, Mitchell tempered his optimism for Burma’s future with the present challenges facing the state.

“As Secretary of State Clinton has observed, reform is not irreversible, and continued democratic change is not inevitable,” he said.

Identifying five areas where Burma needs to reform for US-Burma bilateral relations to progress—releasing political prisoners, reforming the judiciary, restructuring the Burmese 2008 Constitution, ending human rights abuses and severing ties with North Korea—Mitchell made clear to the Burmese government that while the US was extending an open hand, reforms would have to follow for a sustainable relationship to exist.

Rather than watering the poison plant of the military, Mitchell—with the advantage of normalized diplomatic relations—was cultivating new diplomatic channels through dialogues instead of threats.

The US does not need to wear a tank top to show its muscles—the threat of force only goes so far—and Mitchell’s diplomacy has revealed itself as quite effective. Government officials in Burma’s capital in Naypyidaw are reacting to what Mitchell identifies as “windows of opportunity” to make meaningful political reforms and capitalize on an emerging relationship with the US, as neighbors to the north and east draw closer, placing Burma in a geostrategic pickle.

Using the US rapprochement with Burma as the sole explanatory variable for the reforms being undertaken would be inappropriate. Many of the reforms predate US reengagement, although “smart diplomacy” certainly has not hindered the reform process.

Since being received by President Thein Sein in July, the reforms in Burma have been substantial, even if they are limited to Rangoon. The reviled censorship bureau was disbanded in late August, and while publication rules are still in place, this was nevertheless a major victory for activists.

Hundreds more political prisoners have been released and in 2013 Burma will participate in the Cobra Gold US joint military exercises in Thailand. There has been a major influx of US capital as General Electric, Pepsi and Coca-Cola have arrived in what they see as the hottest market in Southeast Asia. In August, 20th Century Fox released “Titanic 3-D” in Burma—the first “legitimate” viewing of a US movie in theatres in decades. The signs and the times are changing.

The challenge for the United States today is not to talk at more states, but to engage more governments in conversation – friendly or adversarial. This should become increasingly easier, and one hopes, common. Mitchell has proven that initiating a dialogue with an adversarial regime, with few (i.e. low level) or no preconditions for engagement, can yield reforms.

What has been revealed in Burma is that the “power” in “smart power” has been taken out of the equation and replaced with “diplomacy.” The Burma case has illustrated that talking with a state, which operates differently than the United States, is not a sign of weakness but a sign of strength and confidence in one’s diplomats.

Furthermore, diplomats like Mitchell should no longer be viewed as potential liabilities in hostile states but rather as force multipliers that can guide sanctions, represent national interests and advance key foreign policy goals. And not incidentally, this evokes possibilities of a higher level of professionalism in the US diplomatic representation abroad.

Burma has a long way to go before it is where the US would “like it to be.” That being said, it has come a long way in large part because of the efforts of Mitchell. The Burma model is a framework the US should consider more widely, and as states like North Korea and Iran continue to hamper a global community of trust, perhaps the US should once again throw the traditional play book out the window and start a dialogue through diplomats. Worst-case scenario, it goes somewhere.

Reid Lidow is an undergraduate researcher at the University of Southern California in international relations and political science. He has previously conducted research in Burma. This article first appeared on Asia Sentinel and the views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of The Irrawaddy.