Barely three weeks into office, and still badly understaffed, the Biden administration is already facing several big, awkward foreign-policy challenges. The coup in Myanmar, Moscow’s crackdown on widespread protests, and the political turmoil in Haiti (where President Jovenel Moïse has refused to step down at the end of his term) all seem to require a strong response from Washington—especially given the administration’s much-touted promises to put democracy and human rights at the core of its agenda.
So far, the White House has moved cautiously. It has yet to take, or even promise, any action on Russia or Haiti, beyond making righteous statements about the former and confusing ones about the latter. On Myanmar, meanwhile, after 11 days of deliberation it announced new sanctions on Wednesday that would target the country’s military and freeze $1 billion in Burmese government assets held in the United States.
These moves will be welcomed by human rights and democracy advocates, who have been pressuring the White House to do more in all these cases. But however well intentioned, they aren’t likely to amount to much—something Biden’s foreign-policy team is smart and experienced enough to understand.
Consider the new U.S. moves against the Tatmadaw (the name by which Myanmar’s military is known). The first problem with them is that most of the country’s top military leaders are already under sanctions: those imposed in 2019 in response to the ethnic cleansing of Myanmar’s Rohingya population. The second, as Harvard’s Stephen Walt pointed out in Foreign Policy last week, is that the United States has limited business ties with Myanmar—bilateral trade amounts to around $1.4 billion a year, about a tenth of Myanmar’s annual trade with China—meaning there’s not that much to cut. And the third is that the new sanctions could push Myanmar closer to China, which will be eager to take advantage of the growing hostility between Washington and Naypyidaw by replacing any lost American aid with its own.
The Biden administration says that these sanctions are different from those imposed in the past, in part because they’re being coordinated with U.S. allies. But analysts such as Gregory Poling of the Center for Strategic and International Studies doubt that Japan and Singapore—some of the biggest investors in Myanmar, which means they could most effectively apply pressure—share Washington’s interest in disrupting trade flows.
Real as all these obstacles are, there’s an even bigger problem with applying sanctions in a case like this: They rarely succeed in getting countries to change their behavior.
Past experience and social-science research show that cuts to aid and other forms of financial punishment only move the needle in a very small set of cases: When the target country is so weak, poor, and lacking in other forms of revenue that it can’t survive without the aid, and when the donor and recipient state are tightly bound together by multiple economic and other ties. Examples of such cases include South Korea and the Philippines back in the days when both were ruled by authoritarians highly reliant on U.S. support.
Russia and Myanmar don’t fit this model (although Haiti might). After all, the Tatmadaw and Putin and his cronies are already under U.S. sanctions, and the fact that they nonetheless moved to stage a coup (Myanmar) and suppress public protests (both Myanmar and Russia) shows how little U.S. pressure factored into their either’s calculations.
This doesn’t mean the Biden administration was wrong to move against Myanmar the way it did this week. Such gestures, if a little hollow, can still do several positive things: signal U.S. support for key values; remind other strongmen that Washington won’t ignore their abuses; and bolster the courage of local populations fighting for their rights by reminding them that the United States is in their corner.
But given the limited concrete effect sanctions are likely to have, perhaps the best thing Washington could do to help right now would be to focus on restoring its own terribly tattered reputation and perceived commitment to democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. Condemning malefactors and imposing sanctions can be part of that. But given the almost universal skepticism felt around the world about America’s democratic bona fides these days—and extensive academic studies showing that reputation and credibility really do make a difference, especially in a world were conventional military might matters less and less—the most important thing the United States could do would be to ensure that former U.S. President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial succeeds, at least to the extent that political reality allows.
In an ideal world, the Senate would convict Trump of inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection and bar him from ever holding office again. Of course, given the pusillanimity of most Senate Republicans, that outcome looks unlikely—in which case ensuring the trial still appears fair and rigorous should be the next priority.
Success would pay off in several ways. First, it would undermine authoritarians’ favorite comeback to American criticism these days: that the United States is a hypocrite with no leg to stand on. Second, it would restore the country’s status as a role model for struggling or aspiring democracies—making good on Biden’s pledge to lead “not just with the example of our power but also with the power of our example.” Third, and related, it would make U.S. allies more likely to rally to Washington’s side.
Whatever the outcome of Senate’s final vote, then, the key point is that what’s happening in Congress right now shouldn’t be seen as a sideshow distracting Washington from more important foreign-policy priorities. On the contrary: Publicly reestablishing the United States’ commitment to the rule of law, and the idea that no one is above it, is key to restoring its standing—the essential foundation for anything Washington hopes to accomplish internationally in the days and months ahead.
Prioritizing this effort above specific interventions in countries around the world now struggling with oppression might seem callous—but only if you believe that those interventions would be otherwise effective. Tough as it is to acknowledge, the record shows that they probably wouldn’t be—especially now, when America’s standing is so low. If the Biden administration really wants to help Haiti, Myanmar, Russia, and others—and all signs suggest it does—it must focus on fixing the United States first. Everything else will flow from that.