The generals don’t want to engage with the wider world, and they feel that they have little to lose through further isolation. “It is this isolation that has kept Burma in poverty; isolation that fuels a negative, almost xenophobic nationalism; isolation that makes the Burmese army see everything as a zero-sum game and any change as filled with peril; isolation that has made any conclusion to the war so elusive, hardening differences; and isolation that has weakened institutions—the ones on which any transition to democracy would depend—to the point of collapse. Without isolation, the status quo will be impossible to sustain.”Burma is far from being a top-shelf foreign policy problem for the US, but this situation--to engage or not to engage--is certainly familiar. Take North Korea as a more publicized quandry. For decades following the Korean war, the US has had sanctions against Korea. Although its economy grew in the 60s and 70s, this was followed by a steady decline and, later, famines and mass starvation. All the while, the US held fast on its sanctions. In the 90s, Clinton negotiated an agreement with NK when it appeared they were striving for nukes. Then in 2001, Bush severed all ties with the country, labeled it "evil" and waited while Kim Jong Il went ahead and developed nukes.
Throughout it all, there was a current of moralism running through US sanctions. We did not wish to "reward" a country for bad behavior, and so held fast with sanctions. We maintained this policy in Cuba over the same period, and adopted a similar policy against Iraq in the 90s. Until the rise of the neocons, this moralism was mainly a lefty impulse. In the 90s, following Tianamen, I was among a large cohort of liberals who thought Clinton a corporate stooge for renewing "most favored nation" trade status with the Chinese. I heard his claims that it would advance reform as pitiful bromides.
But with the neocons, the moralism shifted. Now we invaded countries we thought immoral. (Some of them, anyway--mainly those who had oil and were already our enemies.) The logic was roughly the same, but it was a far more manly action to invade rather than punish through whimpy trade sanctions. Killing people with bombs was cooler ("shock and awe") than starving them.
There is something that galls the sense of moralism in offering McDonald's to countries that do not voice agreement with the twin American values of freedom and liberty. The neocon solution offered a two-for-one outcome (your morality remains pure, but you still offer McDonald's); tests in the field have unfortunately shown the theory to be a failure.
I recall when Bush invaded Iraq, people said--bizarrely--"But at least he's doing something." Our morality does not seem to permit a foreign policy that engages without punishment. War, sanctions--something must be done. Invade the wrong country?--what the hell, we did something. Starve a few million Koreans?--at least we did not stand by and let Kim get away with his immoral insouciance.
The immediate future will be defined by marginal states. How we react to them, and whether we can resist our desire to mete out punishment for past sins, will determine how long they continue to define the era.