American politicians like to use variants of the phrase “shining city on a hill” when referring to their country’s role in the world. Though the terminology was made famous by President Reagan, its first use actually dates back to pre-revolutionary times. In the words of Puritan leader John Winthrop, the new Massachusetts Bay colony would be “as a city upon a hill, watched by the world,” and would serve as a model, and as God’s example, for all peoples. The connotations are clear from this early stage: Americans saw and see their nation as endowed with a higher purpose. With this great position, so the story goes, comes the great responsibility to uphold values of human dignity and to ensure they are upheld elsewhere on the planet. America must separate the good from the bad, and promote the good while defeating the bad.
The fact of the matter, though, is that international relations exists on a plane far removed from the morality-driven one that exceptionalists imagine, where concepts of good and bad prevail and there are no shades of gray. Moral ambiguity, indeed, defines US foreign policy, and has for quite some time. The “Good Fight” of World War II involved unleashing the most terrifying weapon mankind had ever seen on largely civilian targets. Ostensibly ridding Vietnam of a “Communist threat” brought that nation face to face not only with a polarizing division, but also with napalm attacks, war crimes, and Agent Orange. Mirroring the mixed nature of these interventions, US policy towards the promotion of human rights has swung like a pendulum, ignoring some violations for strategic reasons while cracking down hard on others. One of the most prominent instances of this contradiction is America’ relationship with Burma.
This isolated, little-known nation sandwiched in prime real estate between India, China, and Thailand is a fascinating and perplexing case study in American foreign policy, and a true test of the doctrines of exceptionalism. Burma, also known as Myanmar, was ruled by an extraordinarily harsh military junta from 1962 until 2012. At various times within this fifty-year period, protest movements emerged, each time led by charismatic opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. In 1988 and then again in 2007, the military government brutally repressed the protests, in the former case killing thousands of civilians on the streets of Yangon (Rangoon), the capital of Burma at that time. Calls for reform escalated after the latter crisis, and under pressure from the United States and other Western powers, the military gradually loosened its grip on Burmese politics. This process culminated with a state visit to Burma by President Obama in 2012, in which US officials promised a rollback of the sanctions in return for Burma’s continued democratic transition.
In the two years since those first wide scale reforms, US leadership has acted as if their rights promotion work in Burma is over, and the nation is now just like any other player on the world stage. Obama visited Burma again last week, engaging with its leaders as part of his trip to East Asia. However, the state of affairs is quite different this time around, as Burma’s track towards accountable government has hit more than a few roadblocks. “There are so many elements that are going wrong. Once the sanctions were lifted, the reforms started to stall,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. Indications abound that Sifton is right. Burma’s ethnic Rohingya minority, a Muslim group inhabiting areas of the west of the predominantly Buddhist country, has always been marginalized. Repression of the Rohingya has become formal state policy over the years and remains incredibly popular domestically. Just a few weeks ago, this state-sponsored racism reached new heights. Burma’s “reformed” government gave the Rohingya an ultimatum: prove residency for at least 60 years and secure second-class citizenship, or face internment in camps and possible deportation to Bangladesh, from which the Rohingya are portrayed as having immigrated. Even Aung San Suu Kyi, the revered leader of Burma’s opposition, has remained silent on their abhorrent treatment. Leaving aside the untruthfulness of the Bangladesh claim, the policy is a blatant violation of international norms the United States claims to have an interest in safeguarding. Yet, some gentle prodding on the issue notwithstanding, US officials have largely acquiesced and continued to pursue cooperation with the supposedly moderate regime.
Burma is, as evidenced, an awkward and difficult example of moral ambiguity toward human rights issues within American foreign policy. Though it was once a target of American rhetoric, similarly to present-day condemnation of North Korea and Iran, Burma has suddenly been vindicated. Its leaders now sit at the table with the most powerful people in the world, even as practically speaking, little on the ground has changed. The question, then, is why America, the world’s “city on a hill,” would participate in such a contradiction.
Does the United States uses human rights promotion as a political tool? It seems as though US policy on Burma has been largely shaped by its regional context, given the larger power struggle between the US and China. During Burma’s years of political isolation, the People’s Republic was the most influential foreign actor; in response, with the ostensible goal of justice for suffering Burmese, the US slapped harsh sanctions on the country, demanding democratic representation. Realizing how destructive their reliance on China was becoming, and responding to increasing civil society discontent, the junta initiated some democratic reforms and cut economic ties with Beijing, previously the largest consumer of Burma’s energy resources. Almost immediately, the US removed the sanctions and cozied up to new president, Thein Sein, looking to establish Burma as an ally and therefore a counterbalance to Chinese regional hegemony.
Through Burma and countless other examples of American political human rights promotion (or lack thereof), the “shining city on the hill” narrative of John Winthrop and Ronald Reagan should no longer be taken seriously. The United States is, just like every other state actor, a self-interested, realist body intent on the pursuit of economic and political power. While this may seem an incredibly pessimistic conclusion, it is important to acknowledge the reality and subsequently tailor a solution to the dilemmas it poses. Cross-checking a world power’s global drive for influence is the duty of citizens: not only those who reside within the power, but also those from other places. These “transnational activist groups,” fomented by domestic civil society, force accountability and are the only way the whistle can be blown on the inconsistencies of realist foreign policy. States will not uphold the values of human dignity for their own sake. Individuals must stand up for each other.