Humanitarian Aid and Strategic Pressure

In an op-ed for the Age (via the Interpreter), Andrew Selth argues that the global community should separate efforts to help the Burmese people form its desire to change the Burmese regime:

The harsh reality is that there are few options against a regimethat refuses to observe customary norms of behaviour, puts its survivalbefore the welfare of its people and is protected by its allies.

Symbolism is important in international politics, but we also have to be pragmatic. There needs to be a new approach. . .

Instead of looking for new ways to punish an entrenched andnationalistic regime, a more constructive approach might be to provideincreased humanitarian aid to those communities, both inside andoutside Burma, which desperately need help.

This gets to the heart of what I meant when I mentioned the other day that I’d be curious to know whether and how humanitarian and development aid will be integrated into the Obama administration’s strategic vision. Because sometimes, good intentions aside, the two are not necessarily compatible.

For the sake of argument, the obvious weakness of Selth’s proposal is that not only does it remove any incentive from the Burmese regime — or its protectors — to change its behavior, it minimizes the consequences other regimes might come to expect in response to similar odious behavior.

It’s a stubborn and thorny problem, and I don’t think there are any clear cut solutions. Sometimes change happens in the absence of pressure, and sometimes pressure reinforces resistance. There’s really no way of knowing for sure. But I’ve got a hunch that whether and how the Obama administration chooses to instrumentalize — or not — humanitarian and development aid is a key component to watch in his foreign policy.