Engagement: The More The Merrier

It is difficult to resist drawing comparisons when two apparently non-official "rescue" missions were made in the last fortnight alone by prominent U.S. political personalities. That they were to two of the world's most closed countries -- North Korea and Burma -- has invited a flurry of perspectives on how the Obama adminstration should conduct themselves in its foreign policy.

Foreign Policy's David Roftkopf advocates caution. He says:

Webb says he was not an official emissary of the administration. Bill Clinton said the same thing. Clearly, in both instances this particular bit of diplomatic kabuki theater is transparent to all. Webb is the regional subcommittee chair on a critical Senate subcommittee, he is close to the administration, was briefed by them before his trip and promises to brief them on his return. At no time did they renounce the trip and he traveled on a U.S. government plane. His visit was official and the credit for the release of Yettaw and the potential negative consequences of the mission must accrue to the president and his team.

Personally, I think making engagement a centerpiece of a new U.S. foreign policy is a major positive development for which the administration deserves great credit. But as with any such new initiative, we need to be careful about how we approach it prior to getting all the bugs worked out. The Webb mission, even with is success in terms of securing the release of Mr. Yettaw, winning a session with Suu Kyi and engaging in a rare exchange with the leader of the regime, raises important concerns that need to be addressed if the new policy is to work to our best advantage in the future.

Key to such caution will be how much the U.S. first engages with countries that wield more influence in both countries. Diplomatic pressure cannot come from America alone, it has to be multilateral and come from other countries. China figures centrally in both cases, but more so for North Korea. The Burma case is a little harder to crack because its neighbors reportedly have business interests in the country that predate the military regime in power. Economic sanctions therefore become ineffective.

Instead, the Obama administration could do better to cajole/entice Burma's ASEAN neighbors, India and China, to apply more sustained pressure on the military junta to accede to international norms. While ASEAN member countries maintain an official non-interference stance, international outrage and the Southeast Asian regional grouping's belated introduction of a Human Rights Mechanism in 2007 have combined to make that untenable. This is since any failure to condemn Burma's ridiculous treatment of Aung San Suu Kyi would affect ASEAN's credibility.

A commitment to engagement is a great starting point, but the Obama administration could expand their notion of "engagement" to take on a more pluralistic approach to advance its foreign policy agenda.