You don't have to be cynical to do foreign policy, but it helps. A sigh of relief rose over the West's chancelleries on Monday as it became clear that the Sichuan earthquake was big — big enough to trump Myanmar’s cyclone.
To add to the relief, Beijing was behaving better than it has over past calamities. Since this might have been thanks to the West’s “positive engagement” with China’s dictators — even awarding them the Olympics — we could possibly take credit from the week’s tally of disaster. Sorry about that, Burma.
The cyclone of 11 days ago has already slid into liberal interventionism’s recycle bin, a purgatory called Mere Abuse. The regime’s refusal to aid some 1.5 million people reportedly facing starvation in the Irrawaddy delta has been subjected only to a “shock and awe” of adjectival assault.
In the UK, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown called the refusal “utterly unacceptable” (which means accepted). British Aid Minister Douglas Alexander professed himself “horrified.” Foreign Secretary David Miliband used the words “malign neglect ... a humanitarian catastrophe of genuinely epic proportions.” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon registered “deep concern and immense frustration.” French President Nicolas Sarkozy found the inaction “utterly reprehensible” and German Chancellor Angela Merkel found it “inexplicable.” US President George W. Bush declared the regime “either isolated or callous.” As Rudyard Kipling would have said, if Kruger could be killed with words the Myanmar regime would be dead and buried.
What is it about Myanmar? The very same politicians who spent the past seven years declaring the virtue of intervening wherever the mood took them are now, if not tongue-tied, then hands-tied. Where are the buccaneers of Bosnia, the crusaders of Kosovo, the bravehearts who rescued Sierra Leone from its rebels, the Afghans from the Taliban and the Iraqis from former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein? Where are the gallants who sent convoys into Croatia in 1992 to relieve human suffering in conditions of chaos and hostility?
Overnight they have become signed-up members of the “you can’t solve all the world’s problems” party. Those who claim the lunatic Afghan adventure “a good war” and remark that “we cannot just leave these people to their fate,” find no problem in “leaving” hundreds of thousands to die, abandoned by their rulers in Myanmar. It is said to be a long way away, a matter of national sovereignty, very difficult, a harsh environment, not covered by international law.
The same legal experts who burned midnight oil trying to justify invading Iraq are now doing overtime to justify not sending relief into Myanmar. In 2005, the West’s leaders boasted the UN’s “responsibility to protect” principle, claiming that this “R2P” justified the UN Security Council in authorizing action against negligent states. It would provide cover for intervention if, for instance, a government in Kabul or Islamabad or Khartoum was experiencing domestic massacres but denying access to aid workers.
Legal opinion now asserts that this meant only cases of genocide, ethnic cleansing and “crimes against humanity.” It did not embrace deliberate negligence following a natural disaster, but rather acts of overt violence. The R2P doctrine is, I am told, “an immensely delicate instrument” that would be better tested somewhere other than Myanmar. Myanmar’s dead, in other words, are just the wrong sort of corpses.