The sociologist Max Weber once famously said, “it is not true that good can follow only from good and evil only from evil, but that often the opposite is true. Anyone who fails to see this is, indeed, a political infant”.
Myanmar proves the sagacity of his statement. The “evil” of the coup was facilitated by the “good deeds” of Western leaders, whose isolation and rejection of Aung San Suu Kyi gave the generals courage to launch a coup against her. Yet, good may also come out of the evil of the coup.
For a start, it could quietly jump-start discreet geopolitical cooperation between Beijing and the new Biden administration in Washington. Inconceivable? Why should China abandon an isolated military regime in Myanmar that would be safely dependent on it?
The simple answer is that an isolated Myanmar, which in turn divides Asean, is not a geopolitical asset for China. A divided Asean provides opportunities for Beijing’s adversaries.
And since Beijing thinks long-term, not short-term, it is acutely aware that keeping Asean together is in its interests. Hence, China will quietly support Asean’s efforts to reverse the coup in Myanmar.
Yes, there will be trade-offs. In my two years as the Singapore ambassador to the UN Security Council (UNSC), I saw almost daily trade-offs among the five permanent members, including the US and China. After invading Iraq, George W. Bush needed China’s help to lift UNSC sanctions on the country. Beijing obliged. Subsequently, the Bush administration squeezed the independence-inclined Chen Shui Bian administration in Taiwan.
Shocking? Fortunately, trade-offs among great powers are an old game, although to be honest, they are best done under the table with little public scrutiny.
Are such deals ethical? Ask Max Weber. His answer would be that if the military regime is eased out of Myanmar through geopolitical trade-offs, then the outcome is ethical.
Equally importantly, if strong and silent collaboration between Beijing, Washington and key Asean capitals eventually results in the reversal of the coup, it would send a powerful signal that the era of military coups is over in Asia. Asean governments are not perfect.
Indeed, the range of political regimes within the 10 countries is astonishing. Yet the trend towards civilian control of government is undeniable. Indonesia is exhibit A, having successfully created the most resilient democracy in the Islamic world.
Yet, to succeed in Southeast Asia, Washington will have to once again work comfortably with Southeast Asian norms and practices. This has happened before. During the Cold War, after the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in December 1978, the Reagan administration wisely allowed Asean to take the lead.
When I was sent as a young puppy, at the age of 35, to the UN in 1984, my American counterpart was the legendary ambassador Vernon Walters, who was 67 then. He once asked to see me. I offered to call on him. Instead, he insisted on walking over to my office, despite his age. Such humility won him many friends.
To understand the resilience of Asean norms, Americans should remember one significant historical fact. When the US left Vietnam ignominiously in 1975, Southeast Asian countries were supposed to collapse as dominoes. Instead they developed the second most successful regional organisation in the world (with quiet back room American support).
In our new era, as the Asian century gains momentum, it may be best to use Asian methods of solving knotty problems. In the West, domestic political pressures lead to public grandstanding. This was why the West publicly criticised Aung San Suu Kyi. Yet, in Asia, quiet diplomacy works. Even though this current Myanmar coup is a reversal, it is vital to remember that the previous Myanmar military regime was even more stubborn and difficult.
Over time, through silent peer pressure at the thousands of Asean meetings that Myanmar military officials attended, the message got through: Myanmar had to open up and integrate if it wanted to succeed and catch up with the rest of Asia. Hence, the wisest thing that the Biden administration could do is to engage in quiet diplomacy with Beijing, Asean capitals (as well as Tokyo and New Delhi) to deliver a quiet and consistent message to the Myanmar military regime that the era of military coups is over.
The key word here is diplomacy. What is the essence of diplomacy? One wag explained it well: a good diplomat is someone who can tell you to “go to hell” in such a way that you feel you are going to enjoy the journey. Certainly, there is an almost universal agreement among all of Myanmar’s neighbours, including China, that the current military regime should go to hell. The challenge is to deliver this message quietly and respectfully so that it offers the Myanmar military regime a face-saving way out of the quandary it is in.
Here’s a radical proposal for Washington to consider. Why did Indonesia make a smooth transition away from military rule while Myanmar has stepped backward? One key reason is that even during Suharto’s authoritarian rule, Indonesian military officers were trained at American military staff colleges. When the history of Indonesia’s democracy is written, there is no doubt that former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (2004-2014) will be given great credit. And why did he support democracy despite being a general under Suharto?
The answer is that he was trained at the US Army Command and General Staff College. There he learned the most important value of American democracy: that civilians must always control the military. So the solution is clear: Washington must invite young Myanmar military officers to train in American military colleges. Impossible?
Then Washington must once again revisit the wisdom of the statement from Max Weber. Instead of just publicly condemning the Myanmar military, the correct and politically courageous thing to do is to go against American conventional wisdom and talk to the Myanmar military, instead of isolating it.
And if the Biden administration quietly succeeds in easing out the military regime, it will demonstrate that American diplomacy can once again succeed in Asia, paving the way for a new and sustained American engagement that is more effective and wiser because it is low-key and understated.
Kishore Mahbubani is a Distinguished Fellow at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore, and the author of the book, Has China Won?