Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Memo to Washington: The World Doesn’t Care What You Think

Recent events in Russia and Burma show that other countries put their own needs first, not the concerns of our foreign policy elite.

President Joe Biden wants to concentrate on domestic affairs, but the world won’t stop.

There’s political unrest in the former Soviet Union. A coup in Burma. More repression in Hong Kong. Vaccine chaos in Europe. Warring governments in Libya. Barriers to reinstating the nuclear agreement with Iran. Continuing war in Yemen. The specter of a rising China.

None of these challenges are about America. In some cases, other governments are simply responding to what we’ve already done. Nevertheless, even then domestic imperatives shape and drive international policies.

This reality is recognized everywhere on earth except in Washington. Members of the Blob, the foreign policy establishment, are convinced that the entire world revolves around them. In their view, there is nothing more important than what they think and do. By which global events inevitably are, or certainly should be, determined.

For instance, last week, Brett Bruen, a former Obama administration official, declared: “What you’re seeing in both Moscow as well as in Myanmar are efforts to test the president. How far is he willing to go?”

Was Bruen listening to intelligence wiretaps in Moscow and Naypyitaw? He must imagine officials in both capitals sitting around plotting, agreeing with one other: “There’s a new guy in the White House. We need to design a really tough exam for him.”

Someone in Moscow suggests, “How about we try to kill a political opponent, but fail? Then we lure him back to Russia. And toss him in jail and arrest all the people who protest on his behalf! That will really screw with the Biden crew.”

The folks in Myanmar, better known as Burma, respond, “That’s pretty good. But we’ll up the pressure. How about we stage a coup? Toss out the long-standing move to democracy that got all these Biden people so excited when they were last in government? We’ll even arrest a celebrated Nobel Laureate. That will challenge the liberal do-gooder humanitarians now running the show!”

In unison, autocrats in both cities shout: “Agreed!” And so the tests of Washington are arranged.

Uh, no. That isn’t what happened. The idea that members of other governments routinely and consciously “test” Washington is silly.

Vladimir Putin is a nasty dictator. He wants to rule and do so for as long as possible. He, or at least “his people,” are also consistently, ostentatiously reckless and incompetent. Hence the current crisis in Russia.

Alexei Navalny has long posed a problem for Putin. Now a corruption fighter, he started out as a nationalist blogger (Western humanitarians should understand that he is no liberal, so forget the idea that if he was in charge he would return Crimea to Ukraine, welcome Kiev joining NATO, abandon Russian allies like Syria and Venezuela, and take direction from Washington). In fact, being more charismatic, telegenic, and media-savvy than Putin, he could pose a far greater challenge to American and Western objectives.

In any case, Putin is no Stalin, who simply would have had Navalny shot. Hence the current regime’s ridiculously complicated attempts to make an assassination look like something else and, even more bizarrely, Navalny’s ability to contact government operatives and fool one of them into confessing.

Which left Putin with a difficult decision when Navalny returned. Do you shoot him? Nah, too obvious. Do you let him go? Nah, you’d look like a weakling. Do you jail him? Yeah, that’s the least bad option. Especially because of all the grief you’re going to get from the vocally anti-Russia and pro-human rights folks who have taken over in Washington.

The generals in Burma are similarly focused on their own interests. The Tatmadaw, as the army is called, first took power via a coup in 1962. It ruled directly, with great brutality, until 2011. Along the way, it adopted different names. Iterations of the junta included the State Law and Order Restoration Council (they obviously weren’t thinking of acronyms when they concocted that name) and State Peace and Development Council (much better!).

In practice, one could argue that this long running dictatorship “tested” the Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations. However, the generals did not seize power because they wanted to challenge any of America’s presidents. They were authoritarian, nationalistic, and corrupt. They grabbed control because they didn’t trust civilian politicians, thought they could do a better job of governing, and enjoyed the perks of power. Democracy and human rights were not even on their list of objectives.

A decade ago, they concocted a complicated hybrid system to formally pass authority to civilians while maintaining ultimate control. By all accounts, army head Min Aung Hlaing staged the latest coup not because he thought it would be fun to give an exam to Biden & Co.—what teacher likes to grade tests?—but because the civilian government remained far more popular than he expected and rejected his request to make him president. The only way to satisfy his personal ambition was to arrest the civilians and, ironically, junk the system the military had established.

Of course, both Russia and Burma will end up “testing” the Biden administration. But not because either has much practical impact on the U.S. They’ll challenge Biden because he and those around him believe that America is entitled to impose its will on the rest of the world. So Biden will act, only to fail to achieve anything useful. Because—I know reading this will risk putting members of the Blob into cardiac arrest—the world does not revolve around Washington. Other governments act for their own reasons and routinely ignore the wishes of Blob members. Again and again.

The solution to this obvious travesty is simple. Washington should say and do less.

Functioning democracy in Russia would be best for Russians and Americans, but it really doesn’t much matter to the U.S. First, Moscow does not threaten the United States. America is far stronger militarily and economically, and the advantage essentially doubles when you count NATO and its members. Moreover, the U.S. and Russia have no conflict over basic issues, such as territory. Only over Washington’s determination to rule everyone everywhere, including Russia at home and abroad.

Second, there is little the U.S. can do to influence Russia’s internal politics. Despite many efforts, Washington has never succeeded in sanctioning another nation, friend or foe, into democracy. Most people, including Americans, are nationalistic. They resent and resist outside interference in their countries’ internal affairs.

Third, democratic elections in Russia could bring to power people even more inclined to confront the U.S. internationally. Contra the seeming conventional wisdom in Washington, criticism of an anti-American autocrat does not mean an opposition politician is an America-friendly liberal. In Russia, liberalism disappeared as a political force decades ago. And sorry to say, there is no faction preaching submission to Western demands. Putin’s annexation of Crimea was popular. His attack on the country of Georgia—whose Washington-backed president stupidly started the conflict by bombarding territory with Russian soldiers, a major no-no—was widely supported, including by Navalny.

So the Biden administration should make a deal with Moscow. Limit nuclear arms. Halt NATO expansion. Stop supporting anti-Ukrainian rebels. Negotiate confidence-building limits on conventional forces and deployments. Downplay competition in secondary countries, such as Cuba, Syria, and Venezuela. Stop election interference. Urge democracy but recognize that the decision will be made by Russians, not Americans.

Washington should take a similarly restrained approach to Burma. There are few nations that matter less to the U.S. geopolitically—that’s the reality, not a criticism. The country was isolated and hostile during the Cold War. It stayed that way after the Soviet collapse. Then it changed, kind of. Virtually no one in Washington noticed other than those who study or visit the country (like me). Bordering China, Burma cannot escape Beijing’s influence, but that doesn’t really matter much to America.

The Tatmadaw realizes that there is little Washington can do about events in Naypyitaw. The original junta maintained control for decades despite being heavily sanctioned and lacking outside support. Having long endured international isolation, the generals are prepared to face the same again. They also realize they can rely to some degree on China, though they prefer not to be dependent on anyone. However, they may have underestimated the domestic challenge they face—the population is very different than in 1962 or 2011 and so far is not meekly submitting to renewed military rule.

The Biden administration should let friendly states in the region take the lead with Burma. Washington should sanction the generals and military businesses while leaving more direct action to others. The U.S. lacks both the means to force events in Burma and a reason to do so.

Much happens in the world that is contrary to American values and interests, such as recent events in Russia and Burma. Yet people in those nations aren’t particularly interested in what Americans believe. American foreign policy would improve substantially if its practitioners stopped believing that the world revolved around them.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.