Commentary Magazine


Gunboat Diplomacy for Burma?

Instead of launching a multinational intervention in Burma, as Gordon half-seriously suggested last week, why not, as Steve Sesser suggested eighteen years ago in the New York Times, exercise a bit of good old-fashioned American gunboat diplomacy?

In reporting on the 1988 revolt, I came to understand that the smallest gesture of U.S. military support–perhaps nothing more than a couple of battleships off the Burmese coast and a few warplanes over its skies–could have won the day for the Burmese people. Even today, with the army deeply split, merely the threat of American intervention might alone be enough to bring down the dictatorship.

The American origins of “gunboat diplomacy” date back to the administration of Theodore Roosevelt, when he dispatched the Great White Fleet around the world to show off American naval prowess. It was a tactic used to effect Roosevelt’s assertion of multination American interests in Latin America. Not only would the United States oppose European intervention in the Western hemisphere, Roosevelt declared America’s own, sole right to intervene (militarily, if need be) in the domestic affairs of Latin American nations should they be unable to maintain order or pay off debts owed to the United States.

“Walk softly and carry a big stick” is the saying associated with this form of military positioning. Why not dispatch a few aircraft carriers and battle ships within striking range of Rangoon to send a message?