The case of Burma is a particularly egregious example of the harm this "sanctions mentality" can wreak on a country. Despite being one of southeastern Asia's most resource-rich countries, Burma is one of the world's poorest nations. Cutting off foreign and developmental aid and international business development, as well as America's 2003 Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act, which prohibits almost all payments to Burma and heavily restricts its imports, has substantially reduced non-Asian economic linkages with Burma and further impoverished its already poor people. Even humanitarian organizations such as the Global Fund have withdrawn their Burmese operations in the face of pressure from democracy activists. But surely leaving the Burmese people vulnerable, in this case to malaria and HIV, does nothing to further the cause of a democratic Burma.
In January of this year, the United States took the sanctions mentality one step further and proposed, with Britain, a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning the conduct of Burma's illegitimate military regime (which wrongfully seized power in 1962 and again in 1990) after an election in which Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy won an overwhelming majority. The resolution contained no mention of sanctions or any punitive measures, but it was still vetoed by China and Russia. It is no coincidence that these two countries refused to condemn a fellow human rights-abusing regime, and while no one should condone the Burmese regime's conduct, the policy of seeking to isolate the generals has manifestly failed.
Curiously, this simple fact seems to be widely understood outside the U.S. State Department. Nearly every Burma scholar advocates more Western engagement with the country, effective immediately. This makes sense: the United States will have nothing with which to influence the regime if it has no connections to Burma in the first place.
Moreover, economic ties would do much to increase the prosperity of Burma overall, and generally, once people don't have to worry about the basic necessities of life, they can put more thought into advocating political reform in their own country.
Even in the absence of economic ties, there are other situations in Burma practically crying out for international mediation, such as the decades of multi-sided civil war between the government and the many non-Burmese ethnic minorities whose homelands are primarily in the northern parts of the country. International attempts to broker cease-fires or peace agreements would materially benefit the civilian populations living in these areas, which are off-limits to the few tourists who do venture into Burma. They would also provide a tangible example of the benefit of engaging with the West.
To be sure, it is admirable at an abstract level that the United States bases its Burmese policy on its stated regard for democratic values and human rights, and it is far easier to advocate absolute moral imperatives than slow, messy change through morally complicated engagement.
But isolation actually makes it easier for the generals to keep their grip on power since they have so many fewer channels of communication and modes of interaction with which to censor and to police. The road to democracy in Mandalay will be long and hard, but the people of Burma will never be able to travel it without the active involvement of the United States.