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Fareed Zakaria On How The Coup In Myanmar Will Test President Biden

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

To other news now - the Biden administration says the situation unfolding in Myanmar is a military coup d'etat. Well, here's what else it is - an early foreign policy test for Biden's very new national security team. Officially calling it a coup requires the U.S. to cut off foreign aid, although the U.S. does not give much money to the government there to start with. And humanitarian aid is exempt. So what else can or should the U.S. do? Well, we're going to talk this through with Washington Post columnist and CNN host Fareed Zakaria.

Hey there.

FAREED ZAKARIA: Hi there. How are you?

KELLY: I am well, thank you. I want to start there with sanctions. In the case of Myanmar - good idea? Can they make much of a difference?

ZAKARIA: They're a good idea in the sense that we do want to register in some way that we disapprove of a military coup, which is, of course, exactly what it is, but they're not likely to be very effective. At the end of the day, it's an isolated country, Myanmar. Most of the influence is Chinese as long as the Chinese continue to deal with them. Huawei, the company that we all know because of the 5G ban, is the company building out Myanmar's digital infrastructure. That's going to go on. The Chinese buy enormous amounts of energy, timber from Myanmar. So it's a good example of the limits in a sense of American influence in a part of the world that is now largely dominated by China.

KELLY: Dominated by China - I mean, bigger picture here. Biden and his secretary of state, Tony Blinken, came into office promising to recommit to U.S. leadership in the world. In the case of Myanmar or Burma, as the U.S. still calls it, what does that look like, U.S. leadership?

ZAKARIA: I think the only way you could have effective leadership would be twofold. One is to stand for the right thing, which is democracy, the rule of law, constitutionalism, all of which was largely violated by this coup. But the second is effective international engagement, which means, truth be told, trying to find some way of working with China on this, trying to find some way of certainly engaging the European Union so at least the West has a common standard and a common policy. But none of it will mean much unless you can engage with China. And this may become a familiar theme for the next 20 to 30 years of American foreign policy. You can't make that much headway if you are not willing to engage the other superpower in the world now.

KELLY: China is the running thread through all or at least much of U.S. foreign policy. Just to follow on something you just said, Fareed, you talked about the U.S. standing for the right thing. Does the U.S. have much moral high ground to stand on here, lecturing another country about how to handle a disputed November election which includes false claims of voter fraud?

ZAKARIA: It was interesting the way that the Biden - I think it was President Biden himself or the administration put out its denunciation. It sounded as if it was denouncing the January 6 attempted coup in Washington, D.C.

KELLY: You mean if you substitute in a different country, they could have been saying the exact same thing.

ZAKARIA: Exactly, exactly. It was about, you know, an armed group trying to nullify, you know - in Myanmar, exactly, this happened, which is that - Aung San Suu Kyi won an overwhelming majority. The military claimed voter fraud. It asked for recounts and then decide, you know, to hell with it. And it just took over using a technical clause in the constitution that allows them to do it.

But I - to answer your question, the U.S. does have moral authority. I think we shouldn't get so hobbled by our own problems to forget that at the end of the day, the United States passed the test. The American system did endure, despite the most severe challenge probably since the Civil War. And it only shows that democracy is fragile. It has to be protected. These things don't happen automatically or by magic. And, you know, the United States' moral authority really comes from the fact that it is the oldest constitutional democracy in the world, has withstood a lot, including the assault by Donald Trump.

KELLY: We just have a minute or so left. But let me throw you one about Russia while I've got you, since we're talking about U.S. leadership on the world stage. With the arrest and now the sentencing of Alexei Navalny, the opposition leader, what kind of early test does that pose for Biden?

ZAKARIA: Again, it's important to stand for the right thing. It's important to try to make clear that there is some price to pay. But, you know, we have not - we are going to affect the internal affairs of Russia. Putin has a very firm grip on power. He has good control over Russia's finances. There is not likely to be a crash. So, you know, you do the right thing. You hope that it sends the signal and encourages the right people. You can do a little bit targeted sanctions. This might be the most intelligent way to go in the future, not sanctioning the state but sanctioning 10 people who are part of the state.

KELLY: Fareed Zakaria, thank you.

ZAKARIA: My pleasure.

KELLY: He is author of the book "Ten Lessons For A Post-Pandemic World." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.