Marcel Proust, in his monumental novel “Remembrance of Things Past,” noted that people sometimes unintentionally reproduce their attitudes toward past events when facing new trauma. He added that nations may do the same. Each is, in effect, engaged in an emotional type of “plagiarism,” as he termed it. Rather than stealing others’ ideas, they rework the attitudes they earlier formed. As people become psychologically rigid, so do nations. This is a danger, for new circumstances may make previous views or positions no longer tenable, and we may be deluding ourselves with our responsive, unconscious uniformity.

Self-plagiarism is a type of consistency, and may be reassuring. But as Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

Whether the United States is plagiarizing itself in Afghanistan, with remembrance of things past in Vietnam, is something I leave to others at this time. Wars are traumatic events and prompt the need for reassurance, so when critics sometimes charge that the military fights the last war, the latter may be guilty of inappropriate tactics, but more basically it may be a product of a psychological fixation on the past.

Whether we might do the same in Burma is something on which debate might be useful. And whether the Burmese might also submit to this illness should equally be our concern.

The United States and other nations are seeking changes in the political culture of Burma. It has made overtures to the Burmese indicating our willingness to reconsider policies under certain conditions. If there is no progress in governance in Burma as a result of our opening gambits, as indicated by our willingness to have, and to have initiated, high level dialogue and by our signing the Asean Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in July 2009, and if the previous Burmese positive indicators by at least some high-ranking military prove fruitless, then the US has mentioned the possibility of the intensification of sanctions, which already are quite severe, although not (yet) in the Cuba range.

In four stages, from 1988 to 2008, the United States has cut off Burma from arms sales and training, anti-narcotics assistance, economic aid, new investment, imports, banking facilities, visas for critical members of the Burmese elite and their families, and dealing in various gems and precious stones.

The military junta has complained about the sanctions, and in part blamed the Burmese opposition—more specifically Aung San Suu Kyi—for encouraging them as well as advocating a tourism and investment boycott. But sanctions have proven to have been ineffective in changing patterns of authoritarian governance and repression, and the Chinese have been the largest number of tourists and perhaps (unofficially) the largest investors. The US has called for regime change over the years, although this has recently changed. Instead, through obstinate nationalism and the assistance of its neighbors, the Burma authorities have outlasted their critics and have even a stronger grip on the country.

For more than two decades, we have periodically heard from the exiled Burmese community wishful thinking that the state and regime were on the verge of collapse through inept mismanagement, and the people continue to suffer. Although the charge of incompetence is true, the power of the junta remains.

Now, the US has mentioned the need for quick progress in changes, including the holding of elections this year that are “free and fair,” terms that have not been defined and that will be individually and differently interpreted by a wide swath of observers and participants in the policy field. If these variously designated reforms fail to occur, there will be, as important administration voices say, strong consequences. These might include even more stringent sanctions.

Sanctions, admittedly and by all accounts, have failed in Burma, but if the extensive series of sanctions previously imposed did not “work”—that is, bring about regime change according to the U.S. Or even regime modification as Asean has called for—then what evidence exists that additional sanctions will bring more than bitter fruit? At the same time, simple elimination of sanctions would effectively dilute chances for reform and be politically unacceptable in the United States.

If the US is to avoid national plagiarism and abandon previously demonstrated ineffective means to achieve its policy goals, then the Burmese need also to reconsider their negative positions toward the well being of their own people and their inordinate suspicions toward the international community.

Their goals of national unity and military domination (through a planned civilianization of military leadership) may be held hostage to their continuing erroneous positive interpretations of the efficacy of their rule, and thus prove elusive. Their xenophobic leadership has undermined the very aims they say they want. They are deluding themselves about their past as the US may delude itself about the future.

Proust did not consider whether such plagiarisms might not only be a product of a single mind or nation, but might also be reinforced by the interactions of more than one actor, perhaps intensifying the problems and making them less soluble. We might do well to note the danger. Both Proust and Emerson may well have been right.

David I. Steinberg is Distinguished Professor of Asian Studies in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. His latest book is “Burma/Myanmar: What Everyone Needs to Know” (Oxford University Press).