The record of globalization is decidedly mixed. Whereas proponents tend to associate globalization with beneficial developments such as the expansion of democracy and improved access to goods and services, critics highlight the human costs: rising inequality and political and economic exploitation. Some of these critics might welcome the argument put forward by some observers that globalization has peaked and we are now witnessing the obverse side of the coin—decreasing interconnectedness termed deglobalization. Given the staggering number of serious human rights violations across the globe (exploitation of garment workers in Cambodia or Bangladesh, the use of human slaves in the fisheries off the coast of Indonesia, and the uprooting of farmers from their land to make room for hydroelectric dams or palm-oil plantations), debates about the impact of deglobalization on human security are urgently needed.
In an effort to understand the implications of deglobalization for human security, it is helpful to disaggregate deglobalization into physical and social technological components. Globalization is usually understood in terms of physical technologies—notably advances in transportation and telecommunications (ICTs)—and the processes built on them (trade, financial flows). In physical technology terms, globalization remains robust.
But physical technologies are only part of the story; globalization has also involved the development and spread of social technologies—norms and institutions—that guide the integration of physical technologies into domestic and international society. These social technologies, usually grouped together under the term “Liberal International Order,” are the primary site of deglobalization. While the spread of human rights norms, the emergence of transnational human rights advocacy networks, and the diminution of the ability of states to abuse human rights without penalty are important elements of a liberal international order associated with globalization, deglobalization is likely to reverse what progress has been made in terms of human security. Many countries are likely to turn inward and can be expected to pay less heed to human rights abuses and to international institutions, norms and rights.
Potential implications of deglobalization for human security in the case of Myanmar (Burma)
Myanmar, one of the poorest countries in the world, has experienced decades of civil war and mass human rights violations at the hands of a military government in place since 1962. The catalogue of crimes is voluminous, including the large-scale assault on Rohingya civilians starting in 2017, pushing nearly 1 million to flee to Bangladesh. When, by the end of the 1980s the country was nearing economic ruin, the military regime began to accept calls for greater democracy and civil rights—opening the way for the emergence of a new political movement under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi. Democratization reached its apogee in 2015 with the election of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy to a parliamentary supermajority.
Significantly, the emergence of the democratic movement in Myanmar coincided with the rapid growth of ICTs in the West and subsequent global spread. Whereas, prior to the emergence of ICTs, the government controlled traditional media outlets and limited domestic and international awareness of events on the ground, ICTs now undermined government control of information flows. Activists were able to upload images directly on their mobile phones and draw attention to the mistreatment of Burmese citizens. In this aspect, the tandem of ICTs and global democracy norms drove domestic political reforms. But the physical technology element of globalization cuts in other directions as well. The integration of globalization’s ICT physical technological foundations played an important role in the repression of the Rohingya. Facebook enabled the rapid distribution of innuendo and rumour targeted at ethnic and religious minorities. It also enabled mob violence by allowing provocateurs to generate and harness outrage and organize individuals into collective action. In a society without institutionalized minority-rights protections and with a government unable to invoke moderating civil society norms, violence has flared repeatedly with destructive results.
So then, how has the international community reacted to the persistent human security threats in Myanmar? Responses vary in terms of the social technologies they seek to promulgate. The UN has actively sought to bring human rights norms to bear on Myanmar in conjunction with the physical technologies of globalization. The UN special rapporteur Yanghee Lee has pressed social media companies and foreign investors to promote human security in Myanmar. Lee has also called for states to take action, warning that democracy is failing in Myanmar and that the UN Security Council should establish an international tribunal to adjudicate crimes against humanity and war crimes perpetrated since 2011. The EU has taken a similar approach, though more often emphasizing economic development and capacity building. The United States, much like the EU, imposed unilateral sanctions and, instead of engaging with the junta, tried to isolate it further. Clearly, the US, EU, and elements of the UN system are working to apply social technology—global human rights norms—to the case of Myanmar, operating in tandem with social media exposure of abuses. These efforts, however, are running up against the countervailing social technologies—national/ethnic majoritarianism, national sovereignty—that underpin deglobalization.
Notably, China’s policy employs a different set of social technologies—emphasizing sovereignty and non-intervention—that distinguishes its approach clearly from the West. When the US and the EU imposed sanctions, China, like Russia, protected Myanmar by casting a veto against UNSC Draft Resolution S/2007/14-12/01/2007, arguing that the situation did not constitute a threat to regional or international peace. As with China, for ASEAN, of which Myanmar is a member, the bottom line for many years has been to protect the sovereignty of its member states, even if this meant looking the other way in the face of severe human rights violations. Gradually, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and the Philippines began to see a need to relax the principle of non-interference and support national reconciliation in Myanmar.
Should international pressure in favor of human rights and good governance subside as deglobalization unravels the social technological threads of the Liberal International Order, the implications for Myanmar and other countries in similar situations are dire. The modern state’s capacity to control and manipulate information flows and bring to bear material capabilities—including elements of the physical technologies underpinning globalization—on its own citizens gives it great scope for inflicting human suffering.
More physical technology cannot resolve this emerging human security crisis.
Featured image by Jéan Béller via Unsplash