Globalisation and human security

GLOBALISATION is a concept that defies easy definition. As such, I will consider it as a series of processes, singling out those which are relevant to the topic. These are two. One is what I call the process of economic globalisation, which is of two kinds.

The first is financial globalisation, that process by which a country opens up its financial system to international capital penetration.

This process has been greatly accelerated in Asia from the early 90s as a result of many Asian countries listening to the advice of what is often called the Washington consensus.

A second is the growing interdependence of trade in the world, not least among Asian countries.

A second process is ideological. On one level, it involves the triumph of capitalism and democracy as signified by the end of the Cold War.

On another level, it is the ascendancy beginning from the early 80s of the Thatcher-Reagan philosophy of freer markets, freer services, and deregulation.

Aiding both these processes is the information revolution. By shrinking space and time, it has greatly aided economic globalisation while making information available even to the most closed regimes, thus making the legitimacy of any regime questionable which does not respond to the people’s will.

Human security as a concept has come into vogue quite recently. In the past security has been defined primarily in terms of the security of the State. Human security shifts the focus to that of human beings. Such security is of two kinds.

One is physical security, that of security of life and limb.

The other is security from fear and want, which is security from torture, arbritary arrest and so on, and the right to a decent material existence.

It has to be said that both these processes of globalisation have the potential of greatly increasing human security.

Yet it can also be argued that globalisation, because of its uneven nature, the control of the important means of production by a few advanced countries, and the resistance to it from many of the recipient countries, can diminish human security, or at least not improve it.

First, the benefits of globalisation like, for example, foreign direct investment, are not spread evenly among the countries. If one looks at the flow of such investment in the past decade or so, the main beneficiaries are primarily China, the original Asean five and some of the more advanced countries of Latin America.

Most of Africa and the Asian subcontinent have missed out on this. At the same time, capital flow is not necessarily a smooth process.

As massively as it can move into countries so it can also move out as massively. This can have disastrous effects on countries as the Asian crisis so manifestly demonstrated.

Also, the dependence of many developing countries on international trade as a means of growth has made them vulnerable to protectionist measures in the developed countries where they find most of their market outlets.

But even if one argues that protectionism is not easily initiated because it can also hurt the protectionist country, the changing nature of the production system has left the State and the workers increasingly at the mercy of the multinationals.

One could, before the end of the Cold War, conceivably opt out of this globalisation by adopting a socialist economy whereby the State uses the means of production to benefit workers and still attain economic growth, following the Soviet model.

There was also an international socialist economy one could depend on. The former is now questionable and the latter non-existent as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

As for physical security, the information revolution and the spread of democracy have made it difficult for Governments to hide from the world any massacre or torture they might indulge in, even if in some cases they still occur and the international community does little about them.

In this sense, physical security is enhanced. Yet it can also be argued that while globalisation has reduced the possibility of inter-State conflict , it has increased the incidents of intra-State conflict.

The spread of democracy worldwide and the placing of human rights as a central plank of the foreign policy of the Western democracies has emboldened oppressed minorities to assert their rights.

Unfortunately, much of such assertion and agitation occurs in States that have no democratic tradition of peaceful resolution of ethnic, tribal and such other disputes, and of peaceful secession. The groups that control such States feel threatened and turn on these minorities, many members of which are killed, dismembered and tortured for no other reason than that they are members of the minority group targeted.

Physical security is thus greatly reduced in such circumstances. How shall Asean respond to the issues mentioned?

One can say fairly confidently that sovereignty in the economic arena is being eroded if not already eroded, by globalisation. Decisions affecting our economic sovereignty are increasingly made in Tokyo, Washington and Brussels, and not so much in our own capitals.

But State sovereignty in the political arena is still a meaningful thing, and Asean, in particular cherishes the principle of non- intervention. But it is increasingly under threat, and a younger generation of Asean opinion makers no longer consider such a principle to be sacrosanct.

Resolving this conflict will be a fundamental challenge for Asean in the future.

Professor Lee Poh Ping

Institute of Malaysian and International Studies, UKM