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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

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Pariah Nations and the Illusion of Isolation

Pushed out of the mainstream, countries like Cambodia and Hungary are putting a strange new spin on globalization.

Months into the COVID-19 pandemic, leaders of the impoverished and notoriously corrupt Southeast Asian nation of Cambodia could assure its denizens they had escaped the worst of the global calamity. Cambodia had restricted visas and closed its borders to foreigners starting in March 2020—among the few useful control measures even its inept bureaucracy could pull off at least semi-effectively. Tourists disappeared, just as they disappeared from every country in the world, and many resident expatriates left, aware they would not be allowed to return for the foreseeable future. Cross-border traffic from Thailand and Vietnam, where numbers were also low, stopped cold. 

But then in November, Cambodia made an exception to its restrictions, opening its doors to a Hungarian government delegation to wrap up a few trade deals. 

Cambodia and Hungary were an odd pair, but they both had some skin in the same game. In February 2020, the European Union—Cambodia’s top trading partner—had threatened the country with sanctions for dissolving its one opposition party ahead of an election. Hungary had also run afoul of the E.U. since its pompous, authoritarian president Viktor Orbán had suppressed opposition parties and independent newsmedia into irrelevance. Now at the bottom rung of the international order, the two countries, thousands of miles apart and with little in common except their ostracization from the world, had found each other. 

At the time, Hungary’s COVID infection rate was about as high as the United States’ and well above the European average. Yet the Hungarian foreign ministry nonetheless instructed the Cambodians to refrain from testing foreign minister Peter Szijjártó or any other member of the delegation in advance of an indoor signing ceremony. The Hungarians even insisted the Cambodians not take their temperatures at the door. In one photo of the event, Szijjártó can be seen shaking hands with Cambodia’s agriculture minister while the nation’s president, Hun Sen, and its foreign minister look on from a few feet away. None are wearing masks. Later that day, the delegation visited a museum and met some young schoolchildren. 

Szijjártó left that night for Bangkok, where local officials were less inclined to put up with his recalcitrance. When he tested positive for COVID upon arrival, 900 Cambodians—including the president, prime minister, and at least 600 kids—went into quarantine. The bodyguard watching Szijjártó and three other close contacts tested positive. Across the country, movie theaters, bars, and karaoke parlors were ordered closed for two weeks to bring the virus under control once more. 

When a friend told me about this outbreak months ago, it seemed too perfect not to dwell on at least a little longer. It was like one of those nuggets of history that sometimes appear in 600-page chronicles of the Second World War or presidential biographies—an event that seemed to encapsulate many of the problems of the era, but which was all but ignored in its own time, if only because it happened when so much else was going on. Viktor Orbán and Hun Sen were both notorious autocrats whose defiance of international norms had put their nations on the fringe of the global order. As the pandemic engulfed the planet, they had extended their disdain for international norms to the rules universally promoted by public health officials—the kinds of rules adopted in grocery stores, airports, places of worship, and halls of power in nearly every country on earth—and the Cambodians had obliged, ostensibly for fear of being impolite. As Veng Sakhon, Cambodia’s minister of agriculture and the man seen shaking Szijjártó’s hand at the signing, said afterwards, “We do not dare to breach the protocol.” 

Surely, in this outbreak, there was an allegory, a cautionary lesson for the time. But what? 

The Appeal of Pariah Status

For nation states, isolation isn’t a natural condition, especially now. Since the end of the Second World War, through decolonization and the turmoil of the Cold War, the world’s economies, cultures, and politics have largely moved towards each other. The phenomenon we call “globalization”—strange enough in the late 1990s to demand regular discussion in op-ed pages and on cable news—is now so ingrained in American life that our news media barely acknowledges it. [1] In 1967, the value of the world’s imports and exports were equal to about 22 percent of global GDP. In 2017, the last year for which data is available, it equaled about 53 percent. 

Much of the difference in worldview between the mainstream of the world and the remaining pariah states today comes down to whether this convergence was inevitable. Mainstream leaders argue that globalization was an evolutionary stage in human civilization, entirely beyond any one nation’s control. As Bill Clinton put it in 1999, the phenomenon had forced an “inexorable logic” onto the world’s nations, “that everything, from the strength of our economy to the safety of our cities to the health of our people, depends on events not only within our borders but half a world away.” The pariah’s counterpoint is: nothing about globalization was (or is) inevitable. The world is integrated because rich nations denied the others an alternative. Pariahs only achieve self-determination—their most desired quality—by standing apart from, if not in outright opposition to, that otherwise ubiquitous international order. 

Regardless of how it began, globalization is hard to escape. It’s how most countries, rich or poor, make money and feed their people, the default position of not only rich nations like the United States but of poor ones like Haiti and Guinea-Bissau which produce few things themselves and thus depend on international markets for most basic goods. [2] By contrast, pariah status doesn’t represent a failure to join the rest of the world so much as a sustained and deliberate effort to stand apart from it. 

Globalization is easy, in other words. Going alone is not. Enduring outside the international order takes certain advantages, and as many countries have found over the years, among the most important are friends. Within a few years of its founding, Israel formed a close yet mostly undisclosed alliance with South Africa, which held fast even as Israel gained mainstream recognition and South Africa submerged into isolation. In his 2010 book, The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa, journalist Sasha Polakow-Suransky alleged it was Israel that first provided nuclear weapons to South Africa. [3] More recently, North Korea has sold arms and military training to friends old and new, including a few formerly communist regimes and some bargain-hunters in Africa. On the opposite end of the ideological spectrum, Taiwan has heaped aid onto the constellation of states that still recognize it as the One True China—a band which once encompassed almost the entire world but is now reduced to such geopolitical bystanders as Nicaragua, Honduras, Paraguay, and eSwatini, Africa’s smallest country and its last absolute monarchy. 

Relationships like these form their own kind of order, a sort of quarantine bubble for friendly countries to shelter from the ever-encroaching forces of globalization. Pariah leaders say they favor isolation because it keeps their countries culturally and politically (and very often, racially) independent. [4] It’s only natural, they say, to maintain relationships with countries which share the same values and respect their sovereignty. In mainstream governments, the more conventional wisdom is that relationships between pariahs lessen the weight of sanctions often imposed for the express purpose of making it harder for them to endure.

It’s important to note here that pariah regimes are rarely benevolent. Frequently, they are controlled by a single person or a single family over generations. Very often, they treat their people badly, writing off routine abuse and a general lack of freedoms as the cost of true independence. Despite the protestations of pariah leaders, rich nations are more likely to sanction pariahs for failing to uphold human rights than for failing to uphold free trade. 

And yet, for many citizens of the rich world, isolation has a certain romantic appeal. In his 2011 book The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves – and Why It Matters, professor and columnist B.R. Myers says South Koreans often espouse respect and even admiration for the hermit state to their north. “Although South Koreans are glad they compromised their nationalist principles for wealth and modernity, many of them feel a nagging sense of moral inferiority to their more orthodox brethren,” he writes. “They may disapprove of the North’s actions, but rarely with indignation, often blaming America or Japan for having provoked them.” 

To fans of pariah states, joining the world means selling out for material gain. It also means making a culture vulnerable to the bulldozing sameness that now characterizes the rest of the world. Perhaps for that reason, it can be easier to see a collective national identity in these countries’ isolation than in others’ integration with the world. 

At times, it is even possible to see personality in these countries—a conceit I myself have been guilty of. Countries aren’t people any more than corporations are. And yet, when I heard about Cambodia’s outbreak, I wondered if countries, like people, yearned for the time before this one, for the freedom of movement, for the company of friends. Even though the Hungarian delegation went to Cambodia to sort out a trade deal first negotiated before the pandemic, I read a similar desire for normalcy. A maskless, indoor signing ceremony was just two countries’ attempt at finishing their business as if the world were not on fire. Perhaps for that reason, I find it easy now to match both countries with a pandemic-era personality type: Hungary, the avid anti-masker that sees COVID as a conspiracy against its way of life; Cambodia, less thoughtful, less paranoid, and all too willing to cheat the rules when under pressure. A quote from one Cambodian attendee of the November meeting evoked the mood on that side. “If [I] wore a mask, I would have been alone and different.”

Defiance is a characteristic trait of pariah leaders. If only for that reason, scorning public health guidance has been a predictable response to the pandemic. When a journalist asked Orbán last March why Hungary had closed universities but not lower level schools, he said it was because universities hosted international students. “Our experience is that primarily foreigners brought in the disease and that it is spreading among foreigners,” he said. 

For leaders like Orbán, scientists and public health officials are just a different variety of pencil pusher looking to control people beyond their borders. A country that has built an identity around blowing off internationally respected rules cannot back down because a new genus of internationalist bureaucrat says this time it’s really important

The Illusion of Defiance

The experience of Tanzania’s late president, John Magufuli, tells us what that stance can cost in a pandemic. Magufuli became president in 2015 largely thanks to his anti-corruption rhetoric, a sort of Tanzanian Trump promising to drain the local swamp. Early on, he publicly decried the terms of a Chinese loan his predecessor had agreed to, and took a foreign mining company to task. 

For a nation wrought with years of inept and self-serving leadership, many citizens welcomed the change of direction. But over time, Magufuli’s attempts to restore dignity to Tanzania morphed into a general policy of isolation, and then, with the onset of the pandemic, into lethal delusions about the impending danger. First, the government stopped counting cases. Then as COVID dotted the map in neighboring countries, the former industrial chemist proclaimed with the certainty of a messianic guru that three days of state-mandated prayer had eliminated the virus within the nation’s borders. When a number of high-ranking officials started dying of an undisclosed disease, Magufuli insisted the virus posed no danger to Tanzanians and that vaccines wouldn’t stop it anyway. 

In late February 2021, the president disappeared from public view, though rumors of a hospitalization abounded. He died a few weeks later of “heart complications”—almost certainly a euphemism for the virus he insisted would never touch him. Still no one knows how widespread the virus is in the country today.

For the romantic opponent of globalization, a character like Magufuli is complicated. His ongoing confrontation with the rest of the world was sometimes beneficial, even necessary, but it was also the cause of his own downfall and untold suffering for the nation. Magufuli’s death, like Cambodia’s outbreak, shows us that defiance of the world may be laden with symbolism but materially costly. More to the point, it shows a nation can’t really separate itself from the world at all. 

Perhaps, then, this is the lesson of Cambodia’s November outbreak that I’ve been searching for. Even as our attempted global polity fractures, connection remains a permanent state, whether we want it to be or not. The isolation ostensibly brought on by pariah status is illusory, a virtue-signaling lifestyle choice for off-beat nation states. 

Cambodia eventually beat back the outbreak that began with the Hungarian trade delegation. Within a few weeks, the average daily case count in the country had fallen to zero. But a year into the pandemic, the numbers surged. As of this writing, the country is reporting hundreds of new cases every day, with no respite in sight. Even at the fringes of the global order, connection to the rest of the world and its panoply of novel threats remains a basic, inescapable condition.

 [1] According to Google’s Ngram Viewer, use of the word “globalization” in English-language books peaked in 2006 and has been falling ever since.
[2]  As many critics of globalization have pointed out, many countries produce very little because the donor countries that had a hand in shaping their economies told them to focus on making or growing (usually growing) a few things and letting the world markets supply whatever else they needed. 
[3]  Israel and South Africa still enjoy a close relationship. In 2018, Citizen Lab, a Toronto research group, identified South Africa as one of 45 countries around the world—and only seven in sub-Saharan Africa—to be hosting Pegasus, the powerful malware which many observers believe the Saudi government used to hack Jeff Bezos’ phone that year. Pegasus was developed by NSO Group, an Israeli “cyberwarfare company” closely affiliated with the Israeli military. 
[4]  For an excellent take on the racial motivations for one pariah’s isolation, see B.R. Myers’ The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves – and Why It Matters (2011).

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