How Globalization Failed the Kurds and Catalans

Globalization has missed its mark. Set forth by its champions as the natural path to development in technology, culture, and finance, one forgets globalization’s tendency to overlook and neglect certain communities. It may be difficult to imagine how the central values and goals implicit in a globalized world could possibly have fallen short of an ethnicity; Kurdish and Catalan self-determination may offer an answer. Several Western giants have extolled their pipe dream of complete globalization and anticipate the resultant wave of liberal democratic ideals predicted to uproot disfavorable political systems. On the economic front, globalization’s slant toward the wealthy has precipitated energetic Euro-American support. China’s ambitious steps to globalize Eurasia should not be ignored, but liberal democratic Westerners have been the loudest advocates of reaching across oceans to open new markets. To some extent, such has been achieved, but at a cost. World Bank data indicates steady growth in per capita income worldwide; unfortunately, the latent issues facing marginalized peoples are easily overlooked as wallets thicken elsewhere. Global interconnectedness has advanced medicine, technology, human rights and art; however, by favoring the dominant, it has snubbed some of the world’s most vocal ethnic minorities.

Media coverage of last year’s most widely-discussed independence referendums, for Kurdish and Catalan self-determination from Iraq and Spain, respectively, has painted them as fraternal uprisings born of the same ethnonationalist spirit and motivations. The coinciding time frame of the two referendums alone invites their comparison, and the modern interplay of social media and politics continues to shape how foreign audiences express their support. More importantly, the independence efforts have frequently been portrayed as products of the same tribalist aspirations. In reality, decades of oppression following the British and French division of the Middle East and the Pan-Arab efforts of Saddam Hussein impelled the movement for Kurdish independence. Meanwhile, class politics, not just ethnicity, frames the Catalan story. Despite the misrepresentation of both movements at their theoretical cores, they both illuminate the shortcomings of globalization through the aperture of minority rights.

The Kurds, the world's largest stateless nation, number approximately 35 million people across Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Iraq. On September 27, 2017, Iraqi Kurds under the leadership of President Masoud Barzani held a referendum despite strong objection from the Iraqi government, regional superpowers, and the United States. After an overwhelming 93 percent voted in favor, Kurdish leadership did not declare independence, but instead began to plan their state-building process and initiation of negotiations with Iraq. A violent crackdown on Kurdish politicians and citizens alike facilitated the recapture of the strategically, economically, culturally important city of Kirkuk by the Iraqi national army and Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) militias. The city’s lucrative oilfield, which had been under Peshmerga control since 2014, was considered the economic lifeblood of an Iraqi Kurdish state, a defensible military base, and a vital access point to several key “pipelines. Since the loss of swathes of previously Kurdish territory, some close to Barzani have criticized the president’s hasty push for independence as a devastating miscalculation.

In the timeline of Kurdish independence lies the first failure of globalization: The benefits of the process--namely cultural exchange, more efficient markets, and technological advancement--generally fall into the hands of those with a baseline of power and wealth, and as such, oversight regarding minority representation often abounds. There has been negligible international pressure on Iraq to make a single concession to the marginalized ethnic group that forms between 15 and 20 percent of its population. The government recuperated post-referendum, and Kurdish leaders are now licking their wounds in their shrunken territory. Indeed, there is clear realpolitik when the proponents of globalization confront nationalist movements. Leading up to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, half a century after the U.S. forfeited its isolationist policies in favor of intervention, Washington cheered on the separatist efforts of Soviet satellites. Years later, without substantive interest in an independent Kurdistan and wary of upsetting Iraq’s powerful neighbors, the U.S. discouraged Kurdish leadership from entertaining a referendum. Called on to support a democratic transition of power, the U.S. and U.K., the ostensible paragons of the world liberal order, left the Kurds to fend for themselves. Thus, when the loudest agents of globalization repudiate any connection with minorities when their own politico-economic interests are at stake, all but the already-powerful are frequently left in the dust.

Less than a week after the Kurdish referendum, Catalonia’s regional parliament voted to declare independence from Spain. The Catalans, a large ethnic group spanning northeastern Spain and neighboring Andorra, faced years of persecution under President Francisco Franco’s nationalist policies in the 1940s. In recent years, domestic support for an independent Catalonia has reached a peak stemming from complaints over government malfeasance and wasteful public spending. Catalans compose 16 percent of Spain’s population and contribute 20 percent of the country’s taxes, yet only 14 percent returns to the region via public expenses. Undeniably, the Catalan pride in their identity is a facet of the push for independence. In the collective consciousness of “independentista” Catalans, the distinction between being Spaniard and being Catalan is well-understood and deeply felt. It is a decades old externality of repression by whomever ruled from hundreds of miles across the Iberian Peninsula in Madrid. After the referendum, which now-exiled Catalan President Carles Puigdemont hailed as legally binding, the Spanish government crushed several peaceful protests in Catalonia’s major cities. The international community has shown mixed support for the referendum, but political analysts across the globe question whether a president can sustainably govern in exile.

Discourse on Catalonian separatism emphasizes class politics as much as perceived ethnic differences, and the damning impact of globalization on the Spanish economy has played an irrefutable role in the surge of Catalan ethnonationalism. Such sentiments tend to emerge with rapid industrialization, as technology and political advancements widen existing economic divides and foster a sense of ethnic elitism among the indignant upper classes. Predictably, then, the majority of Catalans in favor of independence are the wealthy, protective of their incomes and unwilling to keep a wasteful and inert bureaucracy afloat. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, from which Spain is still recovering, the complex network of regional and global economies amplified calls for independent Catalonia. Crippled by unwise financial decisions elsewhere on the globe, Madrid leaned on Catalonia for support: The region received the highest budget cuts in the country. In the years since the so-called Great Recession, Spain has held onto Catalonia as the liferaft of financial recovery. Successful Catalan succession would have meant Spain’s loss of approximately twenty percent of its economy. Post-referendum, outraged by the Spanish police’s forcible closure of scores of polling stations, supporters of Catalan independence are desperate for recognition. Economically and politically wounded by globalists’ missteps, the Catalan hunt for a voice continues. To some, globalization has given, but to ethnic Catalans, it has taken away.

The promises of globalization remain noble: the interconnectedness of nations, the fortification of previously sealed economies, and the passage of ideas among peoples offer opportunities unimaginable several decades ago. Yet the structure of the globalized world, especially its proclivity to build up the powerful at the expense of the weak, continues to squander the chance for certain minorities to exercise their political voices and redeem themselves from governmental misbehavior. To the Kurds and Catalans, such interconnectedness stalled efforts to achieve a seat at the table. The fruits of globalization were spoiled upon arrival.