The Rohingya might be the world’s most persecuted minority group. The Rohingya are a predominantly Muslim ethnic group in Myanmar. For decades, they’ve lacked citizenship or any legal protections. Their ability to access education and health care, to travel freely, practice their religion and marry has been deeply restricted.
In August 2017, the Burmese army ramped up its persecution of Rohingyas to unprecedented levels. The Burmese military has systematically destroyed villages, raped woman and executed thousands. The violence has pushed more than 700,000 Rohingyas to leave Myanmar, primarily for refugee camps in Bangladesh. A report by the United Nations Human Rights Council has determined that the violent acts of the Myanma military amount to genocide. With no apparent signs of the violence against the Rohingya lessening, and with some countries sending Rohingya refugees back to Myanmar, something needs be done.
America should use economic sanctions to compel the Myanma government to stop its persecution of the Rohingya. The sanctions could first target specific Burmese generals or government officials, like has been done against Russian officials. For more leverage, the sanctions could be broader, targeting sectors of industry, like was done by America against Iran.
America could use the threat of precision military strikes against the Myanmar Army to deter violence. Actual precision military strikes against the Myanma military would be low risk for American air and naval personnel given the low capabilities of the Myanma military. If none of this works, a no-fly zone could be established in Rakhine state, where the vast majority of Rohingya live, as was successfully done in northern Iraq to protect Kurds from Saddam Hussein’s murderous Al-Anfal campaign. Following the Kurdish model, an autonomous zone could be established in Rakhine state to further protect the Rohingya. In a matter of weeks, the Rohingya’s situation could be vastly more secure. It’s clear America is more than capable of helping the Rohingya. But why should America intervene to save the Rohingya in the first place?
Firstly, America should help the Rohingya for moral reasons. In a world as interconnected and informed as ours, there is no excuse to let mass murder go unhindered, especially considering the wealth of options America has for helping the Rohingya. But some will say that foreign policy needs to be rooted in realism and strategic interests, rather than solving humanitarian crises, which brings me to the second reason America should intervene in the Rohingya genocide: doing so would have strategic benefits.
Embracing humanitarianism would strengthen America’s global leadership. American leadership has shaped the rules-based, liberal world order since World War II. The features of this liberal world order include free trade, deterrence of interstate war and adherence to international law and norms, all of which benefit Americans by making the world a wealthier and safer a place. But the liberal world order is under threat.
China is quickly growing in economic and military power. Eventually China will achieve parity, if not supremacy, over American economic and military power. China is already converting its increasing strength into global influence, in competition with the American-led liberal world order. The Belt and Road Initiative seeks to invest in developing countries to solidify Chinese influence. China is increasing foreign investment in Europe with the same goal in mind, with surprising success. Military structures are being built on islands in the South China Sea, and Chinese naval vessels have been intimidating American ships trying to uphold freedom of navigation, which is crucial for free trade.
If Chinese power is greater than American power, America cannot rely on its might alone to influence international conduct over Chinese attempts to do the same. China’s global leadership, under its current government, would undermine and ultimately replace the liberal world order, bidding farewell to free trade and promoting dictatorships all over the world. This would make Americans and the rest of the world less wealthy and less safe. To save the liberal world order, America should reconfigure it to genuinely value humanitarianism.
In Henry Kissinger’s book “World Order,” he outlines how strong world orders are based on legitimacy and power. The American-led world order has been anchored in American power. America’s unmatched power allowed it to write the rules of the world order through the creation of organizations like the World Trade Organization and NATO. When countries gravely violate the rules of the world order, it is America that leads the charge against them, like in the First Gulf War when America led a coalition to eject Saddam Hussein from Kuwait.
Kissinger writes that force alone is not a stable recipe for world order. The world order set by the Congress of Vienna in 1814 fell apart because it relied only on force. Legitimacy is also needed for a stable international system. America’s legitimacy as leader of the liberal world order stems from its professed fidelity to universal values such as democracy and human rights. But America has not been consistent in living up to those values. America has supported dictators who violate human rights and has on occasion violated the very rules it was instrumental in establishing, like when it invaded Iraq. America’s hypocrisy naturally undermines its legitimacy. America’s inconsistency gives critics of the liberal international legitimate reason to criticize and thus undermine it. Even America’s allies in Europe and Asia have at times become disillusioned by America’s failure to abide by the values it preaches.
There is nothing America can do to overcome China’s eventually superior economic and military strength. But desire for the preservation of human rights are universal. Agreeing to stop genocides from happening could be the beginning of a humanitarianism which would give the peoples and countries of the world reason to choose an American-led world order even as it is no longer the world’s superpower. A humanitarian and morally-motivated American world order could be a more attractive option than the autocratic realpolitik, which doesn't even profess to consider human rights, that the Chinese government would offer.