“ASEAN Community in a Global Community of Nations” was the theme Indonesia chose when it became ASEAN Chair in 2011. One reason for this choice may have been that the government believes a globally more pro-active ASEAN would boost Indonesia’s own aspirations for a greater global role.
However, the theme also acknowledges that only if Southeast Asia acts collectively in international organizations, it may master the multiple challenges posed by rapid global change.
More than ever, international institutions have become arenas for negotiating solutions for global problems. However, institutional politics is not power-free. Great powers usually determine the rules of the game, the decision-making procedures and the norms underlying institutional politics. If smaller and weaker countries want to avoid that they become mere rule-takers, deprived of the gains international cooperation may entail, they must act as a bloc.
Good examples where institutional control produces asymmetrical material outcomes are the Bretton Woods institutions. Control of the economically advanced countries over decision-making in the World Trade Organization ( WTO ) and the International Monetary Fund ( IMF ) benefits rich countries and discriminates against poorer nations.
Several criteria must be fulfilled if ASEAN as a grouping of less powerful states is to become an effective player in global forums: It must ( 1 ) have access to the expert knowledge needed to understand increasingly technical and complex policy matters, ( 2 ) coordinate its negotiation positions, ( 3 ) speak with one voice and ( 4 ) vote and act in unison.
But does ASEAN meet these minimum criteria? Is it prepared to become an effective negotiator in global forums?
Already a very preliminary analysis suggests that ASEAN is far from being able to make an impact in international forums. ASEAN has so far failed to become an effective negotiator and collective actor. In key issues of the current world order such as the reform of the United Nations, the global trade and financial regimes, climate change and non-proliferation ASEAN has mostly failed to muster collective strength.
So far, it has not been able to translate its prestige as a manager of regional affairs into global influence. In many forums, ASEAN member countries mainly articulate national preferences. They are, as Razeen Sally found out for the WTO, increasingly “bowling alone”.
To become a more effective international actor, ASEAN must address at least five shortcomings.
First, the ASEAN Secretariat needs to be strengthened. So far, the Secretariat has no active role in the preparation and conduct of international negotiations. The ASEAN Secretary General lacks competences to conduct international negotiations in the name of ASEAN. Member governments jealously guard their policymaking prerogatives, limiting the Secretariat to its very basic secretarial functions.
Second, one way for the Secretariat of supporting ASEAN negotiators in international organizations would be to serve as a catalyst for providing expert knowledge. Yet, until now, its capacity for the absorption of knowledge is extremely limited. The Secretariat is neither adequately funded nor staffed for such a function. Only if the Secretariat and ASEAN governments are better linked with regional centers of expertise, they may match the advanced knowledge developed countries mobilize for international negotiations.
Accessing knowledge is more than occasional meetings with the ASEAN-ISIS think tank. It also means to build up institutionalized communication channels with regional universities, interest groups, non-governmental organization ( NGO ) networks and civil society. This would have another positive side-effect for ASEAN: It would help the grouping overcoming its regional corporatism in which only selected, albeit often irrelevant entities have access to ASEAN bodies. In fact, more interaction with non-governmental actors would promote ASEAN’s transformation into a more people-oriented organization as envisioned in the ASEAN Charter.
Third, ASEAN representatives in international organizations must institutionalize and streamline their coordination. This entails the formation of regional contact groups working out the mandate for negotiation. Negotiators then have to coordinate the framing of the issues under negotiation, agenda-setting and voting behavior. Split voting of ASEAN in the UN is still almost as frequent as joint voting. Coordinating negotiations in major international organizations is the task of the ASEAN New York and Geneva Committees. Yet, coordination is often informal; its intensity varies and depends on the respective Committee chair.
Fourth, ASEAN must be better represented in leadership positions of global institutions. Chairs provide many opportunities for steering the negotiation process. If ASEAN proposes own candidates for executive positions in international organizations, it must select persuasive personalities and campaign for them vigorously. Not surprisingly, ASEAN’s somewhat lackluster support for Surakiart Sathirathai, the Thai candidate for the post of the UN Secretary General in 2006, has contributed to the latter’s defeat.
Fifth, ASEAN countries must better orchestrate their coalition-building in global institutions. It is counterproductive, if, like in the WTO, individual ASEAN countries join rivaling coalitions and work against each other.
All this suggests that ASEAN still has a long way to go before becoming an effective actor in global forums. But with the selection of the theme for the Indonesian ASEAN chairmanship in 2011, at least awareness for these problems has been raised.
The writer is professor of political science at the University of Freiburg, Germany, and chairman of the university’s Southeast Asian studies program.