My August reflections on ASEAN’s 50th anniversary

8 August 2017 is the  50th anniversary of ASEAN, the most successful regional organization of the developing world. To mark this occasion, I have written a number of essays and op-eds. Here are brief summaries and excerpts, along with publication details. Some are free downloads.

The first is a chapter, “The Evolution and Limitations of ASEAN Identity”,  in Building ASEAN Community: Political-Security and Socio-Cultural Reflections (Jakarta: The Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia, 2017): 25-38. Available at:

In this essay, I argue:

…the identity of Southeast Asia as a region should not be confused with the identity of ASEAN as a regional organisation. Although the two identities can overlap and be mutually reinforcing, they also have different sources and distinctive trajectories. Southeast Asia’s regional identity predates ASEAN’s identity; it existed even when ASEAN was a group of only five nations. While ASEAN might have strengthened Southeast Asia’s regional identity, the latter has a wider basis. It was constructed by a combination of outside powers, foreign (at first) and local academics, regional political leaders, and civil society groups, while the ASEAN identity is mainly the creation of the region’s political elite. The Southeast Asian identity is more grounded in historical and socio-cultural factors than the ASEAN identity, which is more of an institutional, political, and strategic phenomenon and is fundamentally statist and elitist in nature. Hence, although both identities have their limitations, the Southeast Asian identity is potentially more robust and enduring than the ASEAN identity, and could outlive the weakening or unravelling of ASEAN. While the two identities converged after the end of the Cold War and the emergence of the ASEAN–10, they have recently begun to diverge, due to growing intra-regional squabbles and great power competition. The challenge for the region’s policymakers and civil society is to ensure the convergence of the two identities with policies that sustain ASEAN’s unity and neutrality in the great power rivalry, while at the same time expanding ASEAN’s support base by seeking the participation of the people and the civil society of the region.”

A second essay is part of a book published by the Institute of Strategic and International Studies, Malaysia’s leading think tank. Amitav Acharya,”ASEAN@50: Reflections on Its Past, Present and Future,” in Asean Future Foreword (Kuala Lumpur: Institute of Strategic and International Studies, 2017). The chapter was noted in a recent op-ed in Malaysia.

The essay begins by highlighting ASEAN’s distinctive features and contributions:

“No regional organization in the world has a more culturally and politically diverse membership and yet has come as far as ASEAN has. Another outstanding feature of ASEAN is its shared or pluralistic leadership. Unlike some regional groups where one or two countries play the disproportionate role, such as France and Germany in the European Union (EU), ASEAN is not directed by one or two dominant members. There is no regional hegemon or wannabe hegemon within ASEAN, such as Nigeria in ECOWAS, South Africa in SADC or India in SAARC.

ASEAN has multiple leaders guiding it in different issue-areas. At different stages, Indonesia (ZOPFAN, which was an outgrowth of the original Malaysian idea of Neutralization of Southeast Asia) and later ASEAN political-security community), Thailand (sovereignty and “flexible engagement”), Malaysia (Neutralization of Southeast Asia), Philippines (civil society engagement) and Singapore (trade) have “led” ASEAN and charted its course. A third distinctive feature of ASEAN is that while none of its members are great powers, Indonesia included, it has attracted the deference and engagement of all the great powers of the contemporary international system. It is a very rare example in the history of international relations in which the strong are ruled (normatively speaking) by the weak; in marked contrast to the standard realpolitik which expects the strong powers to lead and the weak merely to follow. Finally, ASEAN is a regional institution with a global membership. Through ASEAN dialogue relations and “ASEAN plus” institutions, all the major players in the world are engaged with ASEAN on a regular, institutionalized basis.”

But the essay also highlights a number of challenges facing ASEAN.

“…ASEAN’s current problems and challenges result from multiple sources: expansion of expectations concerning ASEAN leadership, and ASEAN centrality; the changing strategic environment with the rise of China, and growing US-China competition, and China’s shifting approach to regional engagement from ASEAN-centric to China-centric regional initiatives. Other sources of ASEAN’s weakness include continued adherence to sovereignty, non-interference, limited capacity relative to growing burdens, and questions over intra-ASEAN unity and cohesion. Faced with these challenges, ASEAN needs to find the right balance between state sovereignty and community-building, between indifference (non-intervention) and collective action and between the ASEAN Way of informalism and the need for greater institutionalization to make regional cooperation more responsive and effective in addressing regional challenges.”

The third essay is a commentary on “ÁSEAN Centrality: Myth of Reality,” Contemporary Southeast Asia, vol.39, no.2 (2017). pp.272-79.

The essay begins with clarifying a few myths about the concept of ASEAN Centrality.

“First, contrary to what many observers may think, ASEAN centrality is not an entirely novel or distinctive term. Rather it’s related to a number of similar concepts: ASEAN as the “leader”, the “driver”, the “architect”, the “institutional hub”, the “vanguard”, the “nucleus”, and the “fulcrum” of regional processes and institutional designs in the Asia-Pacific.”

A second popular misconception about ASEAN centrality is that it’s about ASEAN itself. More accurately, it’s really about the larger dynamics of regionalism and regional architecture in the Asia-Pacific and even beyond.

A third myth about ASEAN centrality is that it’s the exclusive handiwork of ASEAN members. It’s not… ASEAN centrality is as much a product of external players in Southeast Asia as of the ASEAN members themselves. In fact, one suspects that its emergence had more to do with dynamic of major powers relationships than to any projection of ASEAN’s internal unity or identity.”

I concluded the essay by arguing that ASEAN must seriously rethink its centrality.

“…the concept of ASEAN centrality has been somewhat ambiguous, ambitious and impractical from the outset. It has imposed serious burdens on ASEAN and raised expectations of its performance that the organization was not created to meet. It’s possible for someone, like this author, to be a firm believer in ASEAN but skeptical about ASEAN centrality. ASEAN has a critical relevance in dealing with issues in Southeast Asia which do not require the principle of ASEAN centrality in the wider Asia-Pacific security. The Association will survive the loss of ASEAN centrality. But if it wants to keep faith with the idea, then it must accept that ASEAN centrality must be earned than merely assumed, and that there can be no ASEAN centrality without ASEAN unity and ASEAN neutrality in dealing with great power rivalry. Unless ASEAN’s members take this seriously and respond accordingly, the days of ASEAN centrality may soon be over.”

I also wrote two op-eds on ASEAN. The first one, “Can ASEAN cope with the changing world order?,” East Asia Forum, 1 August 2017,, argues:

“The future of ASEAN and ASEAN-led multilateralism in the multiplex era will be more complex, messy and uncertain than in the bipolar era, the ‘unipolar moment’ or the old-fashioned multipolar system. A strategic approach to multilateralism must begin by recognising the limitations — and the possibility of obsolescence — of the existing ASEAN-led architecture, which faces major external and internal challenges…while it cannot entirely avoid getting involved in great-power rivalry, ASEAN needs to reconsider its role in the wider Asia Pacific, particularly its policy of engaging all the great powers on an ASEAN platform. Some degree of self-isolation, or strategy for avoiding a deep entanglement with great power geopolitics, has to be revived. ASEAN could also think of forging closer ties with Japan, India, Australia and the EU to create some strategic space between itself and Beijing and Washington.”

The other op-ed was published as “Time for Thailand to step in and lead Asean (again),” Bangkok Post, 7 August 2017. It’s a tribute to Thailand’s contribution to ASEAN, which is often unacknowledged. In this I write:

“Thailand has played a proactive and productive role that has been central to the foundation, consolidation and transformation of Asean. What is also remarkable is Thailand’s support for Asean has been maintained throughout its domestic oscillations between military and civilian rule.Now that Asean is facing another turning point in view of the escalating great power rivalry in Asia, will Thailand once again step in to move Asean forward? Thailand’s role is ever more important today given Jokowi’s Indonesia has scaled down its role as a leader of Asean. Thailand’s role in the creation of Asean, and its previous ideas for reforming Asean such as “flexible engagement”, mean that should Bangkok so desire, it can emerge as a major player in injecting Asean with a new sense of purpose and vitality to ensure its continuing relevance. This remains a major challenge for Thai governments.

To conclude, while I remain a firm admirer and believer in ASEAN, I also think ASEAN, like any international institution which has been around for a while needs to adapt to the realities of a changing world order, which I call a Multiplex World.


Donald Trump as President: Does It Mark a Rise of Illiberal Globalism?

Amitav Acharya, YaleGlobal Online, January 22, 2017

The liberal international order which supports protections for individual freedom, as led by the United States, is in crisis. The threats are both external from authoritarian governments and internal from disgruntled populists who sense a loss of opportunities. The United States is signaling a withdrawal from its role in fierce protection of the liberal international order, argues the author of “The End of American World Order,” Amitav Acharya. “A major question about the future of the liberal order is whether [Donald] Trump’s victory might encourage authoritarianism around the world,” he writes. “Such an authoritarian wave may not materialize or last long. But there is little question that Trump’s victory has given democracy’s foes a reason to pounce.” Acharya anticipates new forms of globalization emerging in what he calls a multiplex world: from Asia, with more regional arrangements and greater emphasis on development and infrastructure investment than trade. Civil society and corporations may replace nations in leading with global governance to resolve the world’s biggest challenges. – YaleGlobal

Read More at:

The emerging powers can be saviours of the global liberal order

Amitav Acharya

Financial Times, January 19, 2017

Chinese president Xi Jinping’s speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, in which he denounced protectionism and defended globalisation, suggests that China is positioning itself to fill the void in global leadership likely to be left by the Trump administration.

Since the election of Donald Trump as US president, there has been great concern about the future of the liberal international order. Mr Trump’s victory in November raises an important question: will the emerging powers defend the existing arrangements or will they give them one final shove over the edge?

Read More at: (English and Chinese translation) (English)


The End of American World Order Insights from Amitav Acharya.

The Diplomat, November 10, 2016

The Rebalance author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into the U.S. rebalance to Asia. This conversation with Amitav Acharya – UNESCO Chair in Transnational Challenges and Governance and Distinguished Professor of International Relations at the School of International Service, American University, Washington, D.C., and the Chair of its ASEAN Studies Initiative as well as author of The End of American World Order (Polity 2014, Oxford 2015) – is the 66th in “The Rebalance Insight Series.”

Explain the difference between “U.S. decline” and “the end of American world order.”

By “end of American world order,” I specifically refer to the crisis and erosion of the international order that the United States had built and maintained after World War II, which some call the liberal hegemonic order, meaning a liberal order under U.S. dominance. As I have argued in my book, The End of American World Order, whether the United States is declining as the world’s No. 1 power or not is a matter of much debate, although this has less to do with who is in the White House than long-term structural shifts in the global economy and politics. The United States still leads in the world in terms of the overall military power, and relative economic power (defined more comprehensively than just overall GDP, and taking into account the role of the U.S. dollar as the global reserve currency). So we don’t have agreement on whether or to what degree the United States itself is declining. You can find equally persuasive arguments and evidence from both sides of the debate. But the United States is less and less able to get its way with the international community and shape and control the agenda of global multilateral institutions that it helped to create. U.S. leadership in the world has declined.

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American Primacy in a Multiplex World

The National Interest, September 26, 2016

The real question about America’s role in the world today, as I have argued in The End of American World Order, is not whether America itself is declining, but whether the international order it built and dominated thus far, which some call the liberal international order or the American world order, will be enduring. The two issues are often conflated but, in fact, are different. Whether America is declining is debatable; the fate of the American world order is less so. As Joschka Fischer, Germany’s former foreign minister, recently wrote: “Looking back 26 years, we should admit that the disintegration of the Soviet Union — and with it, the end of the Cold War — was not the end of history, but rather the beginning of the Western liberal order’s denouement.”

Where does that leave the issue of American primacy? It depends on how one defines the term. Joseph Nye, one of the principal defenders of American primacy today, carefully distinguishes primacy from hegemony and defines the former as “a country’s disproportionate (and measurable) share of all three kinds of power resources: military, economic, and soft.” On that basis, he concludes that the United States will retain its primacy at least until the first half of the present century.

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Building Asian security

Amitav Acharya
East Asia Forum, 24 January 2016
A principal challenge to Asian security today is that the various approaches to the security order seem to be working at cross-purposes. Take the United States and China. Washington insists that its rebalancing strategy enhances regional stability. Sure enough, it is possible to see the military dimension of rebalancing as crucial to maintaining the military balance of power in the region. But the economic aspect of rebalancing — the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TTP) — excludes China and challenges United States–China economic interdependence.

Similarly, China professes a deep interest in enhancing regional economic interdependence. But its own initiatives, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and One Belt One Road, challenge long-standing modalities of regional economic cooperation.

These developments call for a major rethink of existing approaches to security in Asia. The new approach to Asian security might be called security pluralism.

Security pluralism holds that security requires multiple conditions and approaches, rather than any single one, and maintaining a positive relationship among them. The major conditions of security pluralism are economic interdependence, stability in the balance of power, multilateral institutions, and ideological tolerance and accommodation.

Security pluralism is broader than the familiar Asian notion of ‘comprehensive security’, which refers to different dimensions of security without clarifying how they relate to each other. And unlike ‘cooperative security’ — which focuses on multilateral institutions — security pluralism recognises the importance of balance of power.

Yet security pluralism is not a purely balance of power system as it relies on other mechanisms. Nor is it a ‘security community’, which is marked by a collective identity that renders war unthinkable. Security pluralism is less idealistic. National identities and competition remain, but they are controlled by the interplay of interdependence, institutions, value pluralism, military equilibrium and a shared imperative for avoiding system collapse.

Security pluralism aims for a relationship of mutual accommodation among unequal and culturally diverse states that preserves the relative autonomy of each and prevents the hegemony of any or a few. In other words, security pluralism respects political and cultural diversity, but fosters accommodation among the great powers and their restraint towards the weaker actors, such as ASEAN members.

The architecture of security pluralism can be likened to an ecosystem. The components support each other and the loss or weakening of one would damage the others and endanger overall stability. For instance, economic interdependence acts as a check on security competition, contributes to state consolidation and regime legitimation, as well as encourages strategic and ideological accommodation. Interdependence also necessitates and supports regional institutions, which not only help to manage frictions, but also dampen great power rivalry.

Contrary to a popular understanding, ecosystems are not self-sustaining. Their stability requires careful and cooperative management. The following suggestions, though not exhaustive, deserve consideration as a source of policy ideas, from which specific recommendations can be derived.

First, it is essential to maintain the openness and inclusiveness of regional economic arrangements. More specifically, this means ensuring that the AIIB and TPP do not undermine economic interdependence and engender conflict. A forum of economics and security officials under the auspices of the East Asia Summit (EAS) and the Asia–Pacific Economic Cooperation — which would include the United States — could be useful for this purpose.

Second, governments should avoid policies that prioritise offence over defence. This demands fresh attention in light of the growing Chinese military presence in themaritime sphere as well as the United States rebalance to Asia. Another important part of this is to develop mechanisms to avoid incidents and accidents in areas ofcompeting territorial claims and establish channels of communication between parties.

A multifaceted restructuring of regional institutions is also necessary. This includes creating more manageable priorities, avoiding duplicating tasks and developing Track II dialogues based on empathy rather than national advocacy. It should also addressmission creep in regional institutions and coordinating their activities closer with relevant global bodies, civil society groups and the private sector to address transnational challenges.

ASEAN centrality should not preclude giving non-ASEAN members more voice — and hence stake — in setting the agenda of ASEAN Regional Forum and the EAS and increasing their contribution to regional equilibrium.

And finally, there is a need to explore the common ground and promote mutual learning of the norms and practices of pluralism, restraint and cooperation in Asian and Western civilisations. This includes ideas such as democratic peace, liberal internationalism, strategic restraint, universalism and the ‘new model of major power relations’.

This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2015 in review and the year ahead.

How the two big ideas of the post-Cold War era failed

June 24, 2015
Washington Post (Monkey Cage)

Two major prophecies about international order emerged as the Cold War ended. One was Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis, first outlined in an article in the National Interest in 1989 then elaborated in a book published in 1992. It pronounced total victory for Western capitalism and liberal democracy over all other competing ideologies and even predicted a boring future of peace and tranquility. The other was Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis, first presented in a Foreign Affairs article in 1993 and then in a book published in 1996. He was decidedly pessimistic, predicting that the end of the U.S.-Soviet rivalry would be followed by a new wave of conflict fueled by civilizational competition and animosity.

Both Fukuyama and Huntington might claim vindication in the recent turn of events. Many have interpreted the emergence of the Islamic State as evidence of the truth of Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis. On the other hand, in an article last year in the Wall Street Journal and in his book, “Political Order and Political Decay” Fukuyama who foresaw the end of great power rivalry but continued strife in the Third World, claims that his “end of history” thesis remains “essentially correct” even as he acknowledges that liberal democracies and civil liberties might suffer from “decay,” as may be happening in the United States. In a 2002 op-ed for the International Herald Tribune, now the Global New York Times, I challenged the Fukuyama thesis by arguing that liberal democracy in the United States and the West could be in “retreat” due to the attack on civil liberties in the name of the war on terror.

Despite my respect for the intellect of their protagonists, I argue that the two big ideas of the post-Cold War era have been proven to be not only mostly wrong, but also wrong-headed. Islam and the Islamic world have played a significant role in disproving and discrediting these ideas and not necessarily in the most predictable ways.


Let’s start with Fukuyama. The original end of history article pointed to the “unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism,” and claimed that the “triumph of the West, of the Western idea is evident in the total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism.” This was an ironic claim, since the defeated alternatives to Western liberalism, namely fascism and communism, were still Western ideas. So the end of history was really the victory by one set of Western ideas over another.

Fukuyama also predicted greater geopolitical stability in the world. For him, only “large states still caught in the grip of history” can produce and sustain big ideologies to challenge Western liberalism and thereby cause “large-scale conflict” in the international system. The only candidates for offering such a challenge after the end of the Cold War would be Russia and China, but both were embracing Western-style markets and even, to some degree, political openness, thus moving out of said grips of history.

Yet Russia and China might signal the “return of geopolitics” in the international system.

What about the Islamic world? Fukuyama dismissed the potential of Islam to offer a political alternative to either liberalism or communism. Certainly Islam, without a large or great power in its ranks, could pose no traditional Realpolitik challenge to liberalism. Yet history does not begin or end with the big ideas of big powers. The Islamic world is a massive demographic entity. There are 49 Muslim majority countries in the world, about one fourth of the total U.N. membership. The world’s Muslim population, at 1.6 billion, constitutes 23 percent of the total world population, with significant growth among its youth. Indeed, these demographic facts feature prominently in Huntington’s list of reasons for the clash of civilizations between Islam and the West. Adding China’s 1.35 billion to the equation means that about a third of the world’s population theoretically remain outside of the West’s triumphant ideology. Even an ardent believer in democracy, such as this author, finds Fukuyama’s claims that there are no “real alternatives” (what constitutes real?) to Western style liberal democracy and that “we should have no doubt as to what kind of society lies at the end of History” too sweeping, arrogant and deterministic.

Did the Arab Spring vindicate the Fukuyama thesis promoted by the neo-con ideologues of the George W. Bush administration, whose invasion of Iraq was legitimized as a means to promote democracy in the Arab world? No. The impetus for the Arab Spring came mainly from within Arab societies and had little to do with Western help. There is no direct link between the downfall of Saddam Hussein and the Arab Spring. By now, it is also clear that the Arab uprisings were more of a protest against corrupt and repressive regimes than a call for the establishment of Western style liberal democratic institutions. If they were, they have certainly failed in most places except Tunisia.

While it would be wrong to say that a single or consistent Islamic world view runs through Muslim states and societies, it is equally wrong to assume that they simply identify with or adopt Western liberalism. This should not be confused with an acceptance of the Hungtingtonian clash of civilizations. The vast majority of Muslims and Muslim nations who do not accept Western liberalism similarly have no sympathy for al-Qaeda or the Islamic State or other form of Islamic extremism. In fact, several are themselves targets of the terrorist groups.

Huntington’s clash of civilizations has gained support in recent years as the new paradigm of global conflict replacing the Cold War and identifying the threat against which the US and the West could focus and mobilize its strategic response. It reinforced the fear of Islam and might have offered an implicit justification for the United States invasion of Iraq. However, like Fukuyama’s, Huntington’s thesis has flunked its test in the Islamic world and elsewhere. Much of the Islamic world rallied to the United States after 9/11. Islamic states were far more critical and uncooperative when the United States under the George W. Bush presidency invaded Iraq in 2003, but this was because the invasion flouted international norms and disdained the UN Security Council. Now, some of the most prominent Islamic countries have joined hands with the United State to fight the Islamic State and other terrorist groups in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. At the very least, as I had argued in the aftermath of 9/11 attacks, Huntington’s thesis underestimated the power of national interest, regime security and resilience of state sovereignty over civilizational affinities.

While some point to the conflicts in Middle East and Ukraine as proof of Huntington’s pessimism—and bearing in mind that Fukuyama too believed that conflicts other than those among the great powers would persist—recent and long-term trends in violence may come as a surprise. The 2013 Human Security Report finds that between the early 1990s (when both ideas emerged) until now, “overall conflict numbers have dropped by some 40 percent, while the deadliest conflicts, those that kill at least 1,000 people a year, have declined by more than half.” The Armed Conflict Survey conducted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) paints a more negative picture, estimating a rise in the number of fatalities from major conflicts from 56,000 in 2008 to 180,000 in 2014. Interestingly enough, only two countries, Iraq and Syria, take up about half of deaths: approximately 88,000 of 180,000 in 2014. Even if one assumes that these two conflicts are civilizational in nature—rather than social, economic or political causes like repression—the evidence of a world on fire caused by a clash of civilizations is still limited at best. The IISS survey also confirmed that the overall conflict numbers in the world is still going down, from 63 in 2008 to 42 today.

More damning for the Huntington thesis is the fact that the overwhelming majority of the targets and victims of violence perpetrated by Islamic extremist groups are Muslims. According to the University of Maryland’sGlobal Terrorism Database, between 2004 and 2013, about half of all terrorist attacks and 60 percent of fatalities caused by terrorist attacks took place in just three countries: Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, all with Muslim-majority populations and epicenters of the War on Terror. A 2011 report from the U.S. government’s National Counter-Terrorism Center (NCTC) estimates that “in cases where the religious affiliation of terrorism casualties could be determined, Muslims suffered between 82 and 97 percent of terrorism related fatalities over the past five years.” Contrary to Huntington’s thesis, the violence that occurs in the Islamic world is mainly a clash within a civilization. The above also applies to Ukraine. Here is a striking example. Huntington had predicted in his 1996 book, “If civilization is what counts, violence between Ukrainians and Russians is unlikely.” Obviously it does not.
Some of the long-term causes of international stability, according to the Human Security Report, include the end of colonialism and the Cold War, international norms against the use of military force except in self-defense or authorized by the UN, peacekeeping, peacebuilding and “peacemaking” operations to prevent and stop wars, enhanced state capacity in securing resources to promote economic development and address grievances in the Third World, and growing economic interdependence among nations. One other factor identified by the Report is “inclusive democratization” in previously authoritarian countries that contributes to non-violent conflict resolution and hence internal stability within these states.
It is clear that many of these factors, which are unlikely to disappear, cut across civilizational fault lines. They are not uniquely the result of Western ideologies and leadership but are actively supported by both Western and non-Western states and societies. For example, China and other authoritarian nations of East Asia led the way in building state capacity and economic growth and fostering economic interdependence. Countries such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia are among the world’s largest contributors to UN peacekeeping. Peace in today’s world is possible because civilizations can and do learn from each other and cooperate. This is a lesson of history that will never end. The only history that is rapidly ending is that of the relatively short period of Western dominance in the long march of civilization.