Is ASEAN Losing Its Way?

Amitav Acharya
YaleGlobal, 24 September 2015

KUALA LUMPUR: The Association of Southeast Asia Nations has prided itself on its “ASEAN Way” – an informal and non-legalistic way of doing business, especially its culture of consultations and consensus that have resolved disputes peacefully. That way of doing may be fading among signs the group’s unity is seriously eroding. Against the backdrop of the rise of an assertive China, signs of disunity spell trouble for the region.

There are several reasons for this disunity. First, ASEAN today is a much bigger entity. Membership expanded in the 1990s to include Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia, with East Timor likely to be the 11th member. ASEAN’s functions and issues have also expanded. Economic cooperation has expanded from the idea of a free trade agreement to a more comprehensive economic community, which technically enters into force this year. ASEAN cooperation extends to a range of transnational issues from intelligence-sharing, counterterrorism, and maritime security to environmental degradation, air pollution, pandemics, energy security, food security, migration and people-smuggling, drug-trafficking, human rights and disaster management.

With an expanded membership, agenda and area of concern, it’s only natural that ASEAN will face more internal disagreements. It’s thus not surprising that one of the most serious breakdowns of consensus have involved its new members. Cambodia, as ASEAN’s chair, disastrously refused to issue a joint ASEAN communique in 2012 to please China – its new backer and aid donor – rejecting the position of fellow members, Philippines and Vietnam, on the South China Sea dispute.

With an expanded membership and agenda, ASEAN faces more breakdowns in consensus.

Compounding challenges is the uncertain leadership of Indonesia. There are signs that the Jokowi government has downgraded Indonesia’s leadership role in ASEAN especially as the de facto consensus-builder of ASEAN on both intra- and extra-ASEAN conflicts, including the South China Sea. Jokowi’s “less multilateralism, more national interest” foreign policy approach, in sharp contrast to his predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s active leadership of ASEAN, could change. If not, the danger is that if the democratic, economically dynamic and stable Indonesia does not take ASEAN seriously neither will the world at large.

Without doubt, ASEAN’s main security challenge is the territorial disputes in the South China Sea. While not a new problem, the disagreement has telescoped due to recent Chinese activities. The most recent example: China’s reclamation activities in the Fiery Reef claimed by Vietnam and Mischief Reef and surrounding areas also claimed by the Philippines. This reflects a shift in China’s approach. While the Chinese military has pressed for land reclamation for some time, the leadership of Hu Jintao had resisted such moves. That restraint ended under the leadership of Xi Jinping, who is more prone to seek the PLA’s counsel in foreign policy issues related to national security and who has advanced China’s assertiveness on economic, diplomatic and military fronts. China is developing the islands further for both area denial and sea-control purposes and as a staging post for blue-water deployments into the Indian Ocean.

Without doubt, ASEAN’s main security challenge is the territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

These developments challenge ASEAN’s role and “centrality” in the Asian security architecture. The economic ties of individual ASEAN members lead them to adopt varying positions. Until now, ASEAN’s advantage was that there was no alternative convening power in the region. But mere positional “centrality” is meaningless without an active and concerted ASEAN leadership to tackle problems, especially the South China Sea dispute.

Episodes such as the failure to issue a joint ASEAN communique in 2012 have led to the perception that ASEAN unity is fraying and China is a major factor. According to this view, China is out to divide and conquer ASEAN even as it pays lip-service to ASEAN centrality. This perception results from China’s seeming willingness to use disagreements within ASEAN, especially the consensus-breaking stance of Cambodia, insisting that ASEAN stay out of the South China Sea conflict, as an excuse to resist an early conclusion of the South China Sea Code of Conduct. China also takes the unwillingness of some ASEAN members to use strong language to criticize China as a sign of disunity. China cites earlier differences within ASEAN regarding the scope of the code of conduct over the inclusion of the Paracels, as desired by Hanoi. Moreover, China views the code as crisis-prevention tool rather than a dispute-settlement mechanism.

China must dispel the perceptions of a divide-and-rule approach, and ASEAN must not abandon the South China Sea issue.

China needs to dispel perceptions that it is playing a divide-and-rule approach to ASEAN. It should also stop objecting to bringing the South China Sea question onto the agenda of the ASEAN Regional Forum and the East Asia Summit, on the pretext that not all ASEAN members are party to the dispute and outside countries such as the United States have no business even discussing the issue. This has the effect of undermining the very idea of ASEAN centrality or relevance that Beijing purports to uphold. It’s hard to see what the rationale for having these meetings might be without discussion of one of the most serious challenges to regional security and well-being.

As for ASEAN, it must not remove itself from South China Sea issue. If anything, it should give even more focused attention to the disputes. One must not forget the lessons of the conflict triggered by the Vietnamese invasion and occupation of Cambodia from December 1978 to September 1989. Neither Vietnam nor Cambodia were members of ASEAN, and only Thailand was regarded as the “frontline state.” Then, ASEAN decided to involve itself in a conflict between two non-members because it considered the Vietnamese action a breach of regional norms and a threat to regional stability. Today, four of ASEAN members are parties to the conflict, out of which two are “frontline states”: Philippines and, ironically enough, Vietnam. The South China Sea conflict poses an even more serious threat to regional stability, and it is a legitimate concern of ASEAN as a group.

Finally, a word about the view put forward by some that ASEAN is irrelevant and should stay out of the South China conflict. The alternatives are few and bleak. US military action? It may have a deterrent value against the worst-case scenario of a full-blown Chinese invasion of the islands, but is unlikely to prevent the more likely scenario of China’s creeping expansion. Any US-China understanding is useful for crisis management, but ASEAN would have to worry whether in the long-term it would lead to US concessions to China – such as refraining from militarily and diplomatically challenging China’s position in the islands and surrounding areas.A decision by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague, which is considering a motion filed by the Philippines challenging the legality of China’s nine-dash line, may end up in Manila’s favor. This would help ASEAN, even if China rejects that verdict. But to make the most of such an opportunity, ASEAN would need to show collective support for such a verdict, and it might help if other claimants, such as Vietnam, also initiate similar legal action. China rejects a more direct role by the East Asia Summit, led by ASEAN anyway, because of US membership. The international community should render more support and encouragement to ASEAN to persist with its diplomacy in the conflict. And Indonesia needs to get back in this game.



How to win over neighbours & influence a Multiplex World

Times of India | Jan 25, 2015, 06.15 AM IST

The Cold War which marked much of the second half of the 20th century was an era of bipolarity. Its end was followed by a “unipolar moment” dominated by the United States. Now that the unipolar moment is rapidly fading, many pundits see the emer gence of a multipolar world. I would rather call it a Multiplex World.

A Multiplex World is a decentred world, where power and leadership are not monopolized by one or two powers. A Multiplex World is like a multiplex cinema, which presents a variety of shows featuring different plots (ideas), actors, producers and directors.The offerings may include Hollywood thrillers and westerns, Bollywood song and dance, Chinese kung fu, European realism, and many others.

More importantly, a Multiplex World is not a multipolar world. There are three key differences. First, unlike Europe’s multipolarity before the Second World War, so nostalgically celebrated by Henry Kissinger in his new book World Order as the foundation of the modern world, a Multiplex World is shaped not just by a handful of Great Powers and their alliances. It is also shaped by newer and regional powers, global and regional organizations, corporations, social movements and shape-shifting terrorist networks.

Second, economic interdependence in a Multiplex World is more multi-faceted and complex. It covers not just trade, but also investment, financial flows, production networks and a shared vulnerability to transnational challenges like climate change, terrorism, pandemics, etc.

Third, a Multiplex World has multiple layers of governance. Regional powers and institutions enjoy a much greater significance than in a bipolar or unipolar world.

A Multiplex World presents many opportunities as well as challenges for India. By most accounts, India is a rising power. This week, the International Monetary Fund projected that India’s economy will grow by 6.5% in 2016, faster than China’s predicted 6.3% expansion.

Both the bipolar Cold War and the unipolar moment limited India’s ability to shape world order. The waning of Western dominance opens space for emerging powers like India to play a more active role in global affairs.

But to take advantage of this opening, India needs to abandon outmoded principles such as non-alignment in favour of a more energetic, proactive and positive posture of global and regional engagement.

India is absolutely right to demand the reform of global institutions such as the UN, WTO, IMF and the World Bank to make them more democratic and accountable, and give India and other developing nations more voice.

At the same time, it must shed its reputation for being the country that gives “global governance the biggest headache” as American journalist Barbara Crossette once put it. This may be an unfair characterization, but a new book entitled Bargaining with a Rising India by Amrita and Aruna Narlikar, confirms that Delhi’s negotiating behaviour on issues such as trade and non-proliferation is marked by an exaggerated sense of its needs and priorities, a refusal to make concessions and a tendency to accept only those agreements that are highly favourable to India. To benefit from a Multiplex World, India needs to adopt a more positive sum approach, pursuing shared interests and seeking common ground, and showing a greater willingness to make concessions and compromises.

Like other emerging powers, India may be tempted to bypass its region and seek status through membership in global forums such as G-20 and BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). These global clubs are, of course, important. But their benefits are compromised if the regional ties of the emerging powers are in poor shape. Look at China. Its global image and leadership ambitions are undermined by its plethora of disputes and rivalries with its neighbours.India should not privilege its membership in global clubs at the expense of its regional ties.

 Imagine what an India-Pakistan shift from a duel to a duet -whether in the form of a combined cricket team playing against Australia or a joint effort to strengthen the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation -will do to India’s domestic stability and its global image and influence! None of this is to say that India should disregard its national interest and embrace a neo-Nehruvian idealism. But a Multiplex World gives it more choices to pursue its national interest and leadership ambitions by promoting global interdependence, pursuing proactive and shared leadership of global governance, and building a positive regional environment in South Asia and the Indo-Pacific.

Who is going to take the lead in the world?

Who is going to take the lead in the world? The start of the post-American era

By Prof. Bogdan Góralczyk, University of Warsaw, Poland 

Note: The original of this commentary appeared in Polish and is available at:

President Barack Obama has kept his word and announced the end of the intervention in Afghanistan launched in 2001. This is the symbolic end of the age of US dominance. Although there is still no clear contender to take over this role in the global order, some already call this a new post-American era. The old powers come back into play,  writes Prof. Bogdan Góralczyk on the portal Obserwator Finansowy.

President Barack Obama has kept his word and announced the end of the intervention (ISAF mission) in Afghanistan launched in December 2001. This is the symbolic end of the age of US dominance. The US dominated but has not won, although there is no clear contender to take over its role in the global order.

There is much controversy about what lies ahead in this new era, which some already call post-American (e.g. Fareed Zakaria, Kishore Mahbubani and many Chinese authors, including Liu Mingfu and Zhang Weiwei). Charles Kupchan fears that we are facing the threat of ‘No One’s World’, while Amitav Acharya, an Indian-born scholar who has lived in the West for years and who lectures in the United States, in his recent essay with the much-telling title The End of the American World Order compares the coming age to multiplex movie theatres. He believes that we are dealing with the twilight of the ‘American-led liberal hegemonic order’ and that ‘the American World Order is coming to an end whether or not America itself is declining’. The Pax Americana which has undoubtedly existed since the fall of the bipolar order is simply ending, rather irrevocably. There will no longer be a single superpower or hegemon like the United States, and previously the United Kingdom and others before it.

The truth of many screens

The age of multiplex is coming, where ‘no single director or producer would monopolize the audience’s attention or loyalty’. Since 2008, we have been observing not only emerging markets – previously called the Third World, the South or developing countries – but also the revival of the former centres of power as well as past civilizations, such as China, India and Turkey. Thus, this new world will also be multicultural, since the new – or rather re-emerging – powers have their own value systems, different from that of the West. This is the aspect highlighted by John Ikenberry, one of the US strategic gurus, in his review of Acharya’s book in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs.

Will this more diverse, multi-polar world be better? It’s hard to say. There are ongoing disputes on this subject. What is important (also for us, in Poland) is that the era of absolute US dominance is rather irreversibly gone and there are some strategic conclusions to be drawn from this for ourselves. It is high time to remember that there are also non-European markets and other directions than just the West, which we focused on after 1990 – quite rightly at that time.

The return of Asia, a shock for the West

Amitav Acharya’s logic is inexorable. He takes the latest OECD data (he was writing his book towards the end of 2013), the EU report ‘Global Trends 2030’ and the report of the US National Intelligence Council under the same title, he adds the data from the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the US Senate, and he gets the following result:

When applying the same calculation methods and measures, in 2000 the GDP of the United States was eight times higher than China’s. In 2010, it was only three times higher. At the same time, the share of emerging markets in the world GDP increased from 18 to 29 per cent, and according to the purchasing power parity (PPP) – from 34 to 45 per cent. If there is no unpredictable cataclysm, according to the European ‘Global Trends’ report in 2030 the list of the world’s largest economies will be as follows: China (23.8 per cent), the US (17.3 per cent), the EU (14.3 per cent), India (10.4 per cent), and Japan (3.5 per cent).

The American ‘Global Trends’ report lists the largest economies in the world in the same order, although with slightly different numbers. However, it also adds that in 2030 Asia, which has recently been the most dynamic area, will not only surpass the Euro-Atlantic world (i.e. the US and the EU) in terms of GDP but also will dominate in terms of population, military spending, R&D, and technological progress. According to the Asian Development Bank in Manila, which suggests that ‘the age of Asia is coming’, the share of the Asian GDP in the global GDP will increase from 39.9 per cent in 2030 to 52.3 per cent in 2050, while at the same time the share of the US (currently at 22 per cent) will drop to only 12 per cent. China will increase its share in the world GDP to 20 per cent, and India to 16 per cent.

Let us, however, leave the numbers and the methodology of the study aside. Predicting what will happen in 2030 or 2050 is just pure guesswork. In this context, we should always bear in mind the words of the Danish physicist Niels Bohr: ‘Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.’ In fact, we do not really know what the future will be, there are too many unknowns. The important thing, however, are the trends and processes that are already at work, and these – according to the Indian scholar – are quite clear in meaning and content. The age of Europocentrizm and Western dominance that has lasted since the Age of Discovery is coming to an end.

Old powers are back in the game, especially China and India, which – as indicated by the in-depth OECD and Angus Maddison’s data – even in the era of the Napoleonic Wars still generated about 40 per cent of the world GDP and only later fell into a deep crisis caused by colonization or the Opium Wars. Therefore, for them, for their elites and societies, what is going on since 2008 is nothing else than a return to the glorious days of the past, while for us in the West it is a shock. After all, according to our logic, it has always been otherwise. We lived in a highly developed and industrialized world, while they lived in poverty. We called their world ‘developing’ or ‘Third World’, while seeing ourselves as the First World.

Convergence or conflict?

It is an important and telling fact that this very important message coming from the current changes in the distribution of power on the global stage is strongly emphasized both by the Chinese authors mentioned at the beginning of this article and by those settled in the West but with Indian roots: Amitav Acharya, Kishore Mahbubani, Fareed Zakaria, or Parag Khanna. They know what they’re saying: the unipolar moment, the time of independent and hegemonic powers is over. Here comes the era of multiplex movie theatres, with their different programmes and multitude of options.

A “Multiplex” World Will Follow U.S. Hegemony

March 13, 2015

The decline of the U.S.’s global hegemony should not necessarily lead to instability, according to UNESCO Chair in Transnational Challenges and GovernanceAmitav Acharya, speaking at CEU March 11. In the lecture, hosted by the Department of International Relations and European Studies, Acharya discussed ideas recently published in his book “The End of American World Order.” The emerging alternative to U.S. hegemony is a “multiplex” world, he said, using his own term for the complex global system.

“It might be debated whether the power of the United States itself is declining or not,” said Acharya, who is currently a visiting professor at CEU, and also professor of international relations at the School of International Service, American University. “The U.S.-led liberal hegemonical order that has shaped the world’s history for the last 50 years, however, has undoubtedly come to an end. The shift of power has begun – the question is what our world will look like in the future.”

Transnational terrorism is only one of the challenges that the liberal hegemony could not react to in a competent way, he said. The view held by many Western scholars that by rearranging itself, the present hegemony may retain its power, is false, he added. In his view, the world has changed too much in the past decades for a system that was based on the realities of the 1950s.

“This world, the complex global world, has never existed before. The institutions through which the United States could exert authority – NATO, IMF and so on – were created in a different time, and while reforms were promised many times to share authority and power, they only come slowly,” Acharya added. He also contested the view that emerging powers China, India or Russia will uphold the system of liberal hegemony because they have benefited from it so far. “They don’t feel as sentimental about liberalism as those in the West, and their system of capitalism is vastly different – only take China’s state capitalism as an example,” he added.

Defining it rather as a metaphor than a theory, Acharya introduced the concept of the “multiplex world order” as an alternative to the current terms “bipolar” and “multipolar,” which he regards as inadequate. Drawing comparisons from the world of cinema, he stated that in this world it is possible for different systems to coexist, just as several different movies can be screened in a multiplex theater. In this new world order, it is no longer only great powers that count. Lesser powers, regional powers, international and transnational organizations and corporations will all have a more important role to play. According to Acharya, one of the key characteristics of the multiplex world is an unprecedented global interdependence, which manifests itself in the financial sector and in production networks, not primarily in trade. He also mentioned regionalism as a defining trend that was exempt from the universalistic U.S.-led system of hegemony.

“Regionalism entails neither fragmentation nor instability. If we look at human history, we can only find 200 years when a global hegemony existed. First came the British Empire, followed by the U.S.-led liberal hegemony. But in the remaining time we mostly see regional powers,” Acharya said.

He argued that regionalism in the multiplex world order is much more open to cooperation than the blocs formed in 19th-century Europe. He mentioned the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as one example of regional cooperation that has shown gradual development in efficiency and recognition by other powers. He went on to criticize the assumption that stability, public goods and peace would only be achievable through the system of liberal hegemony.

“There is a tendency to list only positive things as inherent attributes of liberalism and ignore the ‘dark side’. Rule-based free trade, for example, existed before liberalism in pre-colonization Southeast Asia. Some who read my book said that a multiplex order may not only be better for the world, but for the U.S. as well. I personally think that the unsuccessful handling of recent conflicts was not caused by the U.S. having too little, but rather having too much power,” Acharya concluded.

Guest Post: Without the US, Europe is fighting a losing battle-By Thomas Straubhaar

The balance of power in the world has changed dramatically – politically, economically and militarily. The EU is the biggest loser of this development, because it remains only an ally. By Thomas Straubhaar

The original article aeppeared in Die Welt, 20 March 2015,

Translated from German by by Johannes Gunesch 

Henry Kissinger, Francis Fukuyama, Amitav Acharya: In addition to the former US Secretary of State many other wise geo-strategists currently think about a new “world order” – as the title of Kissinger ‘s latest book reads.

Large stacks of books can be found in American stores with headings such as “Political Order and Political Decay” by Fukuyama, who had written after the collapse of the Soviet Union about the “end of history” – probably a bit premature as it turned out. A more skeptical, but also more realistic account of “The End of American World Order” is provided by Acharya, a well-known political scientist at the American University in Washington.

Even though the authors take different approaches, their messages are similar: The world order in the postwar period is finished. The balance of power has changed dramatically. Together with Europe, the US dominated world politics and also the global economy for a century. But now China, India and Brazil are pushing for the stage, and Russia is fighting for its place in a multipolar balance of power.

The present is completely different

In the aftermath of the Second World War, the weights of the world economy were clearly distributed. The West – led by the US and the European Union (EU) – defined certain rules that the rest of the world had to follow. Those who did not voluntarily do so were politically, militarily or economically forced. Sanctions, boycotts, blockades, and even (American) troops were deployed across the globe according to Western notions of law and order. The present however looks entirely different. The emerging economies in Asia, Latin America and Africa have caught up in recent decades in all respects to the west – militarily, politically and economically. Just look at the latest data from the International Peace Research Institute SIPRI (Link: in Stockholm. It indicates that China’s military budget and military expenditure, the world’s number two behind the US, has increased in 2015 by a further ten percent to 886 billion yuan (approximately 136 billion euros). This is in stark contrast to the EU, where numbers have fallen rather than risen.The emerging economies want more say and less Western tutelage. They want a say in the rules of the global economy. Different interests in the emerging and Western countries are becoming increasingly clear. It is therefore becoming more and more difficult to find common globally valid compromises.

The EU is the main loser

Nowhere is the lack of a common understanding more evident than in the failure of the World Trade Organization (WTO) to institute new rules for a global economy of the 21st century. This is even more pertinent because in the future trade in goods is not as much in the foreground any more as it was the case in the past.

The “Internet of Things”, the 3-D printer, global information highways, knowledge bases, and an international exchange of information and know-how determine the dynamics of the global division of labor. The WTO fails to provide a useful framework for those things as well as cross-border trade in services embodied in people.

The EU is the biggest loser in the tectonic shifts in world politics. No one has benefited more from the old world economic order than the Europeans. The new world economic order puts all that at stake.

Just as weak the European assets have become is indicated to Europe in many places, not least because of the military aggression of Russia.

Complete misinterpretation of reality

That’s why the US is an indispensable ally for the defensive EU: first, from a political point of view to create and maintain peace and freedom, and secondly from an economic perspective in the fight for open markets and international legal certainty. In all the debates about chlorine chicken or genetic engineering (Link: Europe and the United States mostly agree with each other in the critical issues. The differences are much smaller than with other cultures. When it comes to introduce the fundamental Western beliefs and values in a new world economic order, the US and the EU have no other partners across the world as close as each other.It’s not just an ignorant arrogance but a complete misconception of reality if Europe believes that it could establish a stable economic order based on Western ideas about comprehensive and equal human rights, individual fundamental rights and freedoms – especially freedom of expression and religious liberty, property and self-determination without the active support of the US. The US are indispensable especially for a successful and sustainable European trade with emerging economies in Asia, Latin America and Africa.

TTIP as a litmus test

Europe relies more strongly on good transatlantic relationship than the US. This is because the political conflicts escalate currently far away from the USA in the direct or indirect European neighborhood – in Ukraine, in North Africa, the eastern Mediterranean and in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. By itself, the militarily insufficiently prepared Europe is merely relegated to the sidelines and remains endangered to be inadvertently drawn into violent conflicts.Only in conjunction with the US, Europe has a chance to preserve common Western interests in a future that will be so completely different from the past. This is because the emerging economies or governments driven by religious movements will want to bring in and enforce their perspectives, values, and interests.In this multi-voiced choir, Europe will not stand a chance to be heard as a soloist. At best, the EU can succeed together with the United States to act as a counterweight to the populous emerging economies.Therefore, a transatlantic trade and investment partnership (TTIP) (Link: between the US and the EU is of fundamental importance. It is ultimately the litmus test of whether the geostrategic relations between Americans and Europeans are determined by commonality or differences.

Thomas Straubhaar is Professor of Economics, in particular international economic relations from the University of Hamburg. By the end of August 2014, he was Director and Chairman of the Hamburg Institute of International Economics (HWWI). Since September 2013, the Swiss-born fellow of the Transatlantic Academy in Washington, DC, has been often staying in the US. He writes for “DIE  “WELT” regular columns on current economic, political and social issues.

The Meanings of “Multiplex”, and the “Multiplex World Order”

Polity Book Cover

In my book, The End of American World Order (Polity 2014; Oxford India 2015), I developed the term “Multiplex World” to conceptualize the emerging world order that would replace the fading unipolar moment and the ‘American-led Liberal Hegemonic Order’ (to use John Ikenberry’s term). The term has struck a chord among readers (see, for example, and numerous people around the world have since asked me to offer further clarifications and elaborations of the concept. I originally had in mind the idea of a multiplex theater or cinema in which the audience can enjoy a variety of shows, actors, directors and producers, instead of a single show. This conveys the sense that the emerging world order would be more decentered and pluralistic in terms of its key ideas about and approaches to stability, peace and development, compared to the passing order of American or Western dominance.

Since then, I have done more investigations into the meaning of the term. Here are some interesting findings, all of which speak to the theme of diversity, plurality and multi-dimensionality, while retaining a strong sense of interdependence among the players.

The word multiplex originates from Latin “from multi- + plicāre to fold” (Collins English Dictionary ,2012 Digital Edition, cited in

The word was first used in mid-sixteenth century mathematics. In its original sense, it meant “having many folds; many times as great in number; of many parts”. (Online Etymology Dictionary, Cited in

As an adjective, the term multiplex conveys the sense of “having many parts or aspects” – such as “the multiplex problem of drug abuse”. It can also mean “manifold” and “multiple” as in “the multiplex opportunities in high technology”. (, based on the Random House Dictionary)

Today, the term multiplex is used in a variety of fields, including entertainment, telecommunication and mapmaking. Perhaps the most common forms of usage is to refer to a multiplex cinema or theater. This refers to “a group of two or more motion picture theatres on the same site or in the same building, especially a cluster of adjoining theaters.” (, based on the Random House Dictionary)

A multiplex theatre can also be defined as “a purpose built complex containing a number of cinemas and usually a restaurant or bar”. (Collins English Dictionary, 2012 Digital Edition, cited in

Another prominent usage of multiplex is in the telecommunications field. Here, multiplexing refers to “sending multiple signals or streams of information on a carrier at the same time in the form of a single, complex signal and then recovering the separate signals at the receiving end.” ( The key sense here is the transmission of “two or more signals or messages”, or of “several messages or signals simultaneously”. The latter is called “multiplextelegraphy”. (, based on the Random House Dictionary)

Yet another meaning associated with multiplex is multi-dimensional, specifically three-dimensional mapmaking, or mapmaking in a “stereoscopic device that makes it possible to view pairs of aerial photographs in three dimensions  (, based on the Random House Dictionary)

In the telecommunication field, the meaning of multiplex or multiplexing can be understood by contrasting it with the term “mirroring”. Mirroring “takes one data file and copies it to many devices”, whereas multiplexing writes the data files to many places simultaneously” without having a single point of origin.  The Free On-line Dictionary of Computing, cited in

The above meanings of the term multiplex make it especially apt as a metaphor for conceptualizing what comes The End of American World Order.

In a Multiplex World order, ideas and approaches to peace, development and stability do not emerge from a single source, however powerful (as would be under American led liberal hegemonic order), and then simply get “mirrored” into other places. Rather they have multiple points of origin which nonetheless intersect and interact. In other words, a Multiplex World Order accommodates “several messages or signals simultaneously”.

Such a world order has “many folds” and “many parts” that all matter to different degrees. It’s a decentralized, diversified and multidimensional world in which actors – state and non-state actors, established and new powers, global and regional groups, from both the North and the South, interact in an interdependent manner, while seeking a common ground in a plurality of ideas and approaches.

In his review of my book in Foreign Affairs (, John Ikenberry calls the “Multiplex World” “an imaginative vision of a less centralized, more pluralistic world”. Imaginative it might be, but it is also based on the firm reality of our world. The varied usages of the term can be found in the day-to-day life of the overwhelming majority of human beings. Anyone who goes to a multiplex theater, or prefers watch them on home television, through streaming via tablets, smartphones and other devices would understand and appreciate that Multiplex World is the most apt and appropriate naming of our present and future.


From the Boomerang to the Banyan: The Diffusion of Human Rights Norms Reconsidered

BoomerangBanyan tree     

(This paper is a summary of the author’s presentations to the Workshops on Religion and Human Rights Pragmatism: Promoting Rights across Cultures, Columbia University, New York, September 24, 2011, and the Columbia University Human Rights Futures Conference, 15 November 2013.)

One of the most influential approaches to explaining the spread of human rights norms in the literature on international relations emerged in the late 1990s. Authored by a group of constructivist scholars, this work revolved around two powerful concepts, the Boomerang and the Spiral, although the latter is seen as a refinement of the former.[1] These theoretical contributions have been widely studied, and inspired a generation of scholars, and I need not go into detail revisiting their contribution and the debates surrounding them. Briefly put, in the former, activists link up with transnational human rights groups and use their influence with their own national governments and international organizations to bring pressure to bear on their domestic oppressors. In the spiral model, which subsumes the boomerang, governments initially accept human rights norms for instrumental reasons, but gradually end up internalizing them due to moral pressure and accountability politics.

It is far from my intent here to reject the basic validity of these models in capturing a good deal on what goes on in the human rights world. But they suffered from several limitations.

First and foremost, both models had their origin in the Cold war and immediate post-Cold War milieu, a period of ‘end of history’, even though they have gone through modification and updating, including a 2nd revised edition of the The Power of Human Rights.[2]  The Boomerang model in its original iteration was derived from the specific context of US-Latin America relations and the Eastern European experience. As Haftner-Burton and James Ron point out, the “early and most influential qualitative studies [on the spread of human rights] may have been mistakenly generalized from the Latin American and Eastern European experience”, and thus research based on these frameworks on “Africa, Asia, or the Middle East may be barking up the wrong theoretical tree.”[3] They point out that “much of the Northern world’s contemporary human rights policy repertoire –including nongovernmental documentation and advocacy, media ‘naming and shaming’ treaty writing, and legislative efforts to link foreign aid to human rights performance-first originated in the U.S.-Latin American nexus.”[4]

These models painted a generally adversarial picture, focusing on few cases, especially case where the target is a highly repressive government. Hence they do not serve as an explanation for the general promotion of human rights norms around the world, including the developing world (such as India) where human rights approaches have been anchored on a more inclusive or positive relationship between the government and the civil society. And what about countries, such as China, which did not have a significant organized civil society due to official repression? How does the Boomerang work there?

Moreover, while in the boomerang the agency of change is found in domestic activists acting in concert with foreign governments and transnational NGOs, in reality, the agency role of local actors was hardly recognized. The latter were mostly Western, while the former were mostly from the developing world. And in an echo of what I have called moral cosmopolitanism, as Ron writes, the literature on human rights has privileged the role of transnational actors at the expense of local actors. As Ron says, it “paid far less attention to the local embodiments of human rights norms in the developing world.”[5] Domestic and local groups were treated as “pliant”, dependent and monolithic. Although in the Boomerang model local groups initiate the process of change, “their location, obscure language, and marginality…limited scholarly inquiry.” Yet, scholars increasingly acknowledge the critical role of local civil society groups: “Transnational NGOs and networks can monitor, inform, and advocate all they want, but without serious investments of time and effort by local human rights champions, nothing much will change on the ground”.[6]

Finally, some very important things in the global normative environment for human rights have changed since the end of the Cold War which calls into question the continued validity of the Boomerang model. 9/11 (and now the Snowden saga) has diminished the moral prestige and leverage of “Western Powers”, especially the US, in the developing world, for the Boomerangs to travel effectively. The rise of the rest has accelerated since the 1990s. Western leverage on human rights issues may be diminishing in view of the growing voice of emerging powers. Democratization in non-western societies (Indonesia) means local actors there have less rationale and need for support from outside. The role of social media empowers local actors and permits a more horizontal mobilization among domestic activists than ever before. Hence there is less need for information boomerangs that travel internationally. Finally, growth of regional organizations, especially in Asia, provides a new if not alternative site for debate and discussion and promotion of human rights.

To understand the diffusion of human rights in this altered global normative environment, and taking cognizance especially of the hitherto neglected role of local actors and their interactive or two-way relationship with the global human rights regime, I calls for a broader understanding of the origins of human rights with a view to look past the “universalism versus relativism” debate, and propose two relatively new concepts of norm diffusion: localization and subsidiarity.

Ending the Universalism-Particularism Divide

In his essay, “The Relative Universality of Human Rights”, Jack Donnelly argues that “Islamic, Confucian, and African societies did not in fact develop significant bodies of human rights ideas or practices prior to the twentieth century. He also concedes that the West too did not develop such a conception of human rights till industrial age.[7] The idea that human rights are peculiarly Western holds true only if one defines human rights narrowly. For Donnelly, Human rights are “equal and inalienable entitlements of all individuals that may be exercised against the state and society”.[8] Unlike Donnelley, I don’t think human rights should be defined exclusively in such oppositional terms. If the concept of human rights is understood in terms of justice and protection from cruel and arbitrary treatment of citizens by the state, then we find plenty of examples from other societies.

Examples of such injunctions against cruel and inhuman punishment might be found in Indian Emperor Ashoka’s words, as inscribed in his Kalinga rock edict dating to around 250 BC:

While being completely law-abiding, some people are imprisoned, treated harshly and even killed without cause so that many people suffer. Therefore your aim should be to act with impartiality…See that you do your duty properly… the judicial officers of the city may strive to do their duty and that the people under them might not suffer unjust imprisonment or harsh treatment. (Instructions to judicial officers, Emperor Ashoka, Kalinga Edict, Around 250 BC)

In contrast to Donnelly, Amartya Sen agrees that “The concept of universal human rights in the broad general sense of entitlements of every human being is really a relatively new idea, not to be much found either in the ancient West or in ancient civilizations elsewhere.” But Sen adds a powerful qualifier.

The idea of human rights as an entitlement of every human being, with an unqualified universal scope and highly articulated structure, is really a recent development; in this demanding form it is not an ancient idea either in the West or elsewhere. But there are limited and qualified defenses of freedom and tolerance, and general arguments against censorship that can be found both in ancient traditions in the West and in cultures of non-Western societies [9]

Who invented human rights and whether human rights are peculiarly Western depends on which version of the “foundational myths” of human rights one accepts. The so-called Western universalists fail to acknowledge that Western human rights begun as property rights. The Magna Carta, as The Economist magazine reminded us recently, was after all created to “uphold feudal rights”.[10] If property rights demanded is viewed as the real precursor of political rights, then the latter can be indeed made to look more “Western”. If on the other hand the origins of human rights is traced more as a matter of political rights, or rights against cruel and unjust treatment of persons and of political absolutism of the rulers that disregards the welfare of citizens, then there are lots of precedents in other cultures, even during the ancient periods as can be seen from the Ashokan edict.

Rejecting “relativism” is the default position of many human rights advocates, who often assume, explicitly or implicitly that human rights are universal (meaning Western in origin and conception), and others should accept it as is. Those who do not agree with this position (especially the non-Western countries) are dismissed as “relativists” and “particularizers” (not a compliment). Moreover, a key aspect of this unsavory “particularization” is seen to lie in the non-Western developing countries’ insistence on the collective rights. But this grossly misrepresents the recent the historiography of human rights, especially the initiative and support for human rights in Latin America, Asia and Africa, both in the context of decolonization and the creation of a post-war normative architecture of global governance.[11] As Reus-Smit puts it:

The standard account of the development of international human rights norms identifies three phases: the first addressing civil and political rights, the second economic and social rights, and the third collective rights. The West is credited with the first, the Soviet bloc with the second, and the developing world with the third. In reality, however, during the negotiation of the two Covenants newly independent states consistently stressed the primacy of civil and political rights, and they were the strongest advocates of robust enforcement mechanisms.[12]

Moreover, promoting human rights globally, while claiming universal human rights to be Western in its origin, is a bad strategy. It is unrealistic and even self-defeating, from a purely advocacy point of view,  to argue that human rights are Western, but then expect everyone else to adopt them unconditionally. It reinforces the perception that the West is imposing its standards on other cultures. On the other hand, acknowledging that human rights have a multiple and global heritage also allows us to look past the divisive, unhelpful and false divide between universalism and relativism, and lays the basis for a more effective strategy of human rights promotion.  Might it not be better to say that human rights have a multiple or different points of origin, which might be increasingly converging? The challenge is to find that common ground among the different points of origin of human rights.

The opposite of human rights universalism is not relativism, but human rights pluralism. And the opposite of relativism is not universalism, but ethnocentrism. A pluralistic understanding of human rights recognizes the voices of local actors, state and non-state, in the different regions and cultures and at different points of time, who may have independently developed ideas and norms which are compatible with the norms of others. Universality in this sense does not mean sameness, but the acceptance of diversity which is the only universal condition of our global society.

How the Local Matters?

A framework for understanding human rights norm diffusion that stresses the agency of local actors can be developed out of some of the recent “agent-centric” theories of norm diffusion, especially the ideas of localization and subsidiarity.

Localization is the active construction (through discourse, framing, grafting, and cultural selection) of foreign ideas by local actors, which results in the former developing significant congruence with local beliefs and practices. [13] Subsidiarity is the other side of localization. I define norm subsidiarity as a process whereby local actors create rules with a view to preserve their autonomy from dominance, neglect, violation, or abuse by more powerful central actors [14]

The prospect for localization depends on (1) the strength of indigenous cultural traits and traditions, and the moral and functional appeal of prior local norms and institutions, (2) positive impact of new norms on the legitimacy and authority of key norm-takers, without altering their fundamental identity, (3) the credibility, legitimacy and prestige of local agents, and (4) the scope for grafting and pruning presented by foreign norms.

Localization, rather than wholesale acceptance, occurs when prior norms are robust and are embedded in strong local institutions. In HR, if those institutions offer strong protection to local actors, like the community justice in Bolivia. Some local norms are foundational to a group. They may derive from deeply-ingrained cultural beliefs and practices or from international legal norms which had, at an earlier stage, been borrowed and enshrined in the constitutional documents of a group. The stronger the local norm, the greater the likelihood that new foreign norms will be localized rather than accepted wholesale. If norm-takers believe that that their existing beliefs and approaches are not harmful, but merely inadequate, (i.e., not geared to addressing newer challenges) and therefore have to be broadened and strengthened with the infusion of new ideas, then localization is more likely than displacement.

Localization is facilitated by the norm takers’ sense of identity, especially if they possess a well-developed sense of being unique in terms of their values and interactions. In his study of Indonesian politics, Benedict Anderson mentions the “whole trend to absorb and transform the Western concepts of modern politics within Indonesian-Javanese mental structures.”

Second, localization is likely if the norm-takers’ come to believe that new outside norms – which may be initially feared and resisted simply because of their alien quality – could be used to enhance the legitimacy and authority of their extant institutions and practices, but without fundamentally altering their existing social identity.

A third condition is the availability of credible local actors (“insider proponents”) with sufficient discursive influence to match or outperform outside norm entrepreneurs operating at the global level. The credibility of local agents depends on their social context and standing. Local norm entrepreneurs are likely to be more credible if they are seen by their target audience as upholders of local values and identity and not simply “agents” of outside forces or actors and whether they are part of a local epistemic community which could claim a record of success in prior normative debates. Diffusion strategies that accommodate local sensitivity are more likely to succeed than those who seek to supplant the latter. Hence, outsider proponents are more likely to advance their cause if they act through local agents, rather than going independently at it.

Finally, the existential compatibility between foreign and local norms must not be ignored as another catalyst. The prior existence of a local norm in similar issue areas as that of a new external norm and which makes similar behavioral claims makes it easier for local actors to introduce the latter. Moreover, the external norm must lend itself to some pruning, or adjustments that make it compatible with local beliefs and practices, without compromising its core attributes. Hence, the relative scope for grafting and pruning presented by a new foreign norm contributes to the norm-taker’s interest to localize and is critical to its success.

Actors resort to norm subsidiarity for two main reasons. The first is to challenge their exclusion or marginalization from global norm making processes. Institutions dominated by great powers do not always reflect the ideas, interests and identities of weaker states. In such cases, norm subsidiarity is a response by the latter to the “tyranny” of higher-level institutions (formal or informal, including multilateral organizations or great power security management regimes) in global governance. Second, states may resort to norm subsidiary when confronted with great power hypocrisy. This occurs when they see the violation of their cherished global norms by powerful actors and when higher level institutions tasked with their defense seem unwilling or incapable of preventing their violation.

In short, both localization and subsidiarity stress the agency of local actors, the importance of cognitive priors, and the need to build congruence between existing and emerging norms. Both recognize that normative change in most cases is evolutionary, not a one-step transformation, and that “shaming” should be pursued alongside “saving face”, rather than be an end in itself. Subsidiarity stresses local norm creation and their repatriation or external circulation, including from regional to global and on a region-to-region basis. Most important, both interrogate the allegedly universalistic claims of ideas and norms or at least recognize that many of the ideas and norms that are supposedly universal are essentially Western and display a Western bias. They also call for viewing human rights diffusion as a two-way dialogue between local “norm takers” and transnational advocacy groups, and for tempering, if not rejecting, the moral cosmopolitanism of constructivist approaches to norm diffusion, whereby good global norms are implicitly seen as western, and bad local practices non-Western. This approach holds that some local beliefs and practices have a robust legitimacy and functionality which should be recognized and promoted.

Enter the Banyan

How to develop a more inclusive approach to human right norm diffusion that gives due recognition to the agency role of the local actors? To this end, I propose what might be called the Banyan metaphor of human rights norm diffusion.

According to the official “KnowIndia” website run by the Indian government, a Banyan is an

“Indian fig tree, Ficus bengalensis, whose branches root themselves like new trees over a large area. The roots then give rise to more trunks and branches. Because of this characteristic and its longevity, this tree is considered immortal and is an integral part of the myths and legends of India. Even today, the banyan tree is the focal point of village life and the village council meets under the shade of this tree.[15]

The definition suggests several core characteristics of the Banyan. The fact that the branches of the Banyan “root themselves like new trees over a large area” resonates with the idea of localization. And the fact that the new “roots then give rise to more trunks and branches” evokes the idea of subsidiarity.

The main trunk of the Banyan is the modern Western concept of human rights. But the subsidiary trunks and branches that germinate from the roots of the branches are what keeps the tree stable and ensure its longevity. It is they which provide the large canopy and shade for people to rest and engage in recreation, and deliberate for village council meetings.

Banyans have long lives; they are rarely cut down by people, especially in crowded poor villages. They have a social and cultural significance (hence are an “integral part of the myths and legends of India”). Their value is judged not mainly in economic or rationalist terms. And as a focal point of the village council, they are a site of dispute settlement, consensus, and governance. They are used as a social venue, a comforting place, and as a resting place for travelers. The Banyans are known for their inclusivity, with wide, shady canopy, and used by the rich as well as the poor. The banyan is part of the coat of arms of Indonesia” “meant to symbolize its national motto: unity in diversity, or “one country with many far-flung roots.”

Moreover, the Banyan is multicultural. The Banyan is multicultural, sacred to both Hindus and Buddhists. Since the Bodhi Tree is a version of the Banyan, the Banyan is associated with Enlightenment, of the Buddhist, not the Western kind.  The oldest Banyan Tree standing still in India was planted by Kabir, a saint of Sufism, the most inclusive and tolerant sect of Islam.

The Banyan combines elements of both localization and subsidiarity. It involves bringing global norms to local context, and exporting locally made rules to the global context. In both cases, it recognizes the primacy of local actors.

There are several aspects of promoting human rights the Banyan, as opposed to the Boomerang, way. These include:

  1. Stressing the multiple and global heritage of human rights ideas and norms. The standard narrative that human rights, especially protection against unjust and cruel punishment, are Western in origin is not only false, but also tactically counterproductive in so far as the promotion of human rights is concerned. A Banyan has a large canopy and multiple roots, which collectively define and sustain the tree.
  2. Adopting a more inclusive, rather than adversarial approach, although both elements may be present depending on the context and need. In village life, a Banyan shelters a variety of creatures and activities and is generally seen as a place for accommodation even though it also offers a site for arguments, negotiations, compromise and sanctions.
  3. Emphasizing the role of local (domestic, regional) actors, their ownership and norm entrepreneurship. A Banyan shelters outside travelers, but they are guests. They bring in new ideas and new incentives, but it is the locals who decide whether to buy their product and how much of it. A Banyan also connotes two-way interactions among its roots (top-down or global to local support and bottom-up or local to global feedback). Consistent with the metaphor of a village council meeting under the Banyan tree, local actors and institutions can provide a venue for debate, consensus, dialogue, and dispute settlement. The key is two-way dialogue between outside and inside proponents of human rights.
  4. Making use of cognitive priors, including cultural ones, in framing and operationalizing human rights ideas and approaches. This speaks to the cultural and religious significance of the Banyan. A Banyan approach would stress symbolic politics rather than sanctions, “saving face” rather than shaming. The cultural and religious attributes of other cultures, including those of pre-modern West are cognitive priors. A Banyan approach uses them to localize and diffuse the norm.

In a Banyan approach, human rights diffusion is not a dramatic, one-step process, but evolutionary. Even if norms are accepted through treaties, negotiation over their meaning and implementation and improvement may continue. Local actors are not necessarily aided or abetted by Western or transnational rights groups, who threaten a boomerang of international pressure or sanctions, but promote human rights by engaging in identity politics, or discourses about regional and local identities. For their part, governments, including newly democratic governments, may seek domestic and regional legitimacy, and distance themselves from their autocratic predecessors. In advancing their cause, both governments and local and regional NGOs rely on insider advocates within governments as much as outsiders. They also focus on local issues, invoke local symbols, and use preexisting forms of mobilisation. Local NGOs may partner transnational NGOs, but keep the driver’s seat.  The dialogue between civil society groups and governments continue under the Banyan Tree (the village council) to expand on the early gains. NGOs incrementally apply pressure and insert themselves into a regional human rights agenda.

There is now growing evidence that the global human rights movement is going local. Recent studies on human rights increasingly show the changing relationship between the global and the local advocacy of human rights. It not only shows “how local struggles and realities transform classic human rights concepts”.[16]  There has also been “a growing emphasis on realization of rights on the ground” and a consequent “re-calibrating of the balance between global and local actors,” with movements in the Global South “actively seeking different sources of authority, knowledge, framing and agenda-setting power” to challenge “northern dominance and developing their own capacity to shape global debates.”[17] These shifts are consistent with the shift from a boomerang to a Banyan approach, and may ultimately define true universalism in the idea and practice of human rights.


[1] On the Boomerang model, see Margaret E. Keck and Kathryn Sikkink, Activists Beyond Borders: Advocacy Networks in International Politics (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998). On the spiral model and difference between it and the boomerang model, see Thomas Risse, Steven C. Ropp and Kathryn Sikkink, The Power of Human Rights: International Norms and Domestic Change (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999). Here I shall only refer to the Boomerang, since the spiral model is seen as a refinement and extension of the former.

[2] Thomas Risse, ‎‎Stephen C. Ropp, and Kathryn Sikkink, eds., The Persistent Power of Human Rights: From Commitment to Compliance (Cambridge University Press, 2013).

[3] Emile M. Hafner-Burton and James Ron, “Seeing Double: Human Rights Impact Through Qualitative and Quantitative Eyes,” World Politics, vol.61, no.2 April 2009, 378-379).

[4] Ibid., 367.

[5] James Ron, “Legitimate or Alien? Human Rights Organizations in the Developing World,” Paper circulated at the Workshops on Religion and Human Rights Pragmatism: Promoting Rights across Cultures, Columbia University New York, 24 September 2011.

[6] Ron, “Legitimate or Alien”.

[7] Jack Donnelly, “The Relative Universality of Human Rights,” Human Rights Quarterly, Vol. 29, No 2, (May 2007): 286.

[8] Donnelly, The Relative Universality of Human Rights,” 284.

[9] Amartya Sen, “Universal Truths: Human Rights and the Westernizing Illusion,” Harvard International Review, Vol. 20, no.3 (Summer, 1998), pp. 40-43.

[10] “The Uses of History,” The Economist, 20 December 2014, p.35.

[11] Christian Reus-Smit, Individual Rights and the Making of the International System (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2013); Kathryn Sikkink, “Latin American Countries as Norm Protagonists of the Idea of International Human Rights,” Global Governance, Vol. 20, No. 3 (2014):389-404.

[12] Reus-Smit, “Building the Liberal International Order: Locating American Agency,” Paper prepared for the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, Washington,DC, 28-31 August 2014, pp.12-13.

[13] On localization, see: Amitav Acharya, “How Ideas Spread: Whose Norms Matter? Norm Localization and Institutional Change in Asian Regionalism”, International Organization, vol. 58, no.2 (Spring 2004), pp. 239-275; Acharya, Whose Ideas Matter? Agency and Power in Asian Regionalism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009);

[14] Amitav Acharya, “Norm Subsidiarity and Regional Orders: Sovereignty, Regionalism and Rule Making in the Third World,” International Studies Quarterly, vol. 55 (2011), pp. 95–123.

[15] “National Tree,”

[16] Steve J. Stern and Scott Straus, eds., The Human Rights Paradox: Universality and Its Discontents (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2014): from the back cover.

[17] See for example, “Convergence Towards the Global Middle: An Emerging Architecture for the International Human Rights Movement,” Sudan Vision: An Independent Daily, Issue #: 3447, 20th January, 2015.

Debating Indonesia Matters

Indonesia Matters CoverAmitav Acharya Responds to Discussion on Indonesia Matters

By Amitav Acharya

During the launch of my book Indonesia Matters: Asia’s Emerging Democratic Power (Singapore and New York: World Scientific 2014;,on10th December 2014 in Washington, D.C, several important questions were raised by the panelists that could not be addressed before time ran out. As the author, I am grateful for this opportunity to provide brief responses to three key questions. I do so for the sake of encouraging more discussion and debate in Washington and elsewhere about one of the most important countries in Asia and the world.

The central question addressed by Indonesia Matters is this: how did Indonesia overcome the turmoil following the downfall of Suharto and won international recognition as an emerging power? The book argues that Indonesia did this not through military or economic strength, but through diplomacy and normative power, especially a commitment to regionalism.  This approach has lessons not only for Asia but also other aspiring powers in the world.

Question 1: Is there an alternative way of explaining Indonesia’s rise as an emerging power?

Of course there is. At the forum, panelist Prof Donald K. Emmerson claimed to offer what he called a “counter-narrative” to Indonesia Matters, which he described as a “realist” view on Indonesia as an emerging power. A realist would hold that a country can only “rise” or increase its influence in international relations through military power and wealth. Realism cannot explain the fact that Indonesia has become an influential voice in Asia and the world despite lacking in military capacity and wealth comparable to its neighbours. My book holds that Indonesia has advanced its influence by consolidating it democratization, and by developing a virtuous cycle between democracy, development and stability, through its role in ASEAN, and its normative approach to regional and international order.

No panelist offered any real argument to refute the book’s central argument that Indonesia became recognized as an emerging power not because of its military strength or economic power which are limited as yet, but because of its diplomacy and normative approach.

Since the ‘realist’ view is the traditional and established perspective in international relations and the perspective adopted in my book is relatively new, I would think that my account of why Indonesia matters is the real counter-narrative. It broadens the understanding of Indonesia by offering an alternative to the established and familiar perspective on Indonesia.

Question 2: Can Indonesia’s achievements and its role as an emerging power unravel?

At the forum, Professor Emmerson discussed at some length the limitations and vulnerabilities of Indonesia, including the rise of counter-democratic forces, and the economic slowdown. Lest anyone thinks I have ignored these, Chapter 6 of Indonesia Matters discusses several key challenges to Indonesia’s regional and international role. These include: (1) poor quality and uncertain durability of Indonesian democracy, (2) risks of middle income trap for a resource dependent economy, (3) the continuing problems of internal stability, (4) the danger posed by intensified US-China competition which calls into question the previous government’s “dynamic equilibrium” and “million friends, zero enemies” slogans, and (5) inadequate foreign policy capacity and the uncertain impact of leadership transition on foreign policy. (For a summary, see: Amitav Acharya, “From Yudhoyono to Jokowi: Can Indonesia Keep Rising?”

But the major difference here is that my discussion of Indonesia’s vulnerabilities and challenges draws almost entirely from Indonesians themselves from different walks of life. During my research, I came to realize that the best critics (far better than me or Western pundits) of Indonesia’s government, political system and foreign policy are the Indonesians themselves.

Moreover, I believe the five challenges facing Indonesia discussed in my book not only affected President SBY’s foreign policy, but will also set limits to how far President Jokowi can go in altering course in foreign policy.

Question 3: Indonesia’s foreign policy under Jokowi

 Indonesia Matters was completed before President Jokowi assumed office. Its main goal was to offer an analysis of how Indonesia recovered from the crisis following the ouster of Suharto to achieve international recognition as an emerging power. It is not a book about SBY’s foreign policy, but about Indonesian foreign policy.

It is hardly surprising that the new Jokowi administration might craft and conduct its own foreign policy different from its predecessor. In any democratic nation, it is to be expected, as with Modi’s India or Abe’s Japan. Moreover Jokowi takes over at a time when Indonesia’s military and economic conditions have improved substantially relative to 10 years again when SBY took over. So Jokowi has more cards to play with. But there are limits and major shifts would carry costs.

It is too early to say to what extent the new administration, now only a few weeks old, might alter the course of Indonesian foreign policy.  But Indonesia Matters does provide some clues to understanding the challenges and constraints President Jokowi faces. Rizal Sukma, a key adviser to President Jokowi and a panelist at the 10 December event, hinted that President Jokowi will give more emphasis to bilateralism. This may well be true, but one should not forget that his predecessors starting with President Megawati had concluded at least 18 bilateral “comprehensive” and “strategic” partnerships including with the US, Japan, China, Australia, India, and Vietnam.

Some analysts say that that Jokowi’s foreign policy will be more about ‘national interest and less about multilateralism’. To me, such a distinction is simplistic. The two are not mutually incompatible. Being engaged in ASEAN and the G-20 surely serves Indonesia’s national interest. During the last presidential campaign, Jokowi himself pledged to pursue diplomacy and negotiations to resolve regional and international problems, partly in an effort to distance himself from rival candidate Probowo’s “power-based approach, stressing the build-up of military strength” (Indonesia Matters, p.131). Since assuming office, President Jokowi has made a successful round of multilateral summitry including the East Asian Summit, the APEC Leaders’ Summit and the G-20 summit. Indeed, Sukma characterized Indonesia’s role as that of a “middle power”. That very concept connotes the pursuit of diplomacy and multilateralism.

Some see the recent move by the Indonesian forces in seizing and destroying foreign vessels in Indonesian waters as evidence of a radical shift in Indonesian foreign policy. Surely no one can object to a country defending its territorial space from illegal encroachment. And Indonesia claims to do this enforcement within the framework of law. Will this translate into a radical change of course in its foreign policy? Only time will tell.

But my book offers some idea of the costs and consequences of such a policy shift should the Jokowi administration pursue military assertiveness at the expense of diplomacy and ASEAN. By most accounts, as discussed in my book, Indonesia will take another decade or more years to develop the requisite military capability to stand up to its powerful neighbours. Pursuing a militant maritime military role at a time of major military weakness, Jakarta could be heading to a dangerous position if it also downgrades and loses ASEAN’s support.

The message of the book

I conclude the book by arguing that the challenges facing Indonesia notwithstanding, they do not warrant belittling the country’s recent achievements in domestic politics and foreign policy in the name of a “realist” perspective. The bottom-line of my book is this: “Indonesia’s ability to avoid collapse and rebuild itself is one of the most impressive stories of the late 20th and early 21st century. Its journey since the fall of Suharto is all the more inspiring at a time when the world has seen many failing nations, recurring economic crises, and growing radicalism and terrorism.” (Indonesia Matters, p.130).

I stand by these words.

 Indonesia Matters was described by Jakarta Post editor, Meidyatama Suryodiningrat, as “required reading material for Indonesian foreign policy students, diplomats going into foreign service and those going to be posted in Indonesia” (

But Indonesia Matters is not meant for Indonesians alone. The book also calls on American and Western scholars and policymakers to take Indonesia seriously.

We are in the midst of a global shift in power, wealth and influence. Until now, it has been easy for Western scholars and policymakers to dismiss the progress of non-Western countries like Indonesia, some of which are emerging by following pathways that are quite different from those followed by the Western or Asian powers and thus defy conventional wisdom and traditionalist views on international affairs. Hence the perspective adopted in Indonesia Matters may better reflect the complexities of the 21st century.

(Panelists at the the launch of Indonesia Matters included the author, Rizal Sukma, Donald K. Emmerson, Murray Hiebert and Joseph Liow)

Related Articles:

Carl Thayer, ‘Indonesia: Playing With Fire in the South China Sea’.

Joe Cochrane, ‘Many Hope Joko Widodo, Indonesia’s New Leader, Will Raise Country’s Regional Stature’.

From Yudhoyono to Jokowi: Can Indonesia keep rising?

Amitav Acharya

On 20 October 2014, a new President took office in Indonesia. Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, is the second directly elected president after Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (popularly known as SBY), who had won two direct presidential elections (2004 and 2009). Jokowi’s win after an unexpectedly close contest (although he eventually won by a margin of 6.3 percentage points or over 8 million votes) with Suharto-era General Probowo Subianto – who had declared democracy to be incompatible with Indonesian culture – has removed palpable fears that the country’s hard earned democracy might backslide. The fact that Jokowi, a person of no wealth or privilege and a rank outsider to the political establishment (he was a former furniture businessman from Solo who became the mayor of that city and then the governor of Jakarta in2012), could become the president of Indonesia is a triumph for Indonesian democracy. But Jokowi’s victory also comes at a time of growing challenges to Indonesia’s foreign policy and international role at a time the country had received widespread recognition as an emerging power.

A Nation on the Move

Indonesia is the fourth most populous in the world after China, India and the United States. It is also world’s largest Muslim majority country and the third largest democracy. Its economy is 16th largest in the global scale (it came 10th according to a new rankingby the International Comparison Program) and the McKinsey Consulting firm predicts that it will become the 7th largest by 2030. Since the fall of the dictatorship of Suharto in 1998, Indonesia has held three direct presidential elections that are free and fair. During the 2000-2010 period, its economic growth surpassed all the emerging economies except that of China and India and was ahead of the other BRICS nations (Russia, Brazil, and South Arica).

Under SBY, Indonesia had not only consolidated its democracy, but also enjoyed an average annual growth rate of 5.9 per cent from 2009 to 2013, tripled the average per capita income of its people from US $ 1,161 to US $ 3,475, and reduced its poverty rate from 16 percent to 11.25 per cent. In foreign policy, it revived and strengthened its leadership role in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and earned global recognition as an emerging power through its engagement with the G-20 club. What lies ahead for the country under President Jokowi?

Indonesia’s foreign policy and international role since the fall of Suharto, but especially during the past ten years of SBY administration has several aspects that deserves notice from anyone interested in the role of emerging powers in world politics. First, while the rise of other emerging powers including the BRICS, have had to do, first and foremost, with economic growth and military spending, Indonesia is neither the wealthiest nor the most militarily powerful country of Southeast Asia, not to mention th Asia-Pacific region. Despite recent increases in its military budget (which has tripled from US $ 2.12 billion in 2003 to US $ 7.74 billion in 2012)and weapon acquisitions including surface ships, submarines and advanced combat aircraft (including F-16s from the US), it will take decades before Indonesia develops a true “brown water navy” and that can be counted alongside the navy of its neighbor Singapore. And it is not likely ever to match the bigger powers of Asia Pacific such as India, Australia, Japan and China. Instead, Indonesia’s status as an emerging power came on the back of democratization and robust regional engagement. It has depended on the country’s ability to develop a positive, virtuous correlation among three factors: democracy, development and stability, while pursuing a foreign policy of restraint towards neighbours and active engagement with the world at large.

Second and closely related to the above, Indonesia challenges the view among academics and analysts that newly democratic states are likely to suffer from greater internal strife, turn rabidly nationalistic and seek war with their neighbours. Democratization has been a key factor behind Indonesia’s ability to resolve the long-standing conflicts in East Timor and Aceh. And subsequent measures of decentralization have helped to foster greater national stability. And Indonesia under democratic transition has not only revived but strengthened its role as a leader of ASEAN and a key actor in building a new Asia Pacific security architecture.

Third, Indonesia also challenges the view that democracy is somehow inimical to development. With a growth rate above those of the other BRICS save China and India and projected to be among the top ten economies in the world, Indonesia demolishes that view which was popularized by the economic successes of South Korea, Taiwan, and China under authoritarian rule.

An Emerging Democratic Power

Fourth, Indonesia offers a powerful example that the key to becoming a globally recognized and respected power lies in good regional relations. Its Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa would describes Indonesia as a “regional power with global interests and concerns”. (Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, interview with the author, Jakarta, 20 January 2014) We can modify this description slightly to say that Indonesia pursues a “regionalist path to its global role”. According to Natalegawa, many rising powers suffer from a “regional trust deficit” with their neighbours. Indonesia is different. There is much truth to it. Relations between powers such as India, China, Japan, South Africa and Brazil with their neighbours are marked by considerable mistrust and conflict. Indonesia on the other hand is universally acknowledged as a regional “elder”, and enjoys far more cordial relations with all its neighbours. This underpins Indonesia’s ability to play the role of mediator and facilitator in regional diplomacy and conflict management, such as in providing a good offices role in the Thai-Cambodian border skirmish over the Preah Vihear temple area in 2011, and in mitigating ASEAN’s embarrassment in 2012 after the group’s pro-China Chair Cambodia blocked a joint communique of its foreign ministers that would have disapproved Chinese conduct in the South China Sea.

Fifth, globally Indonesia has been an active member of the G-20 group. Indonesia views the G20 as a major platform for its global role. The G-20 is a medium through which Indonesia can share its experiences and “success stories” in development. In G-20, Indonesia aims to represent not just ASEAN but the whole developing world, with particular emphasis on their needs. Indonesia successfully pushed hard for ASEAN to be invited to be an observer to the G20. Indonesia has also promoted development issues within the G20, with a strong priority on infrastructure development, and the reform of international financial institutions. Indonesia also seeks to inject a greater sense of equality in the grouping, mindful of the criticism of the G-20 that it serves as something of a selective financial cartel of nations which, despite comprising countries of both the North and the South, is still dominated inside by the North. Hence Indonesia’s goal would be to keep the G20 to be “a democratic forum in which all of its members have the opportunity of speaking on equal footing with any country” and to prevent it from being manipulated by “any dominating pressure or stringent attitude/ position from the G-20 member states.”

Finally, democratic Indonesia has been an active champion of human rights and democracy in ASEAN and beyond. It has developed closer ties with other democracies, especially US, Japan, Australia and India, but unlike other emerging powers, including democratic India and Brazil. Relations with Australia, often hostile during the Suharto era, improved significantly. Ties with the US have been normalized, with the lifting of sanctions imposed after the East Timor violence in 1999 blamed on Indonesian security forces. And the two countries have signed a strategic partnership agreement.

Indonesia under democratic rule took the lead in recognizing the importance of human rights and democracy in the ASEAN Charter, in the creation of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, and in criticizing Burma’s junta for its lack of progress in political liberalization and latter supporting Burma’s transition to a more open and democratic political system. In December 2008, Indonesia launched the Bali Democracy Forum (BDF). Membership in the Forum is not restricted to democratic countries alone. Hence, the BDF has seen the participation of Burma, Brunei, and even China. Indonesia has made it clear that it will not impose its own model of democracy on others, but through the BDF, share the lessons of its democratization process and help with democratic institution building in others.

Challenges Ahead

As the Jokowi administration takes over, there are many challenges that can potentially derail the country’s recent achievements, including its democratic vitality, economic performance, domestic stability and international role. First, Indonesia’s external environment is becoming more complex and challenging. The early post-Cold War sense of optimism about regional order has dissipated and China’s recent assertiveness in the region has sparked anxieties in Asian capitals, including Jakarta. As noted, Indonesia now accepts that China’s nine-dash line in the South China Sea overlaps with Indonesia’s Natuna island chain, thereby setting the stage for a more confrontational relationship with China. While Indonesia continues to stress its role as a moderator and facilitator in the South China Sea conflict, a further deterioration of the Natuna situation will affect this role negatively.

These developments pose a powerful challenge to two key elements of Indonesia’s foreign policy under SBY, termed “a million friends and no enemies”, and “dynamic equilibrium”, respectively. The latter approach, which has been promoted especially by Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, not only rejects the hegemony of any single power in the region, be it the United States or China, it also departs from the conventional balance of power approach. The goal is not to create order through military build-up, alliances and arms races, but by keeping ASEAN in the middle, like the “conductor in an orchestra”. (Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, interview with the author, Jakarta, 5 July 2011)

One major example of this approach was Indonesia’s role in pushing hard to have India as well as Australia and New Zealand to join the East Asian Summit (EAS) when it was founded in 2005. Another example is Jakarta’s effort to conclude a Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) for the Indo-Pacific region. ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation was originally signed among ASEAN members in 1976 but extended after the end of the Cold War to outside powers such as China, Japan, India, Russia and US. Whereas TAC as its stands now builds great power relations through an “ASEAN plus” formula, (e.g. ASEAN-China, ASEAN- India, ASEAN-US, etc.) the Indo-Pacific TAC would be truly multilateral by “connecting the outer dots”, where big powers like China, Japan and US engage each other in addition to engaging AESAN. The push for this began with Indonesia’s promotion of the 12 principles adopted at the EAS in 2011 in Bali.

Another challenge to Indonesian’s position as a regional mediator comes from the US policy of rebalancing or ‘pivot’ in the Indo-Pacific. The Obama administration has been careful in not forcing its agenda on ASEAN and ASEAN-led regional forums where Indonesia plays a major role. Washington continues to adhere to the principle of “ASEAN centrality” in building an Asia-Pacific security architecture. But if relations between US and China deteriorate further, it will test Indonesia’s ability to influence that architecture. It will call into question the “million friends and zero enemies” policy, which its domestic critics, including some of Jokowi’s advisers regard as “only dreaming” (Sidarto Danusubroto, Speaker of the Indonesian MPR and Advisor to President-elect Jokowi, interview with the author, Jakarta, 18 March 2014)

Fourth, Indonesia’s role as an emerging power is affected by domestic politics and economics. As noted, Indonesia’s international reputation has rested on its ability to make progress on three fronts: democracy, development and stability. But none of the three can be taken for granted. During the last election, Prabowo’s surge showed that a message of nationalism and ‘strong’ government could appeal to a large segment of Indonesian people, even if it meant a downgrading of democracy. Indonesia’s growth has slowed to 5.3% in the first quarter of 2014. Some 28.3 million of Indonesian still live below the poverty line. Its economy needs more infrastructure, education and training and transition from resource dependence to manufacturing to avoid the middle income trap. Corruption remains a major problem, although there has recently been growing vigilance and prosecution of corrupt officials. There remain pockets of internal strife, in places such as West Papua, and the potential for outbreak of terrorism, especially with the number of Indonesian militants training and fighting with the ISIS in Syria and Iraq, remains high.

A fifth challenge is Indonesia’s style of international engagement. Its usual low key diplomacy, its refusal to speak loud and clear, and its tendency to take a balanced position on some especially contentious ones like humanitarian intervention, sometimes exasperates the international community, especially the Western nations. As one senior western diplomat who did not want to be identified told me, “To play a global leadership role, you sometimes need to take sides”.

Finally, there is the issue of presidential leadership. There are concerns within and outside Indonesia about how President Jokowi will handle foreign policy. Would Jokowi be as interested and involved in foreign policy, in pushing Indonesia’s profile around the world, as SBY did with his very active engagement in foreign policy? If not, then much depends on the team the President brings, including the Foreign Minister and the Ministry to run the conduct of foreign policy.

But Jokowi has already shown that he has a clear interest and priority in foreign policy issues. He has made it known that he intends to focus on maritime issues, by both advancing Indonesia’s naval modernization (already started under SBY) and playing the role of mediator in the South China Sea conflict. But much depends on Jakarta’s ability to secure a code of conduct on the South China Sea, which is by no means assured. Jokowi is likely to continue with Indonesia’s strong engagement with ASEAN, but some of his foreign policy advisors want Indonesia to look beyond ASEAN (a “post-ASEAN” foreign policy) and develop a more active strategic ad diplomatic role in the Indo-Pacific region. If this happens, it is likely to weaken ASEAN and the principle of ASEAN centrality in regional security.

Indonesia’s ability to avoid collapse and consolidate its democracy and economy after the fall of Suharto is all the more impressive at a time when the world has seen many failing nations, recurring economic crises, and growing radicalism and terrorism. But whereas there was too little expectation about Indonesia in 1998-99, there is now perhaps too much. Indonesia might or might not be able to live up to all such high expectations. But it seems reasonable to believe that as long as its democracy continues to flourish alongside development and stability. Indonesia’s new leadership has a strong foundation on which to build its foreign policy and international role that will continue to receive strong international recognition and support.

This article first appeared in New Mandala 27 Oct 2014

Questions about ASEAN and the East Asian Summit

Amitav Acharya, Washington,DC


As the 9th East Asian Summit concludes, it is time to wonder where the forum and its principal sponsor, ASEAN are heading. I think the role of the two should be judged in terms of the following issues.

To begin with, there remain questions about ASEAN’s role. To some observers in Washington, Myanmar has done well, or may even have exceeded expectations as chair of ASEAN. But were these expectations too low to start with? Myanmar’s approach has been to accommodate all positions with ASEAN. It has used media creatively to promote knowledge of ASEAN and its reforms.

In the meantime, ASEAN centrality in EAS endures because only ASEAN has the “convening power” in Asia.  ASEAN can be counted for not taking sides. There is really no other country which can replace ASEAN’s role in this sense. But sceptics feel that the principle of ASEAN centrality exists only in theory, not in practice. Territorial disputes like the South China Sea conflict can weaken ASEAN, especially if China pursues a divide and rule strategy. A major progress in concluding a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea is unlikely this year, with Myanmar playing a balancing role between US, China and ASEAN.

The EAS key to emerging regional architecture. But there remain differences among its members. The US would like to use EAS to discuss strategic matters and keep economics out. Japan is not happy with this. There is also the question of a division of labor between the EAS and the ASEAN Regional Forum, which is also geared to strategic issues.

The US wants the EAS to discuss real issues, like the South China Sea conflict. It also encourages more discussion of global issues in ASEAN and EAS, like ISIS, Ebola, and climate change. ASEAN and EAS might pay more emphasis on food security, climate change, health and pandemics. But will it crowd ASEAN/EAS agenda??

The EAS should stay ‘nimble’ as ASEAN had originally wanted, i.e., a leaders’ meeting without a huge bureaucracy. But there is a need for it to develop more coordination among the members between the annual summits and to equip it with a mechanism to convene meetings of ministers or officials when there is a need, such as a crisis.

Another issue here is the role of the US rebalancing strategy. US officials insist that the rebalancing is going well. The US has increased its engagement with ASEAN, ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus( ADMM Plus), and the ARF. The ADMM plus has been active, holding three exercises last year: including ones on humanitarian assistance/military medicine, counter-terrorism, an maritime security.

But skepticism over the US rebalancing strategy persists. Moreover, while multilaterals like the EAS and ADMM Plus help to institutionalize the US presence in Asia, they are not ends in themselves, but linked to America’s bilateral and trilateral security ties. There is little doubt that the US policy towards Asia will not be focused on institutions  alone, but will depend on calibrating the role of institutions and its bilateral relationships. The nature of that mix is not yet clear. At the same time, China’s push for a Free Trade Area of Asia and Pacific competes with America’s preferred Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) the conclusion of which has yet again been delayed. And the US has been lobbying allies like Korea and Australia to stay out of the Chinese initiative for an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Is the US-China rivalry playing out through institutional competition?