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Is regionalism declining in world politics?

To counter moves towards more nationalist politics, regional integration must involve greater social integration

Ahmad Rizky M. Umar, Executive Secretary of ASEAN Studies Centre, Gadjah Mada University, Indonesia

Ahmad-Risky-UmarIn 1996, Tony Payne and Andrew Gamble theorised the reorganisation of world order under what they called ‘new regionalism’. They argued that the period since the end of the Cold War had witnessed the rise of political projects in various regions, which were built by states to reorganise political spaces through cooperation or, furthermore, integration.  The integration projects in the 1990s surrounding the European Union exemplified their arguments, along with other regional organisations such as MERCOSUR in South America or ASEAN in south-east Asia.

Two decades later, however, the regional project has arguably started to go into reverse. The process began in Europe, the heart of the ‘regionalism project’, with the vote in Britain in 2016 to leave the EU.  The process (as well as other political events in 2016) led to what Helen Thompson has referred to as ‘the return of nation-state’.

This argument for the decline of regionalism is further exemplified by the rise of China and its ‘One Belt One Road Strategy’, the ‘national turn’ policies of the Trump Administration, and the revival by right-wing political parties in France, Netherlands, Poland, India, of more statist political development projects.

Whilst it might be too early to conclude from these developments that regionalism is becoming obsolete (with some signals of a more pro-EU turn in France, for example), it is important to reconsider the future of ‘regionalism’ in world politics.

Consider, for example, the UK and the European Union. Brexit has showed the limits of globalist arguments in regionalism theories: ‘regionalism’ is not simply a product of states’ rational choice to cooperate with other countries. It is, in fact, a political project that is heavily dependent upon ideological contestation and political processes at both the domestic and global level.

Current developments in ASEAN also provide a useful further example. The recent ASEAN Summit, which was held in Manila under the Philippine’s chairmanship last month, was marked by heated tensions in the region, for example with on-going debate over disputed territorial rights in the South China Sea.  But this year’s Summit was also particularly significant because of the growing crisis on the Korean Peninsula, and the appearance of extra-ASEAN states in the regional politics of south-east Asia, such as China and the United States with their visibly growing interest.

The ASEAN experience shows that it is important to consider regionalism not only as a ‘state-led’ initiative for co-operation in a fixed geographical region. Regionalism is shaped by the decisions of states which are formulated through the democratic process at the domestic level and involves various actors with different political ideologies.  But on the other hand, regionalism also involves and, to some extent, interacts with broader actors in world politics, which brings external dynamics into the region.

External ‘non-European’ factors were seen during the process of the EU referendum in the United Kingdom. There are several links that connected ‘Brexit’ with recent geopolitical changes at the global level, such as the questions of refugees in the EU which directly connected debates in the UK about Brexit and the EU with political turbulence in the Middle East.

This also provides a reason for further rethinking the place of regionalism in a changing world order and cause us to question whether the ‘turn’ towards the nation state should necessarily be seen as on its way. Some signals in European and Asian politics show that regionalism could be saved with a new form of engagement.

In recent elections in Austria and Netherlands, for example, the rise of Eurosceptic political parties appears to have been halted. In France, the overtly pro-EU Emmanuel Macron has won the Presidency.  In south-east Asia, despite vulnerabilities in security and political issues, ten ASEAN member states are now on their way to reach agreements over Regional Cooperation and Economic Partnership (RCEP), the largest trade partnership in the region.

These signs suggest that even though there are some signals for a turn towards the nation state in world politics, regionalism is not in full decline. However, it is also evident that regionalism is very much dependent upon how competing political forces at both the national and global level.  Regionalism, therefore, is a political project that needs to be contested in every level.

It brings me to further consider whether the regionalism project could be transformed in a more progressive way. Regionalist projects, such as the EU, are often seen by those on the left as being the manifestation of ‘neoliberal project in global politics’. Similar arguments are also made by social movement activists in south-east Asia regarding the emerging ASEAN Economic Community.

However, disengaging with regionalism in opposition to neoliberal politics is no guarantee that neoliberal policies will shift towards more progressive politics and social justice. Brexit has evidently helped boost support for right-wing political parties across Europe and contributed to growing racism and xenophobia.  The ‘national turn’ in ASEAN has enabled some populist leaders to campaign for death penalty and given rise to intolerance and crackdown of civil protests in some countries.

In this context proposals to steer ‘regionalism’ towards a more progressive agenda must ensure there is ‘social integration’ besides political and economic integration at the regional level. It means that whatever forms of regional integration take place, they need to be socially integrated with the existing social and cultural practices in society.

‘Socialising’ regionalism will enable the engagement of wider civil society organisations and social movement activists in the regional decision-making process, as well as inform wider society members about where regionalism is leading to. Therefore, regionalism should be embedded not only within ‘democratic’ processes in national level, but also ‘deliberative’ and contentious politics in the societal level.

In addition, responding to dynamics in world politics is also necessary for those who wish to transform regionalism. The growing US-Sino rivalry in global political economy should be critically addressed.  As Kanishka Jayasuriya and Priya Chacko have warned, the current geopolitical contestation has showed how ‘capitalising foreign policy’ leads to widening inequality and a development gap at the global scale.

For those who wish to resurrect regionalism in world politics, challenging the global uneven development would be a crucial agenda in the future.

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