Asean is a ‘cow, not a horse’

IT’S not often you hear someone call Asean a cow – much less from the lips of one of the region’s most respected diplomats. Yesterday, in an opening speech for the Youth Model Asean Conference (YMAC), that’s exactly what Mr Bilahari Kausikan, an Ambassador-at-Large and policy advisor for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, did. The speech, titled ‘A Cow is not a Horse’, was delivered to about 200 student delegates at Singapore Polytechnic from the five polytechnics in Singapore, as well as student participants from all Asean member states. The four-day YMAC began yesterday and will end on Thursday.

POV  by The Middle Ground – Oct 6, 2015

by Bilahari Kausikan

IT’S not often you hear someone call Asean a cow – much less from the lips of one of the region’s most respected diplomats. Yesterday, in an opening speech for the Youth Model Asean Conference (YMAC), that’s exactly what Mr Bilahari Kausikan, an Ambassador-at-Large and policy advisor for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, did. The speech, titled ‘A Cow is not a Horse’, was delivered to about 200 student delegates at Singapore Polytechnic from the five polytechnics in Singapore, as well as student participants from all Asean member states. The four-day YMAC began yesterday and will end on Thursday.

Here’s the speech in full:

ASEAN is 48 years old and now plays a key role in East Asian diplomacy. Yet it remains an ill-understood organisation, even among the peoples of the countries that are its members. Too often criticisms of ASEAN by people who ought to know better amount to accusing a cow of being an imperfect horse; too often suggestions on how to improve ASEAN amount to fervently wishing that pigs may fly.

ASEAN is still very much an elite construct and such attitudes are most prevalent among academics and journalists from both within and outside our region. But while they understand the animal a little better, diplomats and policy-makers from ASEAN member states, are not entirely immune from such attitudes and sometimes make statements that can be construed this way too. I have done so myself. However, the motives of officials are usually quite different from those of academics and journalists. We don’t always believe what we say because what we say is sometimes only an instrument to achieve other goals that are usually left unsaid. This is called diplomacy.

ASEAN is far from perfect. It certainly needs improvement and there are many areas where its workings can be improved. But a cow will never become a horse, and no matter how devoutly we may wish it, pigs are never going to grow wings. We have to accept a cow as a cow. A cow is quite a useful animal. So is a horse. But the usefulness of a cow is different from that of a horse. We should consider how we can improve the bovine breed; how we can make a better cow, rather than scolding it for not being able to run as fast as a horse.

ASEAN faces many challenges. Going forward, lack of public understanding of what ASEAN is and, equally important, what ASEAN is not, is going to be a very serious liability. Model ASEAN conferences can play a very valuable role in educating a new generation about the importance of ASEAN. But only if they are grounded in a realistic appreciation of ASEAN.

We have to take the world – or even that little part of it we call ASEAN — as it is and not mistake our hopes and wishes for reality. This does not mean that we should not aspire to change things in accordance with our ideals. But such an effort is doomed to failure unless it starts from an unsentimental understanding of reality. In the vale of tears we call the world, virtue is seldom rewarded merely on account of it being virtuous. That only happens in heaven, if indeed there is such a place.

So let me briefly outline what I consider the three most important things about real-world ASEAN that you should not lose sight of during your discussions in this model ASEAN conference. They may strike some of you as obvious. But the obvious is sometimes quite obscure and worth stating.

First and most fundamentally, ASEAN is an organisation of sovereign states who act through their respective governments.

We often speak about a ‘people-oriented’ or ‘people-centred’ ASEAN. But the agency, the instrument, through which the ‘people’ act are governments and the modality through ASEAN seeks to serve the ‘people’ whoever they may be – and this is not always obvious — are states and governments. Civil society organisations can act effectively only through states and governments and in fact exist to persuade or pressure governments to act.

The ASEAN Charter was intended among other things to give ASEAN a legal personality. But the Charter notwithstanding, the inter-state and inter-governmental character of ASEAN means that ASEAN has no autonomous existence apart from the will of its member states. This fact is sometimes obscured by talking about ‘community’, a term that implies something that is more than the sum of its parts; a certain supra-nationality. We copied the term ‘community’ from the EU lexicon at a time when the EU’s feet of clay were not so evident. But supra-nationality – the pooling of sovereignties which is what in theory the EU is all about and the gap between theory and practice is widening even in the EU — is not on any part of ASEAN’s agenda: past, present and for the foreseeable future, except in a very limited sense in the economic dispute settlement mechanism which has not been tested and I suspect, may never be tested.

Southeast Asia is an extremely diverse region. ASEAN is not a happy band of brothers; if we were a happy band of brothers, there would be no need for ASEAN because ASEAN’s fundamental and enduring purpose is to ensure a modicum of order and civility in a region where neither is to be taken for granted. From this point of view, whatever our other limitations; ASEAN has been quite successful in maintaining peace in Southeast Asia for almost half a century. There have been tensions, skirmishes and even minor conflicts, but no war. This may not seem very much. But if you think back to what Southeast Asia was like in 1967 when ASEAN was formed, this is not an inconsiderable achievement.

In a sense, whatever ASEAN does in any field is primarily a means to this end: the creation and maintenance of order and civility through a process of working together. This process of working together is at least as important as, and often more important than, whatever goal that may be the ostensible reason for the process. This is one of the fundamental realities of ASEAN. It does not mean that goals are not important; it does not mean that we can just spin wheels forever without going anywhere. If we do so without caring about getting somewhere, disillusionment must eventually set in and ASEAN may well break up. But equally if we push the goal – whatever goal, however desirable — too hard, ASEAN may also well break up. It is not always easy to maintain a balance or even know where the balance should lie.

And this brings me to the second point.

ASEAN works by consensus and can only work by consensus. This is because Southeast Asia a very diverse region and ASEAN member states differ in levels of economic development; we differ in types of political systems; we differ in our core identities of race, language and religion; and hence we often differ in how each of us defines our national interests within the ASEAN framework even though we all have come to accept that framework as one of our most important shared interests.

Working by consensus means ASEAN often privileges form over substance. We often say things we do not mean and set goals we are unable to fulfil or have no intention of fulfilling. We do not do this simply because all ASEAN diplomats and leaders are utter hypocrites, but because we need to reach some form of agreement, even if it is just agreement over words, in order to keep the process going until circumstances change and what was once regarded as not in one member or another’s interest perhaps becomes possible.

In practice consensus need not mean unanimity. We now have a consensus that at least in some areas, consensus need not mean the agreement of all ten members but can comprise those who are ready going ahead, while leaving the door open to others to join in when when their definition of interests changes. But at present this mainly applies to economic cooperation.

This idea of not pushing things too hard – of maintaining consensus even if it is only consensus over form — not only applies to intra-ASEAN relations; to relations amongst and between ASEAN members. It also applies to ASEAN’s external relations; to relations with ASEAN’s Dialogue Partners. This is what lies behind the idea of ‘ASEAN centrality’; another aspect of ASEAN that is not well understood. Before we adopted the term ‘ASEAN centrality’ we used to talk about ‘ASEAN being in the driver’s seat’. Sounds rather important, doesn’t it? But remember sometimes the person in the driver’s seat is only the chauffeur.

ASEAN centrality is not a boast about ASEAN’s strategic weight. Rather it is an acknowledgement of ASEAN’s relative weakness vis-à-vis the major powers and a means of turning that weakness into advantage. If ASEAN has been able to set some regional norms; if the major powers have found some ASEAN-led forum such as the ARF and the EAS, of use and worth their time, it is because they are confident that they can use these norms and forums in their interests, but if push comes to shove, ASEAN cannot frustrate their most vital interests. That is the only reason why they have been willing to concede a ‘central’ role to ASEAN. In other words, in its relations with external powers, ASEAN works best when it does not work too well.

There is nothing particularly unique about this and ASEAN has this in common with all inter-state organisations including the United Nations (UN). This is not an equal world and even the largest member of ASEAN is not equal to the major powers except in a purely formal sense. But in a formal sense, even the smallest member of ASEAN is also equal to major powers. This is not merely absurd if taken too literally; if taken too literally it is down-right dangerous. But acceptance of the harsh reality of inequality within the polite slogan of ‘ASEAN centrality’ gives ASEAN a modicum of influence amidst the treacherous swirls and eddies of great power politics where otherwise there would be none. This is better than nothing. It allows us to preserve some autonomy.

And this brings me to my third and final point. Which is really the summation of the preceding two points.

Since ASEAN is an inter-state organisation that works by consensus between its members, ASEAN is not a substitute for national political will, national competence and national capability. When this is present, ASEAN can act as a multiplier for national policies. ASEAN can help its members build capability and competence. But ASEAN is not a substitute for national political will, national capability and national competence.

This is clear if we consider the challenges of the next stage of ASEAN’s development. By the end of this year, we would have reached the end of one phase of ASEAN’s ‘community building’ effort. But it is not as if on the stroke of midnight on the 31st of December 2015, there will be a blinding flash of light and we would all awake in the New Year, magically and forever transformed into a new and superior class of being. This is only the end of one phase. We will not reach a hundred percent of the targets we set ourselves for this phase, but I think we would have achieved enough of them to credibly declare victory, at least in the economic community where our goals for this phase were modest. But we cannot stop and we would already have done the easy things.

Henceforth, for the next and subsequent phases, we would have to reach consensus on more and increasingly difficult issues. The primary constraint will be the domestic politics of several key ASEAN member states. Some ASEAN members are undergoing profound systemic transformations, some are facing key elections or leadership changes, and hence several are becoming less internally coherent. Foreign policy always and everywhere must rest on a firm foundation of domestic politics. This is ASEAN’s greatest challenge; this simple fact underlies ASEAN’s greatest successes as well as its greatest failures and on this, ASEAN’s future hangs.

Ladies & Gentlemen. I hope you have not misunderstood me. I am not denigrating ASEAN and mine is a counsel of realism not despair. Imperfect though it may be, there is no substitute for ASEAN. But ASEAN’s continued survival is not to be taken for granted and will not be ensured by wishful thinking.

The major powers are now seeking a new modus vivendi between themselves and with the states of Southeast Asia. ASEAN is an indispensable instrument to help us manage the strategic challenges and complexities of this period. But the major powers are also seeking to capture and harness ASEAN to their ends. We are going to undergo a period of great stress. Already some ASEAN member states have shown themselves unwilling to resist the lucrative temptations of lending themselves to the designs of some major powers.

To minimise such temptations, and to build domestic political consensus in all member states for the difficult decisions that will be required for the next stages of ASEAN integration, ASEAN cannot remain an elite construct but must rest on a broad and deep foundation of public understanding. The effort to create such a foundation is at best in a rudimentary stage in all ASEAN countries. Public understanding must moreover be grounded in realistic and not idealised appreciation of what ASEAN can and, equally important, cannot do.

We must dream, dreams and follow our ideals however distant they may seem. But if our eyes are always on the distant star, we will miss the ditches that lie before our feet.


Featured image by Najeer Yusof.

If you like this article, Like The Middle Ground‘s Facebook Page as well!

For breaking news, you can talk to us via email.