Too often are standard arguments repeated at international conferences, particularly those of a regional strategic nature, regardless of whether those arguments are true or correct.
There is, for example, the one about ASEAN’s supposedly flaccid process of consensual decision-making. But even if a demonstrably better alternative exists, which critics typically fail to identify, what assurance is there that it will work better for Southeast Asia?
The efficacy of decision-making systems varies from place to place, depending on local conditions. Several notable organizations besides ASEAN rely on consensus, among them the permanent membership of the U.N. Security Council.
If reaching decisions by consensus is good enough for a core U.N. body tasked with ensuring peace around the world, it should be good enough for ASEAN. And in terms of their respective founding purposes, ASEAN has worked even better than the Security Council.
Among the most urgent forms of policy decision-making is dispute resolution and settlement. In this region in particular, political anthropology acknowledges the special place of consensus building in the public interest.
In littoral Southeast Asian states, the processes of musyawarah (consultation) and muafakat (consensus) are traditional norms. Their equivalents in South Pacific island culture are local group consultation and collective decision-making through consensus.
It comes as no surprise that these processes have evolved into today’s “ASEAN Way.” All of ASEAN’s original five members, and all but one (landlocked Laos) of its current 10 members, are littoral states.
Seeking and building consensus as a basis for collective decisions have strengths that are often overlooked, including by some ASEAN nationals. Others from outside the region are often better equipped to acknowledge those strengths.
This happened during a session on “ASEAN Community Building: The Road Ahead” in this year’s ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Dialogue in Kuala Lumpur organized by ISIS Malaysia during the week.
A Vietnamese delegate belittled the ASEAN Way without reasoning why or offering any likely alternative. He said ASEAN must revise its work culture of establishing consensus among member nations.
He also argued that the ASEAN Secretariat had to be a policy coordinator rather than a mere “post office.” Those issues had been current in the 1990s when Vietnam joined ASEAN, but ASEAN had moved on since although still with some distance to go.
Some of the more thoughtful Australian and New Zealand delegates defended the ASEAN Way in terms of its achievements. ASEAN delegates could be as appreciative if they let themselves think through the issues first.
ASEAN’s achievements are not inconsiderable. It began by bringing together five neighboring nations, neighbors with outstanding differences in cultures, ethnicities, histories, experiences, ideologies, political systems, territorial delineations and even perceived national interests.
ASEAN thus began as a highly improbable organization, with some of its members like Malaysia having been given low chances of survival themselves by their past colonial masters. But over time, ASEAN and its member nations not only survived but prospered.
ASEAN has since doubled its membership to include all 10 countries in the region, adding to the differences of identity among members along the way. Not only has ASEAN survived and grown, it is also reaching further: from key treaties to a charter, it is now aiming for full community status by 2015.
None of these would have been possible without working through the ASEAN Way of mutual consultation and consensus. In a regional neighborhood pockmarked with ideological divides, economic disparities, competing interests, mutual suspicions and (still) territorial disputes, the idea of ASEAN could well have floundered in 1967 without consultation and consensus.
There could easily not have been an ASEAN today, or ever. But how do other regional organizations currently compare with ASEAN?
Neither the African Union, the Gulf Cooperation Council, the Organization of American States nor the Shanghai Cooperation Organization matches ASEAN on comprehensiveness, inclusiveness or maturity. Meanwhile, others like Mercosur and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation look to ASEAN for encouragement and inspiration.
For many years, ASEAN was said to be second only to the European Union in terms of success. But that was before the EU succumbed to its current economic difficulties.
Nonetheless, ASEAN cannot afford to be complacent or self-congratulatory. Its 45-year record is not without disappointments and frustrations. Self-criticism can be useful if it works to ensure self-improvement. ASEAN and its various undertakings can generally be better and more successful.
A balanced perspective on ASEAN, its role and its responsibilities remains in short supply. Neither unreservedly praising ASEAN’s virtues nor glossing over its imperfections is helpful to its cause.
At the same time, condemning some imagined flaw is no good either. But it happened in the same session on ASEAN Community Building, at least in the way an Indonesian delegate saw it.
She had observed that the target date for achieving full ASEAN Community status had been set back from January to December 2015, concluding that the delay signified a failure in ASEAN community building.
Unfortunately, nobody in that session mentioned that the date for establishing the ASEAN Community had been brought forward five years from 2020 to 2015. An 11-month delay is negligible compared to fast-tracking it by 60 months.
Nonetheless, even to imagine that establishing community status among sovereign nations anywhere can be pinpointed to a particular date is simply wrong-headed. It is a process that comprises several elements, among them developing social interfaces, institutional familiarisation, regulatory harmonization and constant negotiation and adjustment across an entire region.
All that in practice means it would take time, patience and understanding. The reality, however, can be particularly challenging.
While policymakers and diplomats talk up the prospects of the timely arrival of the ASEAN Community, seeing that as reflective of their own performance, the business sector and civil society groups talk down its chances as a measure of their lost or deferred opportunities.
Serious analysts must therefore provide the correct antidote to both maladies by way of a realistic assessment. They need to avoid compounding either polarity by buckling under it.
Some priorities such as a more effective ASEAN Secretariat with more resources and a stronger mandate are undisputable. But such issues are often captive to a lack of political will.
A Philippine delegate asked emphatically whether ASEAN member nations really wanted a stronger ASEAN Secretariat. The implication was that the secretariat, and the ASEAN secretary-general, could only be as effective as ASEAN member nations wanted or allowed them to be.
Another implication is that any move to empower the secretariat further could ― for some ASEAN countries at least ― challenge the position or status of one or more member countries.
Such apprehensions are not unique to ASEAN. They are common in regions where individual nations still experience insecurity, particularly in relation to their neighbors.
How ASEAN overcomes these apprehensions would be a measure of its maturity. Since ASEAN countries mature at different rates, when ASEAN would collectively forge ahead as a single community remains an open question.
By Bunn Nagara
Bunn Nagara is a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies in Malaysia. ― Ed.