BALI—Set upon a blue background, the flag of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations depicts 10 yellow rice paddy stalks drawn in the middle of a red circle with a white border. The interesting thing about the banner is not merely that it represents the main colors of all ten ASEAN member state flags: Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and the Philippines. It is that 44 years to the day after ASEAN was founded, on August 8th—in a development that received little attention outside Asia—the flag was hoisted for the first time alongside the banners of all member states at hundreds of embassies and diplomatic missions around the world.
Kicking off a year dedicated to the theme “Unity in Diversity”, ASEAN’s stirring declaration of interdependence is just the latest example of what ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan describes to me as “our drive to raise our own bargaining power from a larger base.” At a time when the European Union’s struggle to rescue free-spending members Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Spain and Greece threatens to bring the whole continent tumbling down, ASEAN is rushing headlong to create a single economic community by 2015.
But there is more at stake here than simply the joint success or failure of 10 Asian nations, whose 600 million people represent a combined gross domestic product of $1.7 trillion—making it the sixth-largest economy in the world. ASEAN’s move to integration represents a different model of regional cooperation from the EU—less rooted in democracy, more tolerant of human rights violations, and more committed to sovereignty—that may go a long way toward defining how other regions evolve in the 21st Century.
In short, ASEAN “is making the case for a new kind of regionalism,” writes David Carden, the first resident U.S. Ambassador to ASEAN.
In academic circles, both the EU and ASEAN lend themselves to a discussion of a “post-Westphalian world.” Signed in 1648, the Peace of Westphalia not only ended 80 years of war in Europe, it also created the modern state system. Westphalia established fixed territorial boundaries for countries and established the idea that citizens of a respective country were subject primarily to the laws (and actions) of their respective governments. Conversely, it also created the notion that government is sovereign to rule its people as it sees fit. While giving rise to order, Westphalia also enabled three centuries of human rights abuses.
The 20th Century chipped away at the Westphalian idea. The creation of the United Nations and its Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 represented the first global expression of rights fundamental to all human beings, challenging the Westphalian concept of sovereignty. For half a century, it was applied delicately, often through sanctions, in places like South Africa. It wasn’t until the 1990s when the international community intervened directly on behalf of humanitarian principle in Haiti and Kosovo—a thread that runs through NATO’s intervention in Libya today.
Meanwhile, the creation of a unified EU in 1993 was the moment historians began speaking of a post-Westphalian world. ASEAN is putting an Asian spin on the concept of unity. As Surin Pitsuwan tells me, “The European model is our inspiration, not our model.”
Unlike the EU, the ASEAN vision doesn’t yet include a unified currency, joint visas, or the fully free flow of labor. While ASEAN has reportedly implemented 75 percent of the blueprint it passed in 2008 to create a regional trade bloc, unlike the EU, it also remains committed to a principal of nonintervention in the affairs of members, known as the “ASEAN Way.” While the EU pulls out its collective hair trying to restructure an intransigent Greece, ASEAN still takes a hands-off approach to member state Myanmar, whose brutal authoritarianism—despite recent elections—remains a drag on ASEAN’s global image.
Yet, while Western observers condemn ASEAN over Myanmar and argue that a wobblier version of the EU will never work because it lacks central authority to enforce common rules, ASEAN supporters say sarcastically to me: “the U.S. is one to talk.”
“Authoritarian leaders and their populations here are appalled by America’s lack of discipline and massive debt,” said Yohanes Sulaiman, a lecturer at Indonesia’s National Defense University, in a recent essay. “If democracy provides nothing but economic crisis, political squabbling, and gridlock, why would anyone want it? Better to stick with the authoritarian system of China or the semi-authoritarianism of Singapore.”
It is no accident that ASEAN members have been focused on increasing trade with one another (up 31 percent in 2010), with neighboring China (up 25 percent in the first half of 2011) and with other Asian countries. As Indonesian Vice President Boediono said at a recent ASEAN meeting, “the U.S. and Europe could no longer be the main engines of growth for the world economy.”
The danger is not simply that Western investors fall behind in one of the world’s fastest-growing regions. The danger is that as other regions consider similar integration—imagine a South Asian confederation of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and the Maldives; or a future bloc in the Middle East.
In November, President Barack Obama is scheduled to attend the East Asian Summit in Bali. In his remarks, President Obama should take responsibility for America’s debt crisis and promise to be a better partner for Asia; articulate progressive benchmarks ASEAN could help Myanmar achieve by 2015; and link passage of a long-desired U.S.-ASEAN free trade agreement to those benchmarks being met.
It may not forestall the end of Westphalia—but it could help extend Western leadership into the 21st Century.