EU-style integration not only response to globalisation
Asean model stands up well compared to EU supranationalist integration
The EU must work with Asean for common pressure on China to multilateralise its Belt and Road Initiative and to dissuade the US from misapplying hard power in the region. Photograph: STR/AFP/Getty
Global politics are going through one of their most important shifts in power, strategy and influence of the modern era. Two hundred years of dominance by Europe and America of world politics, economics, security and culture are drawing to an end.
The change is associated with Asia’s emergence as a key region in all these respects; by China’s remarkable transformation over the last four decades and by the rise of other major powers such as India, Brazil, Turkey and Iran in their reactive regions.
Capping it all is the Trump administration’s decisive shift to emphasise transactional interests over its hegemonic role in dealings with other centres of power. This is widely considered to mark not only a new period of US disengagement but a loss of will and capacity to forge global rules.
The coincidence of these changes with those in the UK as a result of Brexit reinforces a sense of the end of their role as the two dominant powers of the 20th century, one of which took over from the other during its course. British imperial nostalgia and Trump’s civilisational xenophobia are twin indicators of their relative decline.
Another casualty of these changes is its associated Eurocentrism. This ideology sustained the rise of European empires since the 17th century in the belief that the commercial, industrial, scientific, intellectual and cultural achievements which made this possible set a superior standard of civilisation all others aspire to reach. It was used to justify imperial conquests and colonial rule.
It is perpetuated in the post-imperial and post-colonial period by the assumption that supranational European integration is the model other world regions must follow as they co-operate to manage globalisation. That assumption is no longer made so readily by European Union representatives chastened by recent traumas over finance and debt crises, migration challenges, Ukraine and Syria, populist revolts and Brexit into a more modest and exploratory approach to the changing global order.
Engagement and non-interference
It is challenged in other world regions, most notably in Southeast Asia. There the 10 member Association of South-East Asian Nations – Asean – this week celebrates its 50th anniversary in Manila. One of the region’s most prominent public intellectuals, Kishore Mahbubani of Singapore university, a former leading diplomat there, argues in his recent book The Asean Miracle that the organisation’s policies of consultation, networking, engagement and non-interference in national sovereignty have stood up well compared to the EU’s supranationalist integration.
He says Asean’s engagement with Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) was far more successful that EU sanctions in bringing political change there. The EU should apologise for that mistake instead of its finger-wagging integration snobbery. That would clear the way for much greater political engagement between the two bodies, filling the vacuum created by the Trump administration’s withdrawal from Barack Obama’s pivot to Asia and helping to counter China’s greater assertivity in the region.
The geopolitical case for that is plain to see. There is evidence of more official readiness to bring the two sides together in a more equal, respectful and reciprocal spirit. Mahbubani suggested at a conference this week at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur that Asean should learn from Europe how to create a zero prospect of war in its region, how to fund itself better and how to run an Erasmus exchange programme to enhance people-to-people contacts there.
Tolerance and multiculturalism
Europe should learn from Asean how to create a zone of dynamic Southeast Asian-like prosperity in North Africa to head off what he and other speakers believe will be a far larger African demographic explosion that will otherwise send millions more of its people to Europe in the next generation. The Asian region’s civilisational and ethnic diversity is far greater than Europe’s, teaching lessons about tolerance and multiculturalism.
Kuala Lumpur’s astonishingly exuberant architecture and prosperity exemplifies similar dynamic trends in Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand and other Asean members, achieved despite authoritarian governments and gulfs between richer and poorer states. Irish and European residents admire these achievements and complain they are not better-known about and taken up as real economic and cultural opportunities back home.
Mahbubani compares Asean to a fragile Ming vase that could be crushed if China and the US use it as a battering ram in their competition for influence. A more engaged EU should prevent that happening by working with Asean for common pressure on China to multilateralise its Belt and Road Initiative and to dissuade the US from misapplying its hard power in the region.