Regions are the future of global governance: how the EU and ASEAN can lead the way

Europe's World

Asia, Africa & Emerging Economies

Picture of Yeo Lay Hwee
Yeo Lay Hwee

Director of the European Union Centre in Singapore

Photo of This article is part of Friends of Europe’s upcoming discussion paper on global governance reform.
This article is part of Friends of Europe’s upcoming discussion paper on global governance reform.

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Show more information on This article is part of Friends of Europe’s upcoming discussion paper on global governance reform.

Since the founding of the ultimately ill-fated League of Nations in 1920, global governance has been dominated by a succession of supranational bodies, culminating in the foundation of the United Nations and the diverse Bretton Woods institutions at the end of the Second World War. These organisations have largely worked to ensure peace between the Western powers in the security sphere but also in finance and trade.  In a changing world, however, with the rise of new powers, it is imperative that the voices and needs of emerging nations are also adequately reflected. Given that 21st century global concerns focus far more than ever before on hybrid threats, human rights and the environment, is it time to draw a line under the past 99 years of global governance and look to re-evaluate and reform our established systems?

This article is part of Friends of Europe’s upcoming discussion paper on global governance reform, in which we ask the ‘unusual suspects’ to share their views on what reforms are necessary to make the rules-based order work for us all.

The Western-dominated global order and its system of governance is coming under growing strain. Institutions created in the post-World War II era to manage cooperation for peace and development – from the United Nations to the World Bank – are increasingly seen as ineffective in addressing our modern litany of challenges. This stems from a unique paradoxical phenomenon: while the world is seeing heightened interdependence, it is simultaneously seeing further fragmentation.

Many factors have contributed to the stresses and tensions in the current global order. These include the retreat of the West and the rise of the rest. The fraying of the West is a particularly new development, epitomised by Trump’s ‘America First’ doctrine.  The strong transatlantic ties that once underpinned the western liberal order have been undermined by Trump’s unilateral approach, notably pulling the US out of several multilateral agreements.

Meanwhile, the rise of the rest – from China to India and other emerging economies – has led to a redistribution of global power. This power is further diffused as global politics is no longer confined to nation states and international institutions – non-state actors and hyper-connected individuals empowered by new technology are disrupting diplomacy and creating more uncertainties.

Regional and inter-regional networks can serve as the main building blocks for transnational problem-solving and burden-sharing

It is clear that new instability has emerged from a hyper-connected, but also increasingly fragmented, world of tribes, movements and networks defined by identities rather than interests. If global institutions are indeed incapable of managing this, is there a future for global governance? What kind of new ‘order’ should emerge to replace the current global order, and who should take the lead to provide the framework for cooperation?

Looking at the resilience of the European Union (EU) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), despite the countless challenges they have faced, perhaps one should contemplate how to strengthen these institutions. Regional and inter-regional networks can serve as the main building blocks for transnational problem-solving and burden-sharing.

The EU and ASEAN need to be at the forefront of strengthening regional governance and building bridges across regions. Instead of accepting or enabling a multipolar world based on power and spheres of influence, both should double down on multilateralism based on rules, norms and interests. Instead of relying on hegemonic leadership, the two could work towards a system of issues-based leadership.

In a complex, highly contested and ambiguous world, the EU needs to become more flexible

For regional organisations like the EU and ASEAN to help transition from a world dependent on US hegemony to one that is more inclusive and innovative, a three-pronged approach is needed. First, the EU will need to become more flexible and pragmatic. Second, ASEAN needs to become more institutionalised. And finally, third, both will need to become more cohesive and coherent but also more agile.

The above may seem paradoxical but is not. While the EU has managed to endure several crises, these challenges also revealed the need for reform. In a complex, highly contested and ambiguous world, the EU needs to become more flexible. The increasing divergences within the EU means that it is often unable to reach quick consensus or act resolutely. Hence, the EU, while continuing its efforts to strengthen its unity, must also allow for much more flexible ‘coalition of the willing’ constellations in its policy design.  Such ‘coalition of the willing’ arrangements must be embedded in trust and solidarity, and within a coherent strategic outlook.

For ASEAN, the exact opposite is necessary. ASEAN’s current modus operandi does not privilege collective efforts over individual actions.  Its inter-governmental structure and strict interpretation of sovereign equality often result in joint political declarations but not necessarily common actions. ASEAN is sensitively attuned to the divergent interests of its member states and takes a pragmatic approach to respect individual member states’ interests. This is sometimes done at the expense of collective regional interests.

Much more attention … has to be paid to reconciling intra-ASEAN differences

To become a more effective regional organisation that can navigate the current rising tensions between China and the US, and deal with increased protectionism, ASEAN needs to become more integrated. It must go beyond merely ‘speaking with one voice’ and undertake more joint actions. Much more attention thus has to be paid to reconciling intra-ASEAN differences.

Both regional organisations were founded on the desire for peace and stability. While borne of the Cold War era, they have managed to adapt to the changes in the external environment and remain relevant. After over half a century of integration and cooperation, both the EU and ASEAN need to step up their diplomatic and pragmatic engagements with other actors, and to leverage each other’s strengths to shape a new emerging order that is more inclusive.

More importantly, both organisations have their reserves of experience and resources, and a strong commitment to openness. They need to build on their connectivity strategies to forge trans-regional alliances that can shift towards a more people-centred sustainable development paradigm. Through pragmatic, concerted efforts, regional organisations and inter-regional networks will become the future of global governance.

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