Leiden International Studies Blog

On Regions, Hierarchies, World Order, and a Vital Question

On Regions, Hierarchies, World Order, and a Vital Question

During a guest lecture, a student challenges Giles Scott-Smith to review a Eurocentric approach to International Relations. This is what the program of International Studies is and should be about.

For the past few years I’ve been invited to give a couple of lectures at a diplomatic academy outside of Europe. I suspect they found me through a chance meeting between a couple of algorithms and a search engine, but I’m grateful for that. The lectures are about regional organisations, specifically ASEAN (Association for South East Asian Nations) and the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation). These are useful moments for me to dive back into my International Relations past and act like a social scientist again. While ASEAN is well known, the SCO was an obscure item for a long time. If you haven’t heard of it yet, I’m sure you will in the not too distant future.

So anyway, lets focus on ASEAN. A decade or so ago this organization laid out an ambitious plan (or ‘vision’) for a South East Asian Community, built around three pillars: Political-Security, Economic, and Socio-Cultural. If this sounds familiar, you are correct – the plan was definitely influenced by the integration trajectory of Europe and the European Union. EU-ASEAN relations have long been very tight. Ties were established in 1972, only five years after ASEAN was created, with Europe being the Association’s first official dialogue partner, and over the years ASEAN has welcomed thousands of EU delegations sharing wisdom on everything from the Single Market to counter-terrorism. Of course, Europe’s star has seriously waned due to the Eurocrisis and low growth, Greece and financial meltdown, the migration disaster, Brexit, and general political malaise. Nevertheless, the roots of the ASEAN-EU relationship go deep.

Following my lectures there is a Q&A session, where I can always expect a well-informed cross-examination. Half-way through I was met with this: ‘Professor, you have told us about how the ASEAN learnt from the EU. What has the EU learnt from ASEAN?’

On the face of it, a perfectly reasonable, logical question. But in one go the questioner had exposed the underlying hierarchies involved in the relationship, dismissed the pretense that the EU could advise anyone on anything, and pointed to the already-existing non-Westerncentric, multipolar world order. At the same time, while we are used to the BRICS and the G20 by now, placing ASEAN on the same level as the EU was a step beyond. It was a direct challenge to long-held assumptions of international ‘pecking orders’. I mean, has the EU learnt anything at all from ASEAN? Is the EU even capable of learning anything in such a relation? EU bureaucrats, with all respect, don’t come across as being very attentive to what others can teach them. Any why is that, we might ask, considering all the malaise mentioned above? Why is it so hard to give a substantial answer to that question?

Genuinely impressed and intrigued by the mischievous simplicity of this enquiry, I dug deep to compare how ASEAN has been trying to deal with the calamitous violence of its most awkward member state, Myanmar, with how the EU has been trying to deal with its wayward sons in Hungary and Poland. Not a straight-forward comparison, I admit, and even then it was a purely hypothetical case of learning rather than a process that’s actually happening. Happily it did satisfy the questioner, and we moved on to easier stuff.

But the question stuck with me, and will do for a long time. You can revise entire curricula using that one question. I like to think that our International Studies programme, with its 8 regions, comes somewhere close to what that questioner wanted to say. It is not about hierarchies or ‘the West is the Best’ or Eurocentrism. It is not about hierarchies, but about moving beyond hierarchies, and not accepting them as the norm. Its about critically assessing how and why they are perpetuated – including the long-term structures and legacies of colonialism, obviously - and what the effects are. It is about saying that every one of those 8 regions has a unique political, economic, and cultural outlook, shaped through history and expressed through language. Every region is equally important and has something to say that others can learn from.

‘What has the EU learnt from ASEAN?’ is surely at the heart of the whole International Studies enterprise. And if it isn’t yet, it should be.