Regional Organizations (ROs) and Security

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Central Asian leaders, courtesy of the Presidential Press and Information Office/

The following blog features five questions we recently posed to the CSS’s Stephen Aris, who is the co-editor of  Regional Organisations and Security: Conceptions and Practices.

The emergence of post-Cold War regional organizations and the gradual shift in our ideas of what constitutes ‘security’ are not a new phenomenon. So what specifically explains the timing of this publication?

Absolutely, the emergence of Regional Organizations (RO) is by no means a new phenomenon. However, what’s changed over the past decade or so is the role that these regional groupings play in international politics and security. For a variety of reasons, there is now a greater emphasis on the contextually-informed capabilities and supposed greater legitimacy that they can bring to international politics and security.

Until quite recently, the United Nations preferred to take a rather exclusive approach to managing international security, and did not seek to engage regional actors. Yet, faced with an ever growing demand for its services, it has begun to explore avenues for institutionalized engagement with ROs in order to help share the burden. The biggest success story to date has been its collaboration with the African Union (AU), which has resulted in mutually endorsed and hybrid peacekeeping missions between the two bodies.

Increased engagement with ROs comes at a time when a number of regional powers, such as Brazil and South Africa, are staking their claim for a more permanent status on the UN Security Council. Accordingly, engagement allows the UN to claim that it is seeking to better represent the contemporary international order within its existing structures, but without having to undertake the politically-challenging process of real reform of the UN system. Indeed, many regional powers have invested significant resources into developing ROs in order to amplify their voice and enhance their legitimacy as actors on the international stage.

Another factor facilitating a greater emphasis on ROs is that many of the most active (primarily Western) states in international security are currently facing economic problems and a domestic backlash against spending precious resources on security activities abroad. Sharing the burden with ROs is thus put forward as a possible solution. Accordingly, an overarching narrative has emerged whereby ROs are increasingly being seen as a way to share the burden for regulating international security, and also to recast the prevailing security architecture as more representative of the 21st century global order.

However, a greater role for ROs in international security regulation is not the panacea for overcoming concerns about a lack of capacity and legitimacy that some suggest. After all, ROs are unique and have different priorities and internal dynamics. As well as providing valuable capacities for international security management, they can also serve as the site of disputes over how to best respond to crises. Indeed, while debates over whether the environment and the individual should be the primary referent object of security are becoming passé, divisions nevertheless remain between some of the most important actors on this subject. The Responsibility-to-Protect (R2P) doctrine is a case in point. While many use the R2P to assert the relative saliency of human security over national sovereignty, others downplay its significance. The same is also true of ROs: many do not operate according to the logic of the former, which, in turn makes the universal implementation of the R2P a challenge.

The point I am making is that if ROs are playing an increasing role in international security, but conceive of and practice security differently, then we have to consider what kind of an impact this arrangement will have on the security landscape, be it in a local, national, regional or international context.

In your introductory chapter you state that there are frictions between the existing global security agenda and the ‘World of Regions’, whereby actors in some parts of the world do not conceive of or practice security in ‘global’ terms, or even as other regions might. Should this always be regarded as a problematic but normal state of affairs?

There will always be contestation between the central actors of any incarnation of the global that proclaims a universal authority and those who view this global as not serving their interests. This reflects the fact that any order or form of governance is defined, designed, implemented, operated and enforced by someone, who sets its focus, values and limits. As a result, some groups will always feel excluded and that they have no influence over it. So, what we are talking about with any form of governance is the extent to which the various constituencies it proclaims to represent feel disconnected and resentful towards the global. This may vary between particular incarnations of the global depending on how the practices within it are received and responded to by these constituencies. So, while we can say it is always a problematic state of affairs, it really is an unavoidable, and hence normal, part of the practice of the international politics. All manifestations of global institutions, norms and practices will have to continually respond to and manage various constituencies’ reactions to it, and vice versa.

When there are problems between ‘the global’ and other regions, where are they worst?

If we take the position that every order is made by someone, then we should consider the prevailing global order as being predominantly shaped by several groups of actors: the “Anglo-Saxon world”, the “West”, the “liberal-democratic order” and so on. Indeed, it is widely considered that the prevailing architecture of international security – which centres on the UN – has a strong Western, liberal-democratic and free marketflavour and tone. This is not to say that other actors, who may not ascribe to these positions, have not gotten their way on certain issues and events, for example in the UNSC. But we can nevertheless summarize the overall tone and mode of global governance as representative of the United States, the West and related groupings. Hence, the greatest contestation between the global and regions is seen in relation to regional constituencies or actors that stand in opposition to the above ideas as universals.

Indeed, one conclusion we reached from the various chapters in the book is how often ROs are seen as playing a role in protecting the principle of diversity of norms and practices across the world against the perceived imposition of universalism from the global. A universalism that they recognize as representing a specific set of regional norms of practice (that of the US and Europe). Rhetoric concerning the protection of regional norms and practices can be heard coming from the likes of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), ASEAN and others.

If we talk about problematic regional security actors, aren’t we re-emphasizing that the state ultimately remains at the heart of the international security system. Is that a fair assessment?

If we take ROs as a whole, then we can say that they are often state-centred undertakings in which governments come together because they believe that national security and other issues can be better served by cooperation and coordination with neighbouring states. This helps to enhance and protect the leverage of states over regional security, while maintaining the state as the primary arbiter of decision-making, policy and practice. However, this arrangement is not without its problems. While overlapping dynamics and actors across a greater space is taken into consideration, there may not be a significant reconsideration of the referent object of security or of whose perspective determines security policy from a national governmental perspective to a supranational and multinational collective one. Indeed, most ROs continue to prioritize national viewpoints (often those of certain member states above the others) ahead of any notion of the RO being an independent actor. Accordingly, the emergence of a new regulatory RO will not necessarily lead to a shift in focus away from the state as the prime referent object of security and towards shared notions of human security. Instead, ROs may end up extending the reach of national administrations to address some dynamics from a state-centric perspective that are currently out of their reach.

That’s not to say that ROs cannot play a role in facilitating a shift in focus away from the state. However, this role would seem to depend more on the evolution of thinking and practice within the wider regional context. Indeed, we can already see very different practices within ROs across the international system. At one end of the spectrum is the supra-national model of the EU, in which member-states have pooled some of their sovereignty around certain issues. Then there’s likes of the Arab League, which represents the common agreement of its members rather than operating as an independent supra-national actor. So, in this type of RO, the state remains the key focal point thereby maintaining national sovereignty and territorial integrity as primary security concerns. Finally, there are organizations like ECOWAS that lie somewhere between the two. So, whether a RO considers the state as the sole referent object of security or has an expanded definition depends upon the practices that are prevalent within the context in which they function, rather than being the product of the creation of a regional multilateral framework per se.

Does the book leave any of your initial research ideas and questions unanswered? Could they form the basis for future research?

As I have argued above, the role of ROs within international security is gaining in importance, and I certainly think that there is a lot of scope for the further study of their role and development. As discussed, the subject of how ROs interact and negotiate with the global is certainly an increasingly important area, and one which is relatively under-explored. Furthermore, interaction and cooperation between ROs is another area of interest, in at least two ways. Often there are multiple ROs proclaiming to represent the same region and set of actors. How do these ROs manage their place in this crowded market place and in relation to one another? Also, there is a growing trend for ROs to establish and develop formal links and collaboration with other ROs in different spatial contexts. Indeed, there are already some works on the diffusion of ideas and practices from one RO to another. Primarily, this has focused on the influence of the EU on other ROs, but an interesting area may be the influence of other models on various ROs. Finally, as mentioned at the start, the UN is increasingly seeking to engage with ROs to help share the burden of managing international security. There are some studies on the UN’s engagement and collaboration with the AU already, and increasingly collaboration between the UN and another ROs may become worthy of greater investigation.

Regional Organisations and Security: Conceptions and Practices by Stephen Aris and Andreas Wenger was first published 17 October 2013.

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