Sessions of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, like the one on-going, provide an annual opportunity for deep reflection as to how nations of the world should relate to one another. The many addresses presented to by global leaders (called 'debate' in UN-ese) contain in their core some advice and counsel to the global community. Most of these comprise urging fellow member-states to abide by commitments on agreed norms and standards of multilateral behaviour for the sake of public good of all. The analyses of the contents of most delivered speeches would display an emphasis on urgings by individual leaders, whether they are from big nations or small, strong States or weak, that the international community of the UN membership, be governed by values while relating to one another. The ASEAN countries, whom I have had the privilege to watch closely from within from my perch in Singapore, like to describe the pattern of their conduct in the global arena as the ASEAN way.
Western literature on international relations organised relevant analyses and policy practices on the subject into three categories of theoretical activity.
First, were the idealists. They were mainly Anglo-Saxons who dominated global political thinking as the modern era unfolded. They believed that the system of international relations that had given rise to the First Great War (1914-1918) was capable of being transformed into a fundamentally more peaceful and just order. They were remarkable in the intensity of their dedication to a particular vision of what should happen.
The realists comprised the second school, who challenged the former. They argued that 'power politics' was not bad in itself, and sought to establish the legitimacy of the appeal to national interests. They believed universal moral principles could not be applied to actions by States.
The third school was the social-scientific one. It was large and amorphous. Its adherents moved away from 'soft' social analyses to 'hard' ones for methodological guidance. They were intellectually eclectic, coming as they did from varied disciplines. Their chillingly rational analyses flowed from 'system' and 'game' theories, cybernetics, mathematical logic, physics, and simulation.
However, it is important to note and understand that the three-fold classification was not water-tight. In other words, they did not come as separate 'silos' in terms of individuals, ideas and periodization.
In post-colonial Asia, this western bias in theory was moderated by thought-leaders. In the 'real world', their new leaders and thinkers of this age sought to shun the conflicts of major global protagonists by espousing concepts as non-alignment. The votaries of such ideas championed the notion that issues are best judged on the individual merits of each case, rather than on the basis of any a priori views adopted as part of policy-framework earlier. These thought-processes eventually found fruition in what has been called Asian values, which in turn led to what began to be known as the ASEAN Way (named after the group of ten South East Asian States).
The latter was seen as emphasising consensual approach, communitarianism. Social order and harmony. Respect for elders, discipline, a paternalistic state, and a primary role for the government in the economy. The influence of Confucianism and other eastern philosophies was profound. Such thinking was often pitted against the so-called 'western values'. These were linked to individualism, transparency, accountability, global competitiveness, a universal outlook and universalist practices, and an emphasis on private initiatives in the economy. Indeed, the remarkably rapid economic progress of South East and East Asia was attributed to these 'Asian values', or the 'ASEAN way'.
I wish to make the point, however, that dichotomising thoughts and policies and practices with regard to foreign relations in this manner between 'western' and 'eastern' values is unrealistic. This would be a false dichotomy. In contemporary globalized world, borders between compartments of thoughts and concepts are fast eroding. As knowledge crosses cultures and frontiers, the so-called 'protestant work-ethics' or Calvinistic practices in Europe can be discernibly similar to many elements of Confucianism. Factors of production need unimpeded mixing, whether they are motivated by Asian or Western values. No school or region can claim an exclusive right to any particular value. For instance, human rights, or gender equality, have, as they always will, universal appeal and relevance.
While the nature tendency of a state actor on the global scene may be to try and shape the world in accordance with its own fundamental precepts, there are bound to be restraints imposed by such realities as size and capabilities. Global politics, just as domestic politics, just as domestic politics, operate within the realm of the possible and prudent, and the predilections of the particular polity. Words said, or commitments made at the United Nations in New York, often, sadly, tend to stay in New York. The challenge is to have them heeded in the world beyond.
Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury is the Honorary Fellow at the Institute of South Asia Studies, NUS. He is a former Foreign Advisor (Foreign Minister) of Bangladesh and President and Distinguished Fellow of Cosmos Foundation. The views addressed in the article are his own. He can be reached at: isasiac @nus.edu.sg
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