Studies in international relations have constantly focused on critical aspects that shape modern nations of the world. Hence, terms such as nationalism, sovereignty, globalisation, security and regionalism have always topped the list under the discussion.
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These terms have been pivotal in understanding social and political systems of the world states as well as the economic structures on a wider scale and how they influence relations with other states on a global perspective.
In evaluating the prospect of world states, it is argued that the role of the state has histrionically weakened as a consequence of cultural, economic and different forms of globalization taking place. Besides, the realist school of international relations explains that the state autonomy remains the intricate systems of the international system.
Although other schools of thought emphasize on the proliferation of the nationalist drive, determined to become sovereign nation-states, Eichengreen and Frankel (1995) demonstrates that regionalism will remain stronger than any other forces of international relations because it encompasses nationalism, globalisation, security and sovereignty of modern states.
Regionalism creates a sense of purpose and identity and establishes institutions that express a given identity and fix a collective action within a region. Thus, modern states have experienced globalisation, economic growth, integration and security, among others, as a result of regionalism.
In this paper, the writer explains why regionalism is important in the study of contemporary international relations.
In an attempt to unravel its importance, the writer explores regionalism and discusses a brief history of regionalism and explores that regionalism is important in the study of contemporary international relations because it enhances development, regional identity, associative and organisational coherence and facilitates democratization and state-building.
Pundits of international relations have argued that the well being of states in the future will be based on regionalism (Webber, 2001). Regionalism has assisted nations to mitigate the challenges arising from globalisation because it allows nations in a given region to pull their resources, ideas, political inclination for a mutual cause. In understanding regionalism, we should first know what a region is.
Various authors have put forward five arguments about what constitutes a region. In his explanation, Buzan and Little (2000) term region as a geographical unit encircled by few or more natural landscapes and marked by ecological topographies. On the other hand, Eichengreen and Frankel (1995) term region as a “proto-region”, since it is not a structured society.
Thus, in regionalising such a region, it has to be occupied by human beings and maintain some sort of relationship. However, according to Wyatt-Walter (1995), a region is a social arrangement that involves trans-local relations between human clusters. He further points out that such arrangement constituent units dependent on each other and forms the basis for universal security of the regional system (Hine, 1992).
Buzan and Waever (2003) indicate that a region is a field organised in terms of economics, politics, culture and the military. In such an organization, a region is demarcated by states which are recognised members of the regional organization in context. However, where there is no organised cooperation between parties, regionalism lacks sense.
According to Devetak and Burke (2011), region is a civil society where its organization’s structures are enhanced to promote and facilitate social convergence and communication of values across the region. In fact, Baldwin (2006) notes that the pre-existence of cultural and shared traditions in a specific region is what shapes civil society because culture is unceasingly created and recreated.
In enhancing regionalism, Wyatt-Walter (1995) notes that a region acts as a subject with a unique identity, legitimacy, actor capability and a structure for decision making. Thus, this provides ways for intervention on important matters between nations and establishment of welfare structures to promote collective responsibility and regional balance (Webber, 2001).
Though regionalism dates back to 1880’s, the term gained much recognition in the early 1950s and 1960’s. It was further strengthened during the post-Cold War. Presently, regional pessimists and optimists concur that regionalism is increasing at a faster pace in the world.
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Eichengreen and Frankel (1995) point out that the turning point of regionalism was in the mid 1980’s with the passing of the Single European Act, this Act shaped the global economy besides transforming the global system. Nevertheless, it led to the demise of the Cold War.
Buzan and Little (2000) demonstrates that the creation of the United Nations after the Second World War gave a new dimension on how regional bodies would efficiently handle conflicts and disputes better than universal organisations among geographically adjacent nations (Johnston, 2003).
While the regionalism argument was concerned with security issues, for instance, the advent of European integration during the 1950’s lifted the focus of regionalism to incorporate economic regionalism. Buzan and Waever (2003) indicate that after major wars in less than 50 years, European nations realised that regionalism was the only strategy to secure peace and achieve reconciliation among the European states.
However, the major argument was how the states would cede their sovereignty (Wyatt-Walter, 1995). Thus, regionalism begun by cooperation in limited economic, functional and technical areas where ceding sovereignty would be limited while the merging of technical skills in administrative systems would fix tangible benefits by giving solutions to common challenges (Fawcett, 2004).
Though the Americas and Europe have advanced the sense of institutionalised regionalism, most countries have indicated commitment to greater and wider unity within the frameworks of existing organizations (Hine, 1992).
This is manifested in organisations such as the African Union, AU, Association of South-East Asian countries, ASEAN and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO, among others (Eichengreen & Frankel, 1995).
Thus, the aspect of security, policy integration, economic growth and political advancement together with others has contributed to the proliferation of new regional groupings and the revival of old regional ones (Webber, 2001). By this, regionalism in the present world has aimed at augmenting regional issues while reflecting a global identity.
Strength of Regionalism
At the centre of any regionalism is development. Dieter and Higgott (2003) indicate that regionalism encompasses the traditional elements of cooperation in aspects such as enhancing the economies of scale, territorial size and others.
These elements are currently transforming the regions and the world economy. Regionalism has encouraged self-reliance among the member states (Fawcett, 2004). Though self-reliance is not viable at the state level, it has played a pivotal role at the regional level by defining improvement of infrastructure, coordination of production and invoking use of complementaries.
Moreover, regionalism has elaborate economic policies that are stable and consistent with regional arrangements. This policy allows member states to underpin their national policies with that of the region. East African Community (2000) gives an example of East Africa Community, EAC.
The EAC has allowed individual member states to develop exclusive economic strategies based on the documents available at its secretariat. Muthaura notes that the Ugandan government has utilized these documents by adopting Vision 2020 and Medium Term Competitive Strategy (Muthaura, 1999). The strategy presents a comprehensive system to support private sector development.
Similarly, Tanzania, a member state of EAC has adopted Vision 205, SME Policy and the BEST Programme. BEST is to be implemented in a five-year period. It has five basic parts which will help improve commercial dispute resolution and achieve better regulations (East African Community, 2000). On the other hand, Kenya has adopted the Economic Recovery Strategy for Wealth and Employment Creation.
The policy grants preference to sound governance and rule of law, creating the environment for investment and investing in human capital for the poor. It also places an emphasis on developing SMEs among others (East African Community, 2000).
Buzan and Waever (2003) explain that regionalism serves as building blocks towards achieving economic globalisation. He explains that whatever is evolving across the world is not the protectionist trading blocs intended to alienate any particular region from the rest of the world, but to enhance an economic association that supports growth and development within regions and making borders more porous.
For instance, Johnston (2003) notes that the Association of South Asian Nations Free Trade Area, AFTA, North America Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA and the Common Market of the South, MERCOSUR have elaborate building blocs in that the state’s well-being does not, in any way hinder another’s wealth, but the groupings assist individual nations to recognize the global economy is not a zero-sum game but an expanding space (Hine, 1992).
Similarly, Moore (2000) shows in his speech “Regional trade agreements, in line with multilateral liberalisation” in Buenos Aires, WTO’s director, Mike Moore ascertained that regional trading blocs can help individual countries, especially the developing nations to sharpen and enhance efficiency of their industries, serve as a springboard to integrate into the global economy and build their comparative advantages (Moore, 2000).
Besides, regionalism can also help establish political commitment dedicated towards a transparent and open economy (Moore, 2000).
Constructivism emphasizes the need of values, ideas and identity in global relations. Constructivism is a cognitive and social construct that focuses on how people from different states coalesce under a shared sense of region.
Dieter and Higgott (2003) points out that constructivists recognise regionalism as a set of thought practices fashioned by political and language discourse, which by the establishment of concepts, facilitates the creation of regional identity.
Similarly, Muthaura (1999) explains that regional community is the growth and expansion of the region into a dynamic subject with an institutionalized capability, distinct identity and systematic structure of decision making in regard with responsive transcending old state borders and regional civil society. Most regional groupings have embraced constructivism to further their regional identity.
For example, Acharya (2001) shows that while East Asia stands as a highly diverse region, it has grown in regional identity formation. Similarly, cultural exchanges and intra-regional social networks have gained much momentum in East Asia because of foreign travels, movement of people and international student exchanges (Johnston, 2003).
Thus, from a constructivist perspective, ASEAN regionalism has encouraged interaction that focuses on norms that underpin regional identity (Acharya, 2001). Highlighting the effect of norms, ASEAN is perceived as fostering regional identity.
Associative and Organisational Coherence
Associative coherence is a term predominantly concerned with regional-level links of inference that get established between actors. It is a concept resulting from a constructivist view of new regionalism.
Oman (1994), notes that the main unifiers of associative coherence emanate from cultural and social nature and their vital focus is the society, people and groups. Regionalism cannot advance effectively by failing to strengthen associative links among the societies, groups and people in the region. Devetak and Burke (2011) explain that most of the established regional bodies have consistently enhanced this strategy.
For example, the East Asia has strengthened the associative coherence in regard to social-ethnic demography, economic development, socio-cultural characteristics and political structures (Oman, 1994). However, there are slight diversity challenges being advanced by strong nationalistic feelings that remain a key feature because of historical mistrusts (Baylis & Owens, 2010).
Baylis and Owens (2010) also point out that organisational coherence is a term relating to how regionalism may be transformed or take some kind of organisational form. Its attributes are administrative based, while corporate and political actions are the key unifiers of organisational coherence. Regionalism has played a key role in organisation coherence.
For example, the East Asia is a home of a growing number of regional level associations and non-governmental organisations. These organisations have been pivotal in strengthening regionalism (Baldwin, 2006). Moreover, the East Asian Summit, EAS and ASEAN +3 are regional structures where other bodies such as the APEC and ASEA are regional organisations (Dieter & Higgott, 2003).
These four bodies provide regional-level functions such as providing a capacity path envisioning the organisation’s goals, regulating meetings of civil society groups, business and political leaders and cooperating on programs and activities of the organisations.
Democratisation and State Building
Aside from promoting political, security issues, economy, cooperation and community, regionalism consolidates democratization and state-building. It plays a critical role in managing the negative effects of globalisation. According to Milner (1997), most case studies drawn from parts of Asia, Europe and Americas have been used to support this assertion.
For instance, in the case of ASEAN, Milner (1997), indicates that regionalism grants weaker nations an opening, enabling them to avoid being marginalized and dominated by leading powers.
Similarly, Baylis and Owens (2010) note that since the creation of the Asia Europe Meeting, ASEM in 1996, the ASEAN and EU nations have sustained cooperation in common areas of concerns such as human rights and economics (Fawcett, 2004).
Additionally, the EU has fixed relations with MERCOSUR and initiated consultations with NAFTA on establishing the Atlantic Free Trade Area, AFTA. US is a key member of NAFTA and has also entered into negotiation with MERCOSUR with the aim of encouraging closer ties and cooperation (Baldwin, 2006).
Regionalism has provided a basis for constructing a series of multilateral relationships that have been essential in transforming how states relate to one another.
The developing system of cooperative networks is providing a new dimension to regional cooperation. Besides, regional states have witnessed economic interdependence, especially through domestic structural reforms, external liberalisation and market-driven integration.
Many forces have challenged established sovereignties coupled with internationalisation and globalisation defies, and the advent of new political systems, the world states have been limited in policies and control. Hence, regionalism is offering the world a new facet of shaping state activities. Various states have joined/formed regionalism to further their interests.
Thus, from the Americas, Africa, Europe to Asia and Australia, many regional organisations have come into existence solving numerous challenges (Eichengreen & Frankel, 1995). Regionalism is the way to go; it has contributed to state development through forming trading alliances. Trading blocs have spurred development by reducing trade barriers and encouraging free movement of people.
Similarly, regionalism has enhanced regional identity within states. States within the same region have merged establishing a shared sense of regionalism; this has fixed seamless culture, economy and political systems of individual states.
Beside, regionalism has created associative and organisational coherence among states; the closeness of the states bordering one another has fixed cultural and social ties, among others. This strategy has helped promote peace and cohesion, security and economic activities among the states.
Lastly, regionalism has developed and enhanced democratisation and state-building of nations. Regionalism plays a key role in fixing the challenges faced by states such as political, economic and social issues. It has given weaker nation’s more powers and curtailed the domination of the stronger states. Stronger nations have engaged with weaker nations under the same rules and policies.
Trust and respect, among other core values have been the guiding principles for fruitful cooperation. Thus, by enhancing development, promoting regional identity, building associative coherence and living in the spirit of democratisation and state-building we can infer that regionalism is most important in studying contemporary international relations.
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