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Regionalism is an old concept which has attracted heated debate among scholars. There is little consensus regarding the meaning of regionalism and its relevance to international relations.
Fawcett (2004) defines regionalism as “a policy whereby states and non-state actors cooperate and coordinate strategy within a given region” (p. 433). Regionalism aspires to encourage the spirit of brotherhood among regional states to pursue common goals (Krasner 1983).
The concept of regionalism emerged following the culmination of the First World War. The United Nations (UN) persuaded states and non-state actors to change their perceptions regarding equality, security, development and peace.
In a nutshell, the UN advocated for the formation of regional blocs among states in order pursue social, economic and political goals (Fawcett 2004, p. 436). This paper will, therefore, discuss regionalism using functionalist and constructivist theories.
Constructivist Approach to Regionalism
The constructivist approach provides a basis for understanding the concept of regionalism. The approach emphasizes that a regional bloc is formed when states agree to combine their resources in order to pursue political, cultural and economic goals.
Vayrynen (2003) states that regional organizations emerged as a result of shared cultural identities among states. The term social construction of regions implies the process of shaping regions via shared identities and customs.
The constructivist approach discards the static notion of regions and perceives them as dynamic cognitive entities fortified by mutual economic and institutional bonds (Adler 1997; Murphy 1991).
What is more, the constructivist approach lends credence to the significant role of shared ideas in pursuing economic and political goals.
Proponents of this approach emphasize that actors generate social facts by allocating roles to different spatial units. Searle (1995) asserts that these roles “are never intrinsic… they are assigned relative to the interests of users and observers” (p. 19).
There are two types of roles allocated to spatial units. These are adjective and non-agentive roles. The agentive role fulfils the targets of actors while the non-agentive role takes place autonomously.
The physical location of a state is clearly a non-agentive role, whereas the formation of a regional military unit represents an agentive role (Vayrynen 2003, p. 27).
The Concept of Regional Identity
The constructivist approach has also been used to describe the formation of regional blocs. Proponents of this approach employ various concepts (i.e. Communal ideals, shared identities and trust) entrenched in cross-border networks to describe the formation of regional blocs.
These cognitive regions are created through open-minded interests and values, which are propagated by non-state actors. A cognitive region is typically created via non-spatial relations.
The security community is a perfect example of a cognitive region in which members anticipate transformations to take place in a nonviolent manner and disagreements to be resolved diplomatically (Adler & Barnett 1998).
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Regional identity is an abstract concept that exists in the minds of individuals. Consequently, the concept must exhibit current and historical emblems which must be acknowledged and shared by the people occupying the region. What is more, the political and territorial emblems of the region must exhibit stability and uniformity.
Some scholars have suggested Europe as a perfect example of a cognitive region which has been restructured by democratic ideologies. Vayrynen (2003) states that the restructuring process led to a novel spatial imaginary which was different from the Cold War era (p. 27).
For example, the political characteristics of eastern and central Europe have dramatically transformed since the end of the Cold War era. Nonetheless, the constructivist approach overstates the political commitments and the shared identities of this region.
For example, a number of scholars have employed the Mitteleuropa approach to justify the political and ideological transformations in eastern and central Europe.
The constructivist approach has come under intense criticism because it does not explain the current economic and political diversities between the eastern and central Europe.
What is more, some Eastern Europe countries are currently using CEFTA as a vehicle to gain membership in the European Union as opposed to promoting collaboration and shared identity (Rhodes 1999; Zukrowska 2000).
In other words, the constructivist approach has failed to explain the concept of regionalism among the east and central European countries.
The constructivist approach also explains how political resolutions can result in the creation of a common currency. According to Kenen (2002), there are several factors that contribute to the formation of a currency union (i.e. Euro).
These factors include fiscal transfers, factor mobility, relative price movements, and asymmetric fluctuations in the business environment. The emergence of a currency union has resulted in the creation of territorial and functional regions.
The territorial aspect suggests that member-states agree to form a new uniform currency or establish a common link between their respective currencies.
According to the proponents of the constructivist theory, the formation of a common currency (i.e. Euro) reflects efforts by the EU member states to pursue a mutual identity as well as common economic goals.
Although regionalism is undermined by the pursuit of mutual identity, the static relationships among different currencies are attributed to the collaborations among states.
Vayrynen (2003) cites the European Monetary Union (EMU) to demonstrate the movement of a currency union from the non-territorial phase towards the boundaries of interstate politics.
Some historians have used the ASEAN case to criticize the constructivist approach. They argue that strong mutual identities and trust do not necessarily result in the formation of regional blocs. Vayrynen (2000) has suggested that ASEAN has taken advantage of the cultural and ideological ties among its member-states to resolve intraregional disagreements.
Nonetheless, it has failed to exploit the intraregional bonds to alleviate extra-regional issues such as unfavourable fluctuations in the business environment. According to Acharya (1998), ASEAN is simply an emerging bloc that lends credence to security issues facing member-states.
The first criticism relates to the massive accumulation of military armaments among member-states in 1990s. Although the ASEAN bloc was successful in using confidence-building strategies and mutual respect to promote stability in the region, it failed to curb the massive acquisition of military artilleries among its member-states.
It is worthy to mention that this practice was halted by the ensuing economic slump.
What is more, the inability of the ASEAN bloc to address economic and environmental crises in the region as well as its poor handling of the Burma crisis reflects the limited capability of a regional bloc in addressing socio-economic and political issues.
These remarks are in concurrence with the observation that although the diplomatic actions of the member-states follow conventional laws, the ASEAN bloc cannot be considered as a community based on mutual identity (Nischalke 2002).
The second criticism levelled against the constructivist approach emphasizes that the shared culture plays a limited role with respect to the process of regionalism (i.e. Regional integration).
Some historians have suggested that the legendary ASEAN Way simply demonstrates rigorous attempts to shut out rebellious member-states from the political process steered by influential members.
In addition, the ASEAN Way is perceived as a political reaction to the culmination of the United State’s supremacy in the region and the emergence of unilateralism (Kelly 1999, p. 174). Singh (2000) notes:
The hegemonic region’s explanation for region formation in Southeast Asia applies across most of that region’s history. ASEAN’s political role is defined by patterns of hegemonic dominance and inter-hegemonic interactions.
The end of the Cold War, the collapse of great-power bilateralism, and a partial US withdrawal from the region have led to economic integration (Singh 2000, p. 143).
The discussion above has demonstrated that the constructivist approach can be useful in explaining the concept of regionalism. However, it does not offer adequate theoretical justification regarding the concept of regionalism.
Functionalist Approach to Regionalism
Proponents of the functionalist theory suggest that functional interrelationship and economic collaboration within a region play an important role in alleviating conflicts among states. For example, African regional organizations were established to pursue security and peace among volatile states (i.e. Somalia and Sudan).
Proponents of the functionalist approach argue that aggressive conflicts can have negative effects on economic integration and development.
For instance, the main goal behind the establishment of the Economic Organization of West African States (ECOWAS) was to pursue and promote economic integration among the member states.
However, it soon became apparent that this goal could not be achieved because of the widespread civilian wars among the member-states. As a result, the ECOWAS bloc was eventually restructured and a number of conflict resolution mechanisms were developed to address the problem (Nathan 2010).
What is more, proponents of the functionalist theory suggest that the current efforts by the African Union (AU) to pursue and promote peace among countries experiencing widespread violence are a necessary precondition to economic integration and functional collaboration within the region.
The African Union has asserted that economic integration can only be achieved if there are political stability and good governance among the member-states. It is evidently clear that regional blocs can play an integral role in promoting peace-making strategies in a lawful manner compared to those of a solitary state.
This argument is based on the fact that regional blocs symbolize mutual interests as opposed to partisan interests pursued by a single state. This argument derives its support from the African case where regional blocs play an important role in arbitrating peace among the warring parties (Nathan 2010).
Regional blocs have also been set up to mitigate latent and real risks to regional security. For example, the European Coal and Steel Community (CSCE) aimed to mitigate security risks posed by Germany.
During the Cold War, CSCE played an active role in preventing military hostilities between the East Germany and the West Germany. In addition, the Soviet Union enlisted support from CSCE to pursue economic collaboration with Western countries (Nathan 2010).
Nevertheless, the functionalist approach has come under severe criticism because most of the regional organizations have not succeeded in alleviating conflict among warring parties. For example, proponents of this approach have failed to explain why the UN did not intervene to avert the genocide that took place in Rwanda.
In addition, the SAARC has abstained from establishing official strategies to mitigate violent conflicts in Asia because India believes that Pakistan might use the regional bloc to offset and limit India’s influence in the region.
This paper has shown that both the functionalist and the constructivist approaches are useful in explaining the formation of regional blocs among states (regionalism). Regionalism is an old concept which has attracted heated debate among scholars.
There is little consensus regarding the meaning of regionalism and its relevance to international relations. The concept of regionalism came into existence after the culmination of the First World War.
The United Nations (UN) persuaded states and non-state actors to change their perceptions regarding equality, security, development and peace. In a nutshell, the UN advocated for the establishment of regional blocs among states to pursue social, economic and political goals.
As mentioned earlier, the constructivist approach emphasizes that regional blocs are created as a result of shared cultural and political ideologies among member-states. For instance, the European Union was formed to pursue economic and political integration among member countries.
On the other hand, the functionalist approach stresses that regional blocs are formed to pursue and promote peaceful resolutions among warring partner.
For instance, the African Union (AU) and the Economic Organization of West African States (ECOWAS) were formed to pursue conflict resolution among some African states.
The functionalist approach emphasizes that peace and security and necessary preconditions to economic integration and collaboration among member states. Both theories are useful in explaining the concept of regionalism. However, they do not provide adequate theoretical foundations for understanding regionalism.
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