Cameroon lawyers

Striking Anglophone lawyers show off 1 easy way to tell them apart from Francophone lawyers… Image source: Bareta News

Identity politics are pretty much a universal axis of conflict, although the type of identity under dispute can vary. Religion is a very old and very bitter source of animosity. Class is a universal divide and still provokes outrage in places with high inequality. Race is a hot-button issue in multiracial countries. The nebulous concept of “ethnicity” divides and unites societies worldwide. Some commentators even point to the even more nebulous concept of “civilization” as a rallying point for political allegiance.

Language might seem to be less controversial, because it’s something everyone uses all the time everyday without much thought. But its very fundamentality makes it crucial and vital: how can you understand someone if you can’t understand what they’re saying? In multilingual contexts people sort themselves by preferred language all the time. In sub-Saharan Africa this can be a problem, given how many different languages are spoken across the continent, but luckily colonialism has given Africa a small group of languages that are spoken across tribal and national lines. Their importance in giving African countries something to unite around becomes obvious when you consider Cameroon, a central African country with the unusual situation of having 2 colonial languages.

Cameroon, like its giant neighbor Nigeria, is a very artificial country. It has over 200 different tribes and encompasses everything from the verdant Cameroon mountains in the west and the desert by Lake Chad in the north to the tropical jungles in the east and the plateau in the center and south. The north is more like the dry, Muslim Sahel region of West Africa and the east is more like the Congo jungle that dominates Central Africa. The more densely populated west has more in common with the tribes of Nigeria. (The upshot to this is that Cameroon is advertised to tourists as “Africa in Miniature”; since it’s located at the “hinge” where West Africa becomes Central Africa, it’s probably the single best introduction to the continent and packs a lot of diversity into a relatively small package.)

Cameroon’s colonial history only adds to this diversity. It was one of the blank spots on the map scooped up by Germany in the 1880s when it got into an imperialist mood. Thus, the colony was organized along German lines and German was the official language. But Germans never got very far into the interior (despite claiming a lot of territory); they stuck to the profitable, accessible coastal regions and relied on missionaries to do a lot of the intermediary stuff with Africans, and they tended to use local languages. When Germany lost control of the colony during World War I, there hadn’t been much cultural influence to clear away (although German remains a favorite language to study there).

Instead, Cameroon became a British AND French colony. It was surrounded by Britain in Nigeria to the west and France in its colonies to the south and east. They invaded together in 1914 and partitioned the colony between them. The trouble is, France got much further than Britain — leaving only a narrow strip along the Nigerian border in British hands. The colonial powers went on to govern their sections differently, too: Britain preferred to use indirect rule, leaving local elites intact and mostly staying out of local affairs, while France liked direct rule, scooping up plantations and mines, creating a rich settler community to manage them and introducing its customs and culture to “civilize” the Cameroonians.


After 1972 Cameroon became the “United Republic of Cameroon,” but the borders have stayed unchanged. Orange = German territory, red = British territory, blue = French territory.

When independence came to Africa in 1960, French Cameroon gained it without much fuss. The question was what to do about the British Cameroons, which were thought too small to be viable independent countries. Should they join neighboring Nigeria, from which they had been basically governed and with which they shared cultural and linguistic ties? Or should they join Cameroon, from which they’d been separated for 44 years and which would probably dominate them? The Brits put it to a vote in 1961, and surprisingly, the result was a split. Northern Cameroons chose to join Nigeria while Southern Cameroons went for reunification. (It’s hard to say why this was, but apparently local elites in the north decided that Nigeria would better protect their interests and vice versa in the south, and they managed to convince everyone else to vote accordingly.)

Northern Cameroons was soon absorbed and integrated into Nigeria, although transnational tribal ties linger, as they do across Africa. But Southern Cameroons faced the prospect of joining a much larger country where everyone spoke French and where many were in thrall to French culture. It was nervous, but initially the 2 former colonies formed a federation, where each had its own government and prime minister, with a president presiding over a weak central government in Yaoundé (in the French zone). But Cameroon’s founding father, Ahmadou Ahidjo, like most other African leaders, eventually came to crave more power and crushed all opposition to his rule. This included pesky West Cameroon, which was fully absorbed into a unitary republic in 1972 (hence the date on the map above).

English-speakers (“Anglophones”) were mollified by constitutional guarantees that their language would be respected; Cameroon is officially bilingual. Anglophones are often appointed as ministers in the national government. The unique administrative structures set up by Britain also remain intact. But Cameroon is a dictatorship; its president, Paul Biya, has clung onto power since 1982, which makes him 1 of what are derisively called Africa’s “dinosaurs” (really long-serving rulers). Threats to his power — or to national unity — are not tolerated.

Anglophones complain that they are 2nd-class citizens in their own country. French-speaking (“Francophone”) judges sent to their regions don’t understand British “common” law (France uses a different law code promulgated by Napoleon). Francophone teachers sent to their schools can’t easily communicate with their students. Yaoundé generally ignores the west or takes it for granted, since the region is cloaked by a veil of English.

Some Anglophones go even further and complain that they are actively discriminated against. Government funds are often linked with the tribal ties of the relevant ministers in Africa, and when the national government is dominated by Francophones, that means West Cameroon goes undeveloped. Attending school in the rest of Cameroon or getting a job in the big cities (both of which are Francophone) is hard for Anglophones, since they can’t understand their teachers or coworkers. There is widespread suspicion that, in the name of national unity, the bilingualism drive is really just a way to get all Cameroonians to speak French — something many Anglophones are reluctant to do.

Protests against the government have come and gone in Cameroon; they are usually tied to economic problems (which might say something in itself), and although in 1990 they played a role in getting Biya to liberalize a bit and allow other parties to run in elections, the language situation has not changed much. The latest outbreak of protests began in October with a lawyers’ strike. It then expanded to include teachers and eventually big parts of West Cameroon, to the extent that towns were declared “ghost towns” on Mondays and everyone would go on strike. (Those who dared to go to work faced arson and beatings for breaking the strike.)

The government responded with repression. Police broke up the protests and arrested anyone openly calling for secession (as “Ambazonia”); at least 6 protesters were killed. More deviously, it also pulled the plug on West Cameroon’s Internet. From January until April, the Anglophone areas — already separated from many Cameroonian websites by their language — were cut off from the Internet altogether, partly as punishment, partly to squelch any organized resistance. The west is one of Cameroon’s most economically vibrant regions, dubbed “Silicon Mountain” due to its tech start-ups. The Internet blackout cost it $3 million and forced everyone to keep in touch via texting instead. Anyone needing to use the Internet had to take the day-long journey into the Francophone part of the country on Cameroon’s crummy buses.

So is Cameroon headed for civil war and breakup? Probably not. Secession is very hard to actually achieve in Africa; the last time it happened was in 2011 (South Sudan), and not only was that a rare and remarkable event, but it’s gone REALLY badly since. Even without government repression tying up their organizational efforts, Anglophone groups are very divided. Some want an independent Ambazonia, others want to go back to the “good old days” of federalism, others just want more decentralized government and local autonomy. Within West Cameroon, there are tribal divides and a rivalry between the “Graffi” of the Grasslands in North West Cameroon and the coastal people of the South West. Some are suspicious that talk of secession is just a ploy for Anglophone politicians to grab more power.

Francophones, meanwhile, are not very sympathetic. They make up 80% of the country and think Anglophones are whiny. They point out that other parts of the country are worse off (like the north, which is harried by the jihadist rebels of Boko Haram) and comparatively quiescent. Anglophones get plenty of central government positions, including the prime minister’s office, and they tend to be pretty content and pro-Biya once they get them. And as Emmanuel Anyefru points out in “The Refusal to Belong,” Cameroonians have many bonds that cut across linguistic lines. Both Anglophones and Francophones like Cameroon’s catchy makossa music, eat plantains and fufu, drink beer and palm wine, watch Cameroon Radio and Television, and enjoy the formidable national soccer team. A pidgin form of English is also widely understood across the country, even if it’s not what you’re supposed to speak in school or the office.

Cameroon’s experience sheds some light on how important languages are for bringing a country together. A common language — especially a colonial language, since they come from outside and are not ethnically biased within African contexts — can serve to bind wildly different tribes and cultures together. Lacking this, it’s harder to conjure up a sense of national identity. When the linguistic minority is as small as Cameroon’s is, it makes the feeling of victimization and discrimination even more acute. Although it’s by no means a perfect solution (except for the most passionately nationalist, anyway), Canada might be a good model for Cameroon. With a small but fiercely proud Francophone minority overshadowed by an Anglophone majority spanning the continent, Canada is sort of the reverse of Cameroon. But a bilingual national identity is carefully cultivated in Canada, and national politicians are expected to be fluent in both languages.

(Or Cameroon could just try more political liberalization, although dictators usually hate that.)




Image sources: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images and Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/AFP/Scanpix

The American presidential election has dominated global news headlines for the past year. Although it mostly falls outside the scope of this blog, on the eve of the election it is helpful to learn more about the role foreign policy has played in it. After all, the US remains the most important country in the world, yet its foreign policy is often ignored in presidential campaigns.

The Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, has wide-ranging policy expertise, including as Secretary of State (foreign minister) from 2009 to 2013. She is a fixture of high-level politics, having played an active role in it as First Lady during the 1990s and cultivating close relationships with world leaders through the Clinton Foundation, a nonprofit focusing on international development issues. As such, she has earned the respect and sometimes admiration of politicians (and more) around the world. She is certainly well-versed in international politics; she visited 112 countries during her tenure as Secretary of State.

As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton advanced the foreign policy views of her husband, former president Bill Clinton. This means a commitment to America’s relationships and a positive image of America as global benefactor and role model (“soft power”), while occasionally resorting to intimidation, threats and force (“hard power”) to cow uncooperative countries into line. They spouted lots of rhetoric about human rights, free markets and political participation while resorting to outright intervention mostly in cases where America’s strategic interests were at stake. This has become more or less the norm in American diplomacy, and while foreigners sometimes grumble about hypocrisy or imperialism, by and large the world admires America’s safeguarding of a durable international order and its role model of a thriving, capitalistic, pluralistic society. She has been particularly interested in development, arguing in her 1996 book It Takes a Village that broad community-level support is important for successful child-raising. She is also involved in women’s issues, meeting with women’s groups in especially sexist countries and calling for more participation of women in public life, reasoning that many global problems are exacerbated (or caused) by too much testosterone and the systematic exclusion of half the population.

During the 2008 presidential election, when Hillary Clinton unsuccessfully ran for the Democratic nomination against Barack Obama, differences over foreign policy came into stark focus. Although both criticized George Bush’s adventurism in Iraq and aloof attitudes toward traditional European allies, Clinton turned out to be the more hawkish of the 2. (After all, she had initially supported the invasion of Iraq, as had many Americans.) She scorned Obama’s willingness to meet with leaders of rogue states like Iran or North Korea — the remaining members of Bush’s “Axis of Evil” — as naive and indicative of Obama’s inexperience. Then as his secretary of state she ended up carrying out many of the same policies she had critiqued. Taking advantage of a new Russian president, the relatively sympathetic Dmitriy Medvedyev, she tried to “reset” Russo-American relations and cooperate with a country that America had had testy relations with. She also held back in Syria as that country dissolved into sectarian civil war. She still proved to have a somewhat harsh view of foreign policy compared to Obama, though: she imposed sanctions on Iran after initial efforts to come to terms were snubbed, she bombed Libya in support of a rebellion against its dictator, Moamar Gadafi, and she was involved in the covert mission that killed America’s archnemesis, Osama bin Ladan.

Thus Clinton is seen as the “continuity” candidate, adopting a moderate, traditionally American course of action between the usual twin poles of American foreign policy, militant interventionism and so-called “isolationism” (which is really only isolationist in comparison). She accepts the nationalist American ideology of the US as a beacon of hope and opportunity for the world and sees spreading its gospel to new territories like the Arab world and Myanmar as her mission. While she’s not as bold in this regard as Republican predecessors like Bush or Ronald Reagan, her views are hawkish enough to give some people pause. For instance, she is critical of Obama’s policy on Syria and has long argued for a “no-fly zone,” meaning designating an area in Syria as a safe zone and shooting down any planes that enter it, and more aid for Syrian rebels. She has also taken a hard line on Russia (she reportedly was skeptical of the reset), arguing that its dictator, Vladimir Putin, shouldn’t be trusted and pushing for tighter sanctions and more aid for Ukraine, its victim. On the other hand, there’s no sign that she would be interested in outright invading a country without international or local support.

The Republican candidate, Donald Trump, on the other hand, has a radically different foreign policy. His campaign is built on a strongly protectionist agenda. He launched it last year with a vow to cut off immigration from Mexico with a wall along the border. Not only that, but he’s said that Mexico will pay for it. How this will happen is unclear, although he’s said that he will pressure Mexico to do it by cutting off remittances from Mexican-Americans. His animosity against Mexican immigrants stems from the belief that they are taking American jobs, a longstanding Republican gripe. He is also critical of free trade, repeatedly slamming Clinton for her husband’s support of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Canada and Mexico and her previous support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an ambitious 12-country trade deal covering the Americas, Oceania and East Asia (she has since turned against it as well). He is especially enraged by China, which is sometimes seen as America’s chief economic rival, and vows to slap a punitive 45% tariff on Chinese-made goods. Given how many things in American markets are made in China, this will doubtless hurt consumers a lot.

Trump’s other major campaign promise in 2015, made in response to a mass murder committed by Muslims that year, was to cut off Muslim immigration entirely. It’s unclear how this will be enforced, and he has since walked back his sweeping declaration (“a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on”) a little to “extreme vetting” of immigrants from places with a history of terror. In this he represents a hard-line version of Republican orthodoxy, which is to take stern measures against terrorism and Muslims with radical beliefs, although the explicit connection of the Muslim religion with his ban makes many uncomfortable and may not be constitutional. This logic is carried over to apply to America’s campaign against the Islamic State, which he has vowed to “bomb the shit out of,” including their families. He is ready to bring back waterboarding and other methods of torture. He has a secret plan to defeat the Islamic State which he won’t divulge until after the election. After destroying Iraq’s oil infrastructure to strangle the Islamic State, oil companies would then rebuild it and the US will somehow take it for itself. He also pumped up a crowd once during the campaign by telling a (false) story from the Philippine War about an American general mass-executing Muslim guerrillas with bullets dipped in pigs’ blood.

In these ways Trump seems to fit in with the usual Republican foreign policy stance, which is to be hard on national security and fiercely protective, to the point of belligerence, of Americans and American interests abroad. But in many ways he is not. Most of his foreign policy views are throwbacks to the pre-World War II isolationist era, when Americans viewed the rest of the world with suspicion and disdain and ignored it as much as possible. He claims to have been against the Iraq War from the beginning, and in any case opposes it now, using it as a tool to bludgeon Clinton with. Probably recognizing that most Americans — including his base of support, the rural lower class — don’t really care about foreign politics, he calls for a sweeping withdrawal of American commitments overseas. He wants to pull America out of NATO unless other members pay more for it. He has threatened to do the same with Japan and South Korea, claiming that he doesn’t see the benefits of America’s alliances with them, unless they assume a more equal position. He is willing to let both countries develop their own nuclear weapons rather than promise to protect them from China’s and North Korea’s.

So Trump represents a sharp break from the Republican party on this as well as on domestic policy. Many Republicans have a bombastically nationalist, almost evangelist view of America and are eager to spread American money, influence, and troops around the world. Trump has a nationalist agenda (his motto is to “Make America Great Again,” after all), but he reaches different conclusions: America should mind its own business and focus on restoring the American economy and American jobs. The rest of the world is mostly seen as a threat, either from nasty terrorists, job-stealing immigrants or scheming businessmen. He is a businessman with no political experience, and unsurprisingly he tends to take a transactional view of things, constantly emphasizing “deals,” vowing to be the greatest dealmaker ever and approaching relationships with a cold, mercantile eye, rather than as a friend or enemy. (His best-selling book is called The Art of the Deal.) This has informed his stance on Russia, where he makes the strongest break from general Republican foreign policy opinion. He has openly admired Putin (even claiming him as a friend a few years ago), sought to do business with Russia, and expressed a willingness to work with it over thorny issues like Syria or Ukraine. His strongman style has provoked fears that he may be sympathetic to dictators as guys who get things done. His former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, had business ties in Russia and Ukraine, and he once advised ousted Ukraine president Viktor Yanukovich.

There are other candidates, but despite the record-high displeasure with both Clinton and Trump, they have had little impact on the race. Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate, has taken the most isolationist stance, constantly chiding America for its imperialism and its wasted efforts to control other countries. He’s also struggled with an image of being dopey and uninformed. Evan McMullin, an independent candidate with a strong following in the western state of Utah, embodies the traditional conservative line: high military spending, a strong commitment to foreign alliances, and an emphasis on armed intervention and opposition to dictatorship. The hard left side of the political spectrum is represented by Jill Stein of the Green party, who relentlessly criticizes American imperialism, belligerence, meddling in foreign conflict, and who also wants to cut military spending and pull back from overseas alliances.

Given Trump’s drastic departure from America’s foreign policy trajectory (not to mention his embodiment of pretty much every negative American stereotype), most foreigners loudly and overwhelmingly support Clinton. The exceptions have been Russia and China, who calculate that Trump’s pledges to withdraw from the world stage work in their favor. Although we’ll find out soon enough, polls suggest that most Americans are With Her.


ASEAN leaders

ASEAN’s leaders always have to do this at each summit. For extra nerd points, name the country each one is from! (Here’s a hint for #2.) Image source: Official Gazette of the Republic of the Philippines

In the name of unity, strength, and expanded markets, countries have been banding together into regional unions since World War II destroyed colonial empires and discredited old-fashioned international relations. The European Union (EU), with its common currency, multi-armed bureaucracy and regional parliament, is the most famous of these, and justly so — it’s the world’s 2nd-largest economy (or #1, depending on whom you ask) and has its own foreign relations. But there are other regional unions, too, with their own distinctive identities and cultures.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN; pronounced asean, not eizien) is probably the 2nd-most important of these, even though only Southeast Asians and foreign policy wonks seem to know about it. But it’s an increasingly relevant and interesting group, so it’s high time for us to check it out.


Image source: ASEAN UP

Southeast Asia, above all else, is characterized by its diversity. Thanks mostly to its geography — with most of its people living on a series of islands scattered around the sea and the long Malay Peninsula being the only land link with the river-based kingdoms on the mainland — Southeast Asians went through most of their history without a sense of common identity or much interest in their neighbors. The Khmer Empire and, later, Siam might have dominated the mainland, and Srivijaya and Majapahit may have dominated the islands, but there was no pan-Southeast Asian identity until recently. Even religiously, the region isn’t on the same page: the mainland is fervently Buddhist while the islands mostly prefer Islam. The Philippines was converted to Christianity by Spain; Vietnam has its own religion strongly influenced by China.

The colonial era gave Southeast Asia a new sense of identity simply because almost everyone was colonized. India, to the west, was dominated by Britain; China, to the north, remained independent. Southeast Asia came under British, Dutch, French, Spanish, American and Portuguese rule. That marked it off from the rest of Asia, but it still didn’t do much to unify it. The real dawn of a sense of “Southeast Asia” came during World War II, when the region was finally unified by Japan. Even then, “Southeast Asia” was a term mostly used by foreigners.

In the postwar period, though, some Southeast Asians began to see common links and interests among them. The big concern then was Communism; Communist insurgencies plagued most of the area’s new countries after the war, and Indonesia had one of the world’s biggest and most active Communist parties. A Communist regime took power in North Vietnam in 1954 and went on to destabilize and interfere with its neighbors. The innately conservative leaders of Southeast Asia were worried about social unrest, economic collapse and an impending Commie takeover. America threw together a Southeast Asia Treaty Organization in 1954 to guard against this, but it only included Thailand and the Philippines (the rest were all foreigners!) and never amounted to much. Besides, after the struggle against colonists and Japan, Southeast Asians were eager to throw off foreign domination.

There were other impetuses behind the group’s formation. Indonesia and Malaysia went to war in 1963 over who would get northern Borneo. Malays in southern Thailand launched an (ongoing) insurgency in the hopes of secession. With the Communist threat looming, Indonesia’s new dictator, Suharto, was annoyed at the thought of petty squabbles like these distracting local leaders. He wanted to focus on the Communist threat and purged his country’s Communist party in 1965. He was the figure behind ASEAN’s creation in 1967.

Beyond the political motivations, ASEAN’s founders also had economic ambitions for their new union. It was meant to promote trade links and eventually create a common market for local goods. The original members — Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines — all had close links with the global economy and often their old masters and wanted to promote openness and cultural exchange. Tariffs were gradually reduced and protected sectors opened up until a free trade area was declared in 1992. (Meanwhile, tiny Brunei joined in 1984.) These ambitions ran into some difficulties due to basic economic realities, though: like the rest of the developing world, Southeast Asia is mostly rural, and depends on commodities and raw materials for its foreign exchange. It buys manufactured goods in return. This led it to try tricks like industrial investment projects involving components from different countries in ASEAN; they didn’t turn out very well.

Meanwhile, Communism was indeed held at bay (although the extent to which ASEAN was responsible for this is dubious). North Vietnam conquered South Vietnam and Communists took over Laos and Cambodia, but the results were stagnant, and none of the Communist insurgencies elsewhere in the region ever caught on. When the Soviet Union collapsed in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the Communist countries of Indochina had no leg to stand on. They opened up their economies, privatized many of their state-owned enterprises, and reversed collectivized agriculture. In the late ’90s, ASEAN’s old enemies joined the club, implicitly endorsing its liberal agenda. In a move that surprised many, even Myanmar, a non-Communist but closed, repressive, and impoverished country, joined in 1997. This makes ASEAN almost complete, encompassing all of Southeast Asia except East Timor.

ASEAN regularly holds summits and meetings of its members’ ministers, and occasionally meets with important foreigners (Americans, Indians, Chinese), but its meetings have a reputation for being staid, boilerplate and overall uneventful. But it made headlines recently for finally inaugurating the ASEAN Economic Community in 2015… on the very last day of the year.

The economic community was a long time in coming, although few predicted that it would actually come together in time. It aims to forge ASEAN into a single market and production base, encourage competitiveness and equitable development, and further integrate Southeast Asia into the global economy. And indeed, 70% of trade in the region is tariff-free. There are international rail, road, and energy infrastructure projects. The standards for some skilled positions have been unified, creating a common labor market and giving employers access to a broader base of talent.

To get the community going in time, though, involved a bit (O.K., maybe a lot) of fudging. Lim Hng Kiang, Singapore’s Minister of Trade & Industry, described ASEAN as “Like the swan, we do not always move forward. We sometimes go in rounds – but always gracefully.”

Non-tariff barriers to economic integration remain, from language tests for those skilled workers to quotas. There are still lots of protected sectors, even ones that are supposed to be open to competition across ASEAN — Indonesia protects its airlines, for example, and Malaysia shields its car industry. Except in Indochina and the Singapore area, few of ASEAN’s international transport links have come to fruition. The ASEAN Power Grid and Trans-ASEAN Gas Pipeline are only half-complete.

Southeast Asia’s biggest businesses tend to have cozy ties with the state, either via what’s called “crony capitalism” (as in Malaysia) or through state-owned enterprises (as in Vietnam). Industries are still in their infancy and governments feel obliged to protect them. Most of Southeast Asia’s businesses are small or medium-sized and can’t compete on a global scale. For all these reasons, ASEAN leaders only enact trade reforms when they want to. Intra-ASEAN trade still doesn’t make much economic sense, either. Singapore has been the local trading hub ever since it was founded in 1819, so it has been in the forefront of the drive to liberalize trade, but other countries trade more with China, Japan, or the West. Most Southeast Asian economies are part of a manufacturing chain with China, and there’s only so much lowering trade barriers can do.

As a result, ASEAN has developed its own culture of taking it easy and not enforcing the standards it sets. There is no penalty for breaking the rules. Unlike the EU, there is no political requirement — it started as a dictators’ club, and countries like Thailand and Vietnam are still staunch authoritarians. There is virtually no Brussels-style bureaucracy, just a small secretariat in Jakarta (the capital of Indonesia, ASEAN’s giant) with 400 employees and a budget of $17 million. ASEAN values consensus and harmony and avoids criticizing its members. This has led many (perhaps most) foreigners from writing it off as toothless.

Although ASEAN is primarily an economic union, it also has a big political component, which is why such a weird collection of economies has grouped together in the first place. It has been caught in the geopolitical tremors caused by the rise of China. Many of ASEAN’s members (Vietnam and the Philippines, and increasingly Malaysia and Myanmar) are worried about China’s growing assertiveness and its arrogance in diplomacy with the region. Vietnam and the Philippines, in particular, are embroiled in a dispute with China over the sea and islands between them and have been visibly drawing closer to America in response. But everyone also has close business and diplomatic ties with China and is nervous about too sharp of a break. Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia, in particular, are very poor and heavily dependent on China for infrastructure projects and development aid. When Cambodia hosted the ASEAN summit in 2012, Chinese pressure kept the group from issuing its usual joint statement. The same thing happened with a defense summit last November.

Part of the problem is a lack of leadership. France and (especially) Germany are the clear leaders of the EU, but history, geography and the aforementioned culture of consensus mean that the 10 countries of ASEAN rotate the chair each year and have equal power. Indonesia, with 40% of the area’s population and by far its biggest economy, would seem to be in a better position than Germany to dominate, but it lacks a history of imperialism, has a culture of diplomacy and persuasion, and is mostly inward-focused anyway. In fact, it’s been shown up by the small city-state of Singapore, which has a large, professional, English-speaking and culturally savvy diplomatic corps, a vision of economic and cultural integration, and a multiethnic composition that keeps nationalism out of the way. Thailand has been distracted by its political problems; Vietnam is a rising star catching up with the bigger economies, but still mostly focused on internal development and its relations with China and America.

This lack of cohesion, enforcement mechanisms, common culture, and failure to hold itself to strict standards has led foreigners to dismiss ASEAN as only a “talking shop” for heads of state to get together and compare notes with. It’s definitely nowhere near as coherent as the EU and doesn’t present much of an obstacle to Chinese ambition. If ASEAN wants to be taken seriously on the world stage, it will need to unite a little more.

I personally do not share the Western consensus of dismissal of ASEAN. It definitely has its problems, as I’ve pointed out, but sometimes I think the comparison with the EU gives rise to unrealistic expectations.

The EU has a fundamental common heritage and a shared trauma of conflict to pull it together. ASEAN lacks this. Myanmar’s people speak different languages, worship different gods, and have different cultures from, say, Filipinos. If ASEAN had stricter rules and standards, it would not have grown as fast as it did. ASEAN’s leaders welcome the club because they are treated fairly (as they perceive it) and face no overt pressure.

ASEAN’s founding declaration emphasizes things like “collaboration… on matters of common interest” and “assistance to each other in the form of training and research facilities.” It’s meant to provide for closer links between its members, which helped prompt a sense of common identity and gradually spread the ideal of open borders and free trade among its members. In this sense it has made great strides since its founding. When ASEAN celebrates its 50th anniversary next year, it can look back on decades of peace, economic dynamism, and the successful integration of Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam — some of Asia’s poorest countries when they joined in the ’90s. No, it doesn’t have a common currency, but how could it? The gap between Myanmar (with $23 billion in trade) and Singapore (with $783 billion in trade) is just way too big.

Europeans also need to keep in mind that Asia has different cultural values. Democracy and public participation is not cherished as highly, especially not among the governing classes. Consensus and community are important. Cracking down on troublemakers and trying to clarify its culture and goals might alienate some members and even drive them out. ASEAN prefers to lead by example. It may lead to cheating and frustratingly slow progress, but I’m not convinced that it’s an ultimately ineffectual style. With the EU now mired in crisis and mutual hostility, ASEAN may even have something to teach the rest of the world.

ASEAN flag

The ASEAN flag. Guess what the bound stalks represent. Image source: World Flag Database