Regionalism poses one of the most important developments in modern international affairs and creates new issues for the sovereignty and self-determination of nations.
Basically, all three major threats to a state’s sovereignty relate to regionalist issues. Internal challenges by forces rejecting the existing state may be inspired by regionalist identity or backing by ambitious powers. The external challenge of being conquered and annexed is very much affected by the regional political situation. And the appeal of dissolving the country’s identity into a wider pan-nationalist or regionalist identity is the closest of all to that factor.
Historically, and still in the contemporary Middle East, many powers have sought to conquer their entire region. Initially, for some decades after those states gained independence, many Africans in the twentieth century and Latin Americans in the nineteenth thought their continents would come under a single, united state. During the 1930s and 1940s, Japan promoted the Greater Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere as a single regime to be ruled by Tokyo. Some attributed similar ambitions to the People’s Republic of China.
No continent saw more imperial ambitions to dominate it, what one might call regionalism from above, than did Europe. Between the 1500s and very recent times, European history is largely the playing out of these struggles. From the Spanish Armada, through the Napoleonic Wars and down through World Wars One and Two as well as the Cold War, strong states sought to rule Europe while others formed alliances to prevent this outcome. Among the candidates for hegemony have been Spain, France, Germany, and Russia. British foreign policy was based on maintaining a balance of power to block them.
In the Middle East, the dominant political ideology remains pan-Arab nationalism, the idea that all Arabic-speaking states should be subsumed in a single entity stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Persian Gulf. This fact subverts “normal” nation-state patriotism and rationalizes constant interference of countries in the affairs of others. From Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to today’s Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad leaders have manipulated these attitudes. Such developments as the 1958-1961 Egypt-Syria union and the 1990 Iraqi annexation of Kuwait took place in this framework. Arguably, radical Islamism operates along similar lines.
Only when the attempt to achieve organic unity comes to an end—when the political actors and masses conclude it is both impossible to achieve and too costly to try for—can regionalism from below come effectively into play. In most of the world, such voluntary regionalism has become an important fact of political life. But it still involves issues of defining or limiting sovereignty.
Basically, regionalism from below means that countries in a geographical area cooperate either for specific purposes or general mutual benefit, especially involving economic cooperation and peacekeeping. The most important general such institutions are the European Union (EU), Organization of American States (OAS), Organization of African Unity (OAU), Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and the Arab League. More localized groups include the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), for the smaller Arab states of the Persian Gulf area, and the Caribbean Community. Some associations are strictly economic, like the North American Free Trade Area (NAFTA), the Economic and Monetary Community of Central Africa (CEMAC), the East African Community (EAC), or the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
During the Cold War, of special importance were regional military alliances, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) which still exists and the Warsaw Pact, of Communist states, which does not. Other regional organizations have been created for economic development of specific resources—like the Black Sea, environmental issues, and so on. The looser Barcelona Process attempts to bring together nations in the Mediterranean Sea basin.
A key issue in regionalism is whether it is conducted on the basis of a relatively limited association or with the intention of achieving a high level of integration over time. In general, regional organizations do not seek to create a super-state in the area, nor do the member countries wish to surrender so much sovereignty.
Two such groups, the EU and the Arab League, do accept in theory the goal of arriving at a high level of integration. The Arab League has been notoriously ineffective in this respect, often failing to implement even its main resolutions despite the relative homogeneity of its membership.
The EU has put into effect a wide range of economic and business regulations, as well as a common currency, among its members which have generally been accepted. Britain in particular worried about membership eroding its sovereign rights and there was a time when the issue seemed likely to split the Conservative Party. Yet the history of concern over EU interference with state sovereignty has been largely an anti-climax (with three major exceptions discussed below) and European integration has largely been a success story.
Both of these exceptions, however, are indicative of the problems that take place when regionalism meets sovereignty. The first of these is the utter failure to develop a common European foreign policy. This came about due to sharp differences among the member states on a variety of issues and also on the basic lines of the level of cooperation or confrontation with the United States. The EU also proved ineffective in coping with some crises quite close to home, notably in Bosnia and Kosovo. States may seek compromise but they will not give up key elements of their international policy.
The second, and most important, area of problem was the stalling of steps toward further European integration, especially marked by the rejection of the proposed European constitution. It simply proved too difficult to paper over the differences among countries and political divides within member states to push this project to completion.
Finally, the question of Turkish EU membership turned into a case study of the potential battles between sovereignty and regionalism. The EU put a number of conditions on Turkey’s membership and there were also a variety of problems besetting this effort. They included the size of Turkey’s population (which would have given it a large influence on EU decisionmaking), its economic needs (requiring large amounts of EU aid), its majority Islamic religion (that was taken as making it culturally alien), and such specific issues as the Armenian, Kurdish, and Cyprus issues.
Turkey made a number of changes in its internal law and system—which certainly could have been viewed as a challenge to self-determination—to meet EU demands. On one hand, however, the majority was eager to get into the EU, in part as a mark of success at development and Westernization. On the other hand, many Turks welcomed the reforms as instituting more democracy and openness in their society.
By 2006, however, the process seemed to stall over the issue of Cyprus. The Turks demanded that Turkey open its air and sea ports to Greek Cypriot transport, since Cyprus was an EU member. The Turks demanded that the EU end their trade embargo on the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus, which no EU state recognized. After having made so many other concessions, this was a line the Turkish government did not want to cross, despite the benefits of EU membership. Indeed, Ankara concluded that the EU was looking for an excuse to keep it out. Here, self-determination and regionalism came into sharp conflict.
The EU is the world’s most successful regionalist organization, whose members collectively comprise the largest economic system on the planet. But the key issues of that group often involve sovereignty issues. Three in particular should be mentioned:
--How far should the member countries go toward political integration? The rejection of the proposed European constitution, though it did receive approval from a number of states, marked the limit to which constituencies were willing to go in that direction.
--Struggles by members over EU policy based on their own particular political culture, identity, and interests often force policy to be a bland compromise or lead to dissatisfaction by those who lose individual battles.
--The effort to create a common foreign policy has foundered on differences among members. High levels of military, economic, and technical cooperation have proved to be far easier.
On the economic side, for example, countries have given up a great deal far more easily than might have been expected. The EU is a customs union with a single currency, though some members have opted out of the latter. Citizens of one member can travel freely to others. EU-wide regulations and standards have been widely adopted within different countries. There are serious attempts to enforce minimal levels of democracy and human rights in the member states.
Beyond certain limits, sovereignty is jealously guarded. The issue is where precisely to locate those boundaries. Much of the EU’s success is that members know they can call a halt when they so choose. For instance, the common European Parliament has some authority but not so much as to frighten the member states. The same point applies to the European court, environment, and banking systems.
An important mechanism here is called inter-governmentalism, the making of decisions by individual governments—who still hold the real power—preferably on a unanimous basis and not the transfer of power to the organization’s leadership. The alternative here is called supranationalism, in which the EU bureaucracy would have more power and a simple majority of members would be sufficient for far-reaching decisions. This same dichotomy can be applied to other regionalist organizations, though they tend to be looser and more specialized than the EU.
At the time of the independence struggle against Spain in the early nineteenth century, South America’s most important leader, Simon Bolivar, proposed a tight-knit league of the resulting states. This dream did not last very long. While it has a long history of development, the OAS is also a post-World War Two organization. It has a range of human rights, court, development, free trade, and other institutions. Promoting peace among its members and, more recently, democracy have been stated goals.
Again, the sovereignty of individual members has been a powerful force limiting and defining the level of cooperation or intervention of which the OAS is capable. Behind the slogans, as with the EU, is the constant question of how much influence some members have and which countries get their way on key issues.
Thus, while regional organizations like the OAS brings members together it also makes them more—or at least constantly—aware of their own separate interests. The formation of blocs, also as in the EU, spurs members with differing views or interests to form counter-blocs. Of course, this type of maneuvering falls far short of the military-oriented alliances of a century ago, which in itself is a major sign of success for regional organizations.
Similar things can be said of the OAU. It, too, has panoply of institutions associated with it including those for transport, sports, communications, development, and economic cooperation. It has generally been less effective than its counterparts but has mounted peacekeeping efforts in recent years.
ASEAN provides a revealing story of how regional organizations can grow more productive and successful over time. Like the EU, it was implicitly established as an anti-Communist grouping. While the EU was established as an effort to counter the USSR and its bloc (which had their own “regional” organization in the Warsaw Pact), ASEAN was set up in opposition to China and the Communist states of Indochina. By the 1990s, however, the latter states became members. It has focused mainly on maintaining peace and fostering economic cooperation.
The Arab League provides an interesting counterpart to the other regional groupings. First and foremost, it actually is not a regional but an ethnic grouping, implying—in its name and composition--that the Middle East should be an exclusively Arab area. Moreover, the theoretical ambitions of its members and ideology have provoked a high level of conflict within the organization about achieving very much. This area is still subject to a regionalism from above framework, one reason for its high level of political turmoil.
In general, the success of modern regionalism is that it carefully avoids excessive or involuntary challenges to the sovereignty of the states located there. Yet the struggles of interest and identity do not cease to exist but are—fortunately—transferred from the battlefield to the conference room.