International Relations of the Asia-Pacific

February 2004 (Volume 4, No. 1)


Deconstructing the ASEAN security community: a review essay
by Nicholas Khoo


Once viewed as a bastion of stability and economic growth, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is now beset with a variety of seemingly intractable problems ranging from terrorism to internal secessionist conflict and economic stagnation. The central and evolving role of ASEAN in the international relations of Southeast Asia since 1967 raises the question of how we should conceptualize the organization. This review article argues that Amitav Acharya's recent claim that a nascent security community is emerging in Southeast Asia is flawed for at least four reasons. First, a variety of problems surround the independent variable - norms - that Acharya uses to explain ASEAN's emergence as a security community. The author fails to adequately explain why the norms he privileges emerged as ASEAN's dominant norms. The lack of a convincing explanation for the origins of the author's favored ASEAN norms is damaging because, prima facie, other kinds of norms - 'perverse norms' - appear to give us greater purchase in understanding the organization. Second, a critical flaw in Acharya's argument relates to its tautological nature. Third, from an empirical perspective, the dependent variable, the nascent ASEAN security community has arguably never existed. Finally, alternative explanations for ASEAN are not fully explored. While Acharya examines neo-liberal institutionalism and neo-realism, he overlooks the possibility that a form of realist institutionalism may most accurately explain ASEAN's history, and perhaps even predict its future.