“Today, existing regional organizations, like the EU, the African Union for instance, undoubtedly have a key role to play in global governance, as platforms to forge consensus on global issues at continental or regional level. The United Nations acknowledges this role and has close relations with these organizations.”
Joseph Deiss, President of the United Nations General Assembly, 8 June 2011
In an increasingly global but simultaneously regionalized world, global governance and the work of the global body — the United Nations (UN) — are no longer made up solely of interstate cooperation. Regional governance has been in ascendancy in the past few decades (and particularly so since the end of the cold war) in various fields, including economy, trade, finance, health, development and environment — and very clearly so in peace and security.
Supranational regions have become increasingly more important, and governance and policy-making have spread over different layers. The rise of the regions can often be linked to the challenges posed by globalization — and is, in turn, challenging the Westphalian conception of a state-based international system. Since the UN, as a club of states, is also essentially based on this logic, the influence of this new form of governance on the development, present management and foreseeable reforms of the UN deserves a closer look.
Scholars have been struggling with the conceptual framework of regionalism for decades. The academic literature is generally disjointed and crosses numerous academic disciplines.
For example, in the fields of geography or development, regions are usually seen as subnational entities. Economists focus their attention on regional trade agreements, regional development banks, customs unions or regional currency areas.
In international relations and international law, regions are usually treated as supranational subsystems of the international system — as emerging regional formations with their own dynamics.
Deutsch defines regions as “groups of countries markedly interdependent over a wide range of different dimensions”. Nye views a region as “a limited number of states linked together by a geographical relationship and by a degree of mutual interdependence”.
Even when focusing on the formalized or institutionalized supranational regions (i.e., regional organizations), one is faced with a varied set of cases/objects. This is related to the proliferation of often-overlapping regional arrangements, the experimentation with different organizational models, and the lack of standardizing mechanisms (such as international law or diplomatic practice). In other words, regions (and regional integration processes) are “moving targets”.
The so-called new regionalism, the rapid increase of new initiatives since the 1990s, refers to more sophisticated ways of looking at regions than these more traditional definitions. Regionalization is increasingly seen as a complex and multidimensional process of societal transformation involving a variety of actors, not just states, and is analysed from a cross-disciplinary perspective.
Illustrative of the new approaches, Robert Jessop, for example, argues that “rather than [to] seek an elusive objective […] criterion for defining a region, one should treat regions as emergent, socially constituted phenomena” whereby a geographical area is transformed from a passive object to an active subject, capable of articulating the transnational interests of the emerging region.
Regions were — in some way or another — part of the UN from its inception, and are present in their different forms in the UN Charter and in the development of the UN structures and agencies. The visible regional aspects of the UN are the regional economic commissions linked to the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), the regional electoral groupings linked to the UN Security Council and the UN General Assembly, and the cooperation with regional arrangements or agencies as foreseen in Chapter VIII of the Charter.
Despite this, regions were never properly defined or understood. When it was time for the UN Charter drafters to define the concepts of region, regional agency and regional arrangement, the parties were unable to do so — for lack of empirical examples, or most likely to allow for more flexibility and pragmatism in the creation of new regional forms. Therefore, the UN Charter does not define the “region”. but speaks only of cooperation with “regional agencies or arrangements” without further dwelling on their distinction.
Maybe also because of this “UNdefinition”, the following years witnessed the development of UN regional structures growing independently in different directions, with different memberships, mandates and areas of operation. The result has been that even the regional economic commissions and electoral groupings use varying and overlapping regional boundaries and do not share identical mandates. This has lead to today’s complex and confusing cooperation structures.
This definitional/legal problématique should not be solved exclusively by the regions themselves. It is precisely the engagement of multilateral institutions like the UN (and nation-states) that will institutionalize relations and typify the regions.
The question that might arise is: If the regions are still such an undefined and contested concept, why then the focus on regional action and cooperation?
Security itself has become multilevel — less nationally bounded, easily having global ramifications and very often regional in nature. Not only do conflicts spill over and become regional, but their consequences also gain regional proportions. The same is easily understood for the fields of economy, trade, finance, development, social impacts of immigration and so on.
The nature of regional organizations is also changing. Some organizations have developed from purely economic organs to peacekeepers or even peace enforcers, showing comparative advantages in faster responses to conflict and a capacity to address root causes. Others have grown from a collective security mandate into much broader development-related fields.
According to Peou, “facing so many challenges in security”, the UN has a better chance of achieving its goals by helping to build effective regional organizations and security communities. This new form of security governance must enhance the role of the regions and profit from their comparative advantages, but also keep the legitimacy of the global body and help promote cooperation between the regions. This will help to create a cooperative environment where regions are not competing block-to-block but are becoming building blocks of a reformed new multilateral governance system.
Regional organizations can contribute to regional peace and prosperity in two ways. First of all, regional integration processes can be an engine for peace. Diplomacy, economic and cultural exchange, and soft power rather than military means are the currency of interactions.
The blurring of borders makes peace and security not only expected, but crucial for every member of the integration process, resulting in the creation of a “security community”. This is well demonstrated by the case of the European Union (EU).
Secondly, the geographical changes in conflict make the regional approach logical. The regionalization of conflict has become a reason for region building. Regional bodies have an interest to prevent, contain or solve conflicts in their region because of the disastrous humanitarian and development effects and — not the least — because of the spill-over effects into the region.
The way to overcome the present crisis in the traditional form of governance portrayed by the UN — intergovernmental multilateralism — is to accept regionalism and build on it. Regional organizations can be seen as building blocks for an effective world community.
Regional organizations are not to be judged a priori as anti-United Nations or as undermining global organizations, but as stepping stones to this global community of organizations. Further, the need for including supranational regions in the UN context should not necessarily be understood as adding an additional layer of governance; it is possible to visualize hybrid interactions (involving countries and regions) in a number of policy areas, for economic, demographic or political reasons.
In security operations in particular, the involvement of regional organizations can increase the effectiveness of UN intervention on the level of legitimacy, political/cultural sensitivity and speed of intervention.
But, independently of the perceived need for more involvement of regional organizations in global peace governance, we should not overestimate their current capacity (i.e., political and/or economic weight, financial resources, internal coherence, impartiality, etc.) to effectively intervene, nor underestimate the significant (institutional, economic) heterogeneity. In addition, the issue of overlapping memberships is a complicating factor.
It will constitute a challenge to involve regional organizations like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), with strong positions on non-interference, in regional global security mechanisms. But limited pragmatic cooperation can be expected and a further development in the direction of a rules-based regionalism is a possible scenario for the future. ASEAN-UN cooperation is in the short term more promising in the less political/politicized areas of human security.
It is also important to note that some observers take a critical stance and argue that regional policies are not necessarily compatible with the ultimate goal of producing global public goods. If regional organizations are to play a role globally, their policies and operations should be framed within a logic of global public policies. Other observers also stress that it is essential for the UN to continue to play a central role, even if cooperation with regional organizations is sought.
Importantly, regional organizations should not be considered as passive objects in these debates; they are likely to become more active actors themselves in global governance reform as a growing diversity of international actors strive to carve out their roles in a changing international environment.
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This article is based on a wider reflection on the interaction between the UN and the regions. The results of this reflection are published as De Lombaerde, Baert and Felício (eds), The United Nations and the Regions, Springer.