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Articles, Commentaries, The Edge

Smaller Powers Have a Laudable History Shifting Global Paradigms

By OOI KEE BENG, for The Edge Malaysia, 26 December 2021.

IT SEEMS NATURAL that discourse on international relations should be largely about the big powers of the world and how they happen to relate to each other. After all, even in the age of rampant social media, it is largely the US, still the sole superpower in many ways, that is deciding the paradigm within which most journalists, scholars and diplomats have to design their arguments.

Leaving that framework would make what they write challenging to comprehend and to disseminate, not to mention rendering them esoteric and peripheral. And so, what generally happens is that the conceptual needs of big powers and their values and strategic interests — in more potent words, their phantasmagorias — provide the nomenclature for international affairs.

Where there is more than one big power, a contest ensues that is more a strategic struggle than an epistemological debate. And so, today, we have China’s Belt and Road Initiative on one side, and the US’ proselytisation of the Indo-Pacific, among other projectiles of contention.

Such vortexes of thought cannot but draw the analyses coming out of other countries, be these small or middle powers, into their orbit. This in effect reveals the major failure of non-big powers over the last century in providing effective alternative international discourses to soften global polarities.

Seeking alternative choruses

The need for smaller nations to develop such discourses was strongly felt in the wake of World War II, when colonial territories were gaining independence like a string of falling dominos. Thus, in 1955, the Asian-African Conference took place in Bandung, Indonesia. Going down in history as the “Bandung Conference”, this gathering of 29 countries represented 54% of the world’s population, which should not surprise anyone since China, India and Indonesia — three of the four most populous countries in the world then and now — were all properly participating.

Given the tense times and the anxieties of these newly established governments, the principles the conference attendees agreed to in April 1955 were not surprising. They were: the promotion of economic and cultural cooperation; the protection of human rights; the principle of self-determination; an end to racial discrimination; and, the importance of peaceful coexistence.

In effect signalling a wish to pursue a path equidistant from the West and the Soviet Union, these countries sought colla­boration among themselves as a common protective shield and a third way for themselves.

In wanting “abstention from the use of arrangements of collective defence to serve the particular interests of any of the big powers”, this gathering of leaders inspired the founding of the Non-aligned Movement (NAM). The first NAM conference was held in Belgrade, then Yugoslavia, in 1961 under the leadership of Yugoslav president Josip Broz Tito, Egypt’s president Gamal Abdel Nasser, India’s prime minister Jawahar­lal Nehru, Ghana’s president Kwame Nkrumah and Indonesian president Soekarno.

Lacking a constitution, this movement relies on consensus among all its members before it can project its will on the global stage. During and after the Cold War, NAM has continued advocating international cooperation, multilateralism and national self-determination. In recent times, it has been more vocal about global inequities.

Despite the impressive size and history of such non-big power international bodies, the volume of the collective voice they have raised has seldom been significant in the larger scheme of things. The hugely diverse interests and cultures involved, and the need for consensus, have severely limited their ability to construct anything that comes close to being a viable paradigm for international power relations and human aspirations.

A grouping that holds much more promise where effective international influence is concerned, and which claims the Bandung Conference as its origin, has been BRICS, styled from the first letter of the names of its member states — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. But being a gathering of such enormous economies, BRICS cannot be expected to project any viable alternative world view. The sheer size of its combined economies guarantees its impact on the world, no doubt, but its stated goals are but general platitudes: it aims to promote peace, security, development and cooperation, and contribute significantly to the development of humanity and toward the establishment of a more equitable and fair world.

Asean more realistically sized

Much more relevant to Southeast Asia, but one that suffers from the same weaknesses mentioned above, is of course the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean). Being a regional body and not a global one like the others, its foci have been more effective and its objectives, especially in the economic sphere, more easily operationalised.

The Asean Declaration in 1967 states that the organisation’s aims are: (i) to accelerate the economic growth, social progress and cultural development in the region; and (ii) to promote regional peace and stability through abiding respect for justice and the rule of law. Be it due to luck or to diplomatic skill, international peace and progress, if not national harmony, has been abundantly achieved in the region.

But whether or not this commitment to peace and national sovereignty amounts to an alternative world view is far from clear. As with the Bandung Conference and the ensuing NAM, Asean’s goals seem more platitudinous than inspiring, and more apprehensive and enthusiastic.

The largest of international groupings of non-big powers is the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Officially founded in 1972 as the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, it now has 57 states as members and proclaims itself the collective voice of the Muslim world, purposed to “safeguard and protect the interests of the Muslim world in the spirit of promoting international peace and harmony”.

Self-interest stated in clichéd terms characterise the goals of such organisations and, in fact, limit their chances of championing viable alternative world views that are able to redefine international human relations beyond the ambit of the big powers.

Malaysia has in many cases been a major player in these international bodies, and there is no reason its stature in that context will diminish in the future. In fact, it should grow as its economy becomes more global.

By way of wrapping up, we should certainly not forget the Socialist International. Gaining its present form at the Frankfurt Congress of 1951, it boasts today a membership of 134 political parties and organisations from all over the world. Having a rich legacy stretching back to the early days of the French Revolution, and now possessing a clear social democratic agenda, this grouping has an ideological paradigm that goes beyond mere notions of peace and national sovereignty and, therefore, holds good promise of remaining a viable alternative to big-power-defined paradigms, especially in the post-neoliberal era.

How well bodies such as NAM or Asean or the OIC can embrace deeper experiences from attempts at alternative world views will determine their sustainability and credibility in the present age of rising big-power tensions. In this, Malaysia has a proud role to maintain.

Datuk Dr Ooi Kee Beng is the executive director of Penang Institute. His recent books include The Eurasian Core: Dialogues with Wang Gungwu on the History of the World (ISEAS 2016).


About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


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