MySay: Small Powers Have a Laudable History Shifting Global Paradigms
It seems natural that much of the discourse on international relations is about the great powers of the world and their relations with each other. After all, even in the age of rampant social media, it is largely the United States, still the only superpower in many ways, that decides the paradigm in which most journalists, academics, and diplomats must frame their arguments. .
Leaving this framework would make what they write difficult to understand and disseminate, let alone make them esoteric and peripheral. And so, what usually happens is that the conceptual needs of the great powers and their strategic values and interests – in more powerful terms, their phantasmagoria – provide the nomenclature of international affairs.
Where there is more than one great power, a struggle ensues which is more of a strategic struggle than an epistemological debate. And so, today we have on one side the China Belt and Road Initiative, and the proselytizing of the United States of the Indo-Pacific, among other projectiles of contention.
Such whirlwinds of thought can only draw into their orbit analyzes from other countries, be they these small or medium powers. This indeed reveals the major failure of the non-great powers over the last century to provide effective alternative international discourses to soften global polarities.
Search for alternative choirs
The need for small nations to develop such discourses was strongly felt in the aftermath of World War II, when colonial territories gained independence like a chain of falling dominoes. So in 1955, the Afro-Asian Conference was held 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 come as no surprise since China, India and Indonesia – three of the four countries the most populous in the world then and today – all participated correctly.
Given the tight times and the anxieties of these newly established governments, the principles upon which conference participants agreed in April 1955 were not surprising. These were: the promotion of economic and cultural cooperation; protection of human rights; the principle of self-determination; the end of racial discrimination; and the importance of peaceful coexistence.
Meaning in effect the wish to follow 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.
By wanting to “refrain from resorting to collective defense devices to serve the particular interests of any one of the great powers”, this gathering of leaders inspired the founding of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). The first NAM conference was held in Belgrade, then in Yugoslavia, in 1961 under the leadership of Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Ghanaian President Kwame Nkrumah and President Indonesian Soekarno.
In the absence of a constitution, this movement is based on a consensus among all its members before being able to project its will on the world stage. During and after the Cold War, NAM continued to advocate international cooperation, multilateralism and national self-determination. In recent times, he has spoken more about global inequalities.
Despite the impressive size and history of these international bodies that are not great powers, the volume of collective voice they have raised has rarely been significant in the larger picture. The extremely diverse interests and cultures involved, and the need for consensus, have severely limited their ability to build anything that comes close to a viable paradigm for international power relations and human aspirations.
One group which is much more promising in terms of effective international influence, and which claims the Bandung Conference as its origin, has been BRICS, named from the first letter of the names of its member states – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. But being such a huge collection of economies, the BRICS cannot be expected to project an alternative view of the viable world. The sheer size of its combined economies guarantees its impact on the world, no doubt, but its stated goals are just general platitudes: it aims to promote peace, security, development and cooperation, and contributes significantly for the development of humanity and the establishment of a more equitable and just world.
Plus size realistic asean
Much more relevant to Southeast Asia, but which 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 centers have been more efficient and its objectives, particularly in the economic field, more easily operationalized.
The 1967 Asean Declaration states that the objectives of the organization are: (i) to accelerate economic growth, social progress and cultural development in the region; and (ii) promote regional peace and stability through absolute respect for justice and the rule of law. Whether by luck or diplomatic skill, international peace and progress, if not national harmony, have been abundantly achieved in the region.
But it is far from clear whether or not this commitment to peace and national sovereignty amounts to an alternative view of the world. As with the Bandung conference and the NAM that followed, ASEAN’s goals seem more mundane than inspiring, and more fearful and enthusiastic.
The largest of the international groupings of non-great powers is the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Officially founded in 1972 as the Organization of the Islamic Conference, it now has 57 member states and proclaims itself the collective voice of the Muslim world, with the aim of “safeguarding and protecting the interests of the Muslim world in the spirit of to promote international peace and harmony “.
Self-interest expressed in cliché terms characterizes the objectives of these organizations and, in fact, limits their chances of defending viable alternative worldviews capable of redefining international human relations beyond the framework of the great powers.
Malaysia has in many cases been a major player in these international bodies, and there is no reason for its stature in this context to diminish in the future. In fact, it is expected to grow as its economy goes global.
In conclusion, we must certainly not forget the Socialist International. Having acquired its present form at the 1951 Frankfurt Congress, it now has 134 political parties and organizations from all over the world. With a rich heritage dating back to the early days of the French Revolution and now possessing a clear social democratic agenda, this group has an ideological paradigm that goes beyond mere notions of peace and national sovereignty and, therefore, promises to stay a viable alternative to the paradigms defined by the great powers, especially in the post-neoliberal era.
The ability of bodies such as NAM or ASEAN or the OIC to embrace more in-depth experiences drawn from attempted alternative worldviews will determine their sustainability and credibility in the current era of increasing tensions between the great powers. In this, Malaysia has a proud role to play.
Datuk Dr Ooi Kee Beng is the Executive Director of the Penang Institute. His recent books include The Eurasian Core: Dialogues with Wang Gungwu on the History of the World (ISEAS 2016).