December 2007 Dispatch - International Organizations and East Asia

We are pleased to bring you the third article of the academic year in our series of Shorenstein APARC Dispatches. This month's piece comes from Dr. Phillip Lipscy, FSI Center Fellow and Assistant Professor, Political Science. Lipscy joined Shorenstein APARC in fall 2007 and his research interests focus on international relations and political economy, particularly as they relate to Japan and East Asia. He has been a Shorenstein APARC affiliate since his undergraduate years, when he studied under Professor Emeritus Danial Okimoto. He attended Harvard University for his doctoral studies.

Since the end of World War II, East Asia has often been characterized as a region with weak international organizations. There has been no regional integration project comparable to the European Union (EU). Cooperation on a wide variety of issues has tended to be ad hoc rather than institutionalized. Regional organizations, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), have generally been weak or limited in scope, with some notable exceptions such as the Asian Development Bank.

However, in recent years, there are indications that the pattern of institutionalization in Asia is shifting. Since the end of the Cold War, regional cooperative arrangements have emerged and grown. With the addition of China, Japan, and South Korea, a revitalized ASEAN+3 is becoming a locus of economic cooperation. Many observers believe the Six Party Talks could be institutionalized to manage a broader set of security issues beyond North Korea. The Chiang Mai Initiative, a multilateral currency swap arrangement, might eventually develop into a monetary fund. Bilateral trade agreements are proliferating and could ultimately produce a regional free trade zone.

Under the right circumstances, regionalism can complement the broader global order. However, to a significant extent, recent regional initiatives reflect an underlying dissatisfaction with the global institutional architecture. The Chiang Mai Initiative emerged after the Asian financial crisis, from a widespread sense that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) underrepresented Asian interests and therefore imposed overly harsh conditionality on the affected states. Paralysis at the Doha Round negotiations of the World Trade Organization (WTO) has facilitated the rapid expansion of bilateral trade initiatives. The North Korean nuclear problem is precisely the sort of collective security issue the United Nations (UN) Security Council was envisioned to deal with, but the rigidity of both Security Council membership and its decision-making procedures has rendered this impractical.

Historically, international organizations have often exhibited path dependence, or a resistance to change. For example, the permanent members of the UN Security Council still remain the victorious powers of World War II. The distribution of voting shares in the IMF and World Bank has consistently overrepresented inception members such as Canada, France, and the United Kingdom, at the expense of both the defeated powers of World War II and newly independent and developing states. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) remains a predominantly European institution despite the rapid growth of Asia. Across a wide range of international organizations, Asian nationals continue to be underrepresented among employees, and in some cases leading positions are allocated to Western nationals by convention, as in the IMF and World Bank.

However, as Asia continues its rapid growth, the active involvement of Asian states in the global order will become paramount. Including India, broader East Asia encompasses more than half of the world's population. The region already accounts for about one-third of global oil consumption and CO2 emissions, and this is only likely to grow in the future. By 2020, in purchasing power parity terms, regional GDP will likely exceed that of the United States and the EU combined. Over the course of the twenty-first century, Asia's economic and geopolitical weight in the world will, in all likelihood, come to rival that of Europe in the nineteenth century. With Asia's dramatic rise, Asian problems will become increasingly indistinguishable from global problems.

Thus, a critical question in the coming decades will be whether the contemporary international organizational architecture will be able to smoothly incorporate the rising states of broader East Asia. Sweeping geopolitical shifts have often created instability in the international system -- the waning of Pax Britannica in the early twentieth century precipitated two world wars and a global depression, as the world lacked a geopolitical and economic stabilizing force in times of crisis. If universalistic institutions such as the UN, IMF, and WTO are seen as unresponsive to Asian concerns, two potentially destabilizing outcomes are likely. First, Asian regional cooperation may further intensify. For example, a full-fledged Asian Monetary Fund that acts independently of the IMF could be formed, or an Asian Free Trade Area established. Such institutions have the potential to undermine existing international organizations such as the IMF and WTO. Eventually, Asian institutions may supersede existing global institutions, but only after contestation and needless replication. A second destabilizing outcome could be that Asian states disengage from the U.S.-backed international order without developing strong regional institutions. This might create a situation akin to U.S. nonparticipation in the League of Nations in the interwar years. Without active involvement of some of the most important players, international organizations will become less effective at facilitating cooperation and resolving major disputes. International relations will become more anarchic and cooperation more ad hoc.

The rise of Asia will likely provide the first major stress test for the global organizational architecture that the United States has constructed and underpinned since the end of World War II. Of course, there are also some grounds for optimism. Among other things, China and Vietnam have joined the WTO, ongoing IMF quota revisions have produced ad hoc increases to South Korea and China, and Asian nationals increasingly play important roles in major international organizations -- e.g. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and former UN High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata. It is paramount that concerns about Asian representation and interests in universalistic international organizations be addressed so that the rise of Asia contributes to -- rather than undermines -- the stability of the international order.