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SAARC's Pro-Active Track in the International System - I

Globalization of political economy has made regional cooperation an inescapable option

By Dev Raj Dahal

International System

The international system of today can best be characterized by hierarchical, complex, competing and interconnected state and non-state power centers where the superpower alone is neither willing nor capable of bearing the entire burden of regional and global challenges. The existing hierarchy between the rich and the poor nations will not change very much in the near future but regionalism might be able to resolve some of their problems and serve as a protection against the pressure of the international economic and political systems. The peculiarity of the international system dynamics is that great powers are more interested in engaging the U.S. in multiple regimes than challenging its dominant leadership. Great powers are interested in respecting each other's vital interests while bargaining over other matters. The multi-polarity of power has added value to the rise of multilateralism, mutual responsibilities and the necessity of evolving multi-level governance for regulating actors' behavior. In this sense, multilateralism occupies the moral high ground where national worldviews and interests are tempered for common good of a larger number of peoples and states.

The dramatic spread of international norms, rules, principles, processes and institutions has helped to regulate the pluralistic, essentially anarchic structure of the sovereign state system and moderate the security dilemma. In a situation of power disparity, states seek to increase their power and security and threaten the security of others, thus contributing to vicious distrust and insecurity. The basic components of a regime help to foster social capital, allow states to take advantage of economies of scale, lower transaction costs and attain objectives, which would otherwise be unattainable by singular efforts. The diffusion of regimes has also transformed the very concept of leadership based exclusively on the realist conception of hard power of discipline and coercion and increased the utility of soft power such as shared ideas, values, communication, civilization and peace.

The post-September 9/11, 2001 demonstrated that some of the sources of security threats are global in nature, such as inter-state conflict, terrorism, outbreak of contagious diseases, ecocide, human rights violations, organized crime, drug and weapon proliferation, etc. Other sources of conflicts are defined more by the fault-lines within societies but they are also enmeshed in historical and geopolitical contests for physical domination. For example, growing incongruity between the national state and global society, between national sovereignty and human rights and between economic internationalization and indigenization of social and political system has weakened the coherence of governance in rule making, monitoring of compliance, rule-enforcement, management of public goods and conflict resolution.

The escalation of competitive violence in the international politics is the outgrowth of the erosion of the monopoly of power of the state. Now the states no longer maintain control over the commanding height of political economy. This means many sources of insecurity will persist so long as the collapse of state hierarchies is steered by information revolution. As a result, fault-line conflicts will continue to prevent the attainment of system stability as aspiring powers, such as Japan, Germany, India and Brazil-- will continue their claim for a legitimate space in the international system while weak powers of the South will continue to seek a refuge in global justice through an access in technology, market, finance, resource and communication that drive world politics and set the dynamics of global transformation.

Approaches to Security and Peace

The questions of national security, development and peace defined by the spirit of industrial age now attends the dawn of post-industrial, post-state and post-modern aspirations. This age has obviously combined the dualism of the system and the life-world, power and justice, politics and policy and organizations and aspirations. Actors cannot achieve their collective interests unless they can overcome the barriers to collective action and pool their sovereignties for the creation of a regime. There are four dominant approaches to peace and security.

State-Centric Order: State sovereignty defined by the peace treaty of Westphalia is the central organizing element of the international legal and political system. Since the essence of international politics largely remains untransformed, security essentially means liberation of citizens from the Hobbesian state of nature through the sovereignty of state in internal and external relations and the maintenance of a regional and global balance of power. When the part (state) becomes sovereign the whole, that is, architecture of international system lacks a unified sovereign authority for global governance. Anarchy, however, does not mean that there is deficiency of shared interest in cooperation for the welfare of peoples. Calculation of expected benefits shapes the cooperative behavior of actors, mutual policy adjustment and coordination in various issue areas. But now, the powers of state are challenged on all fronts by the global market forces through tax cuts, privatization, devolution and fragmentation of authority posing problems for the state to maintain legitimate public order within the territorial, political, economic and social boundaries and effect socially legitimate collective action.

Due to complex interdependence even the state system is oriented towards Grotian vision of shared interests, growth of international law and institutions, norm-governed cooperation and peace. States can bargain better if they can coordinate their strategies through a coalition or regime. There are proposals for the integration of WTO, the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and even the formation of Economic Security Council in the UN.
Inter-National to Global Relations: Negotiated interdependence between the state and society has become important at a time when international relation is marking a shift towards global relations and widening global communication, networks and movements. The space beyond the state has become the domain of regional and global institutions. Due to complex interdependence even the state system is oriented towards Grotian vision of shared interests, growth of international law and institutions, norm-governed cooperation and peace. States can bargain better if they can coordinate their strategies through a coalition or regime. There are proposals for the integration of WTO, the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and even the formation of Economic Security Council in the UN.

The UN and international community have now rightly undertaken a number of vital tasks—preventing diplomacy and peace-building in the areas of security; nation-building, supporting multi-track initiatives of the government, business and civil society groups to harness the synergy for horizontal cooperation and seeking a balance between societal, intergovernmental and supra-national efforts in the areas of development cooperation; nuclear safeguarding by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA); the Kyoto Protocol in the management of global environment; and Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in the areas of human development. These steps are important for the survival of international system as a whole and functional efficiency of its constituent units. To be sure, a negotiated peace rests on collective security of all the constituent units of a regime and proportional sharing of burdens and benefits among its members.

The Centrality of Civil Society in Global Space: In consistent with the hopes of federalists and integrationists, functional activities of humanitarian, social and ecological organizations, such as International Red Cross, Inter-Parliamentary Union, Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict (CPPAC), etc are pulling sovereign states, global markets and civil society groups into a solidaristic vision of post-state constellation and enlarging the notion of citizenship in all matters and all levels affecting their life, liberty, property and identity. Civil society groups are seeking to make peaceful approaches to conflict resolution more attractive than other means and moving towards building international community from various societies. They have begun to subsume the very concept of collective action at various levels of security analysis—individual, sub-national, state, regional and global and orienting them towards achieving a modicum of world order. Macro and micro levels of security impact each other and modify each other's behavior so closely that conditions of peace and security can be treated in an integrative manner.

Global Social Contract and Perpetual Peace: Immanual Kant has articulated the enlightened vision of perpetual peace. In this peace, systemic anarchy and animosities between and among states and peoples are democratically resolved and the great human evils, such as anarchy, fear, terror, war, denial and oppression could be conquered by seeking to make rule-based global governance and global social contract achievable by conditioning a common pattern of policy and behavior of states and non-state actors. To him, perpetual peace can be achieved when cooperation is based on contract than status and governed by the rise of democratic constitutions, cosmopolitan laws and interdependence. Neither de-linking nor autarky not even mercantilism is a viable option in the context of interdependence among states and peoples. In this context, the ultimate resolution of conflict does not come from the fear but in quest for common good for human beings.

Globalization of political economy has made regional cooperation an inescapable option. Individual countries of the region are, therefore, struggling to integrate themselves in a unified, single global market and reap competitive benefits. This has induced the South Asian states and non-state actors to become competitive and extrovert in orientation. In order to reshape globalization and make it more democratic there is a need to moderate its pace to give peoples more time to cope and enlarge the size of winners. But, bringing social justice to global markets requires stable international regimes and regional model of development that respects freedom, human life, dignity and ameliorates the conditions of the marginalized. This means the structure of economic cooperation in SAARC has a number of responsibilities: overcome democratic deficit which is occurring owing to the erosion of the state's public policy making authority, foster human security for its peoples, promote freedom of action for states in multi-lateral fora and contribute to a rule-based, equitable regional order.

But, the critical questions are: Does the inclusion of new member in South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) make the region cohesive, stable and effective or further polarize it from within? How can cooperation become meaningful when outward orientation is not matched by internal economic integration, policy harmony on a number of meta-issues and expansion in the activities of institutional routines of the SAARC secretariat? How long do the core powers of South Asia, India and Pakistan, require in establishing confidence and move forward on substantive collaboration on complex challenges that plague SAARC?

SAARC's Pro-Active Track in the International System – II

Civil society groups have already created a South Asian public space, which coincides with the cosmopolitan community in quest of humane governance

The Spreading Regime Wings

The structure of international system shapes the behavior of sub-systemic bilateral, sub-regional and regional cooperation. Cooperative scheme of long-term rationality rests on a political strategy of confidence building, mutual recognition and shared view of common good. These incentives provide the states reasons for joining regime. The European Security Strategy rests on a coherence of its policies such as burden sharing in the transatlantic alliance, willingness to assert abroad, internal cohesion and the ability and willingness to cope with the security problems occurring at its borders. Europe has turned into a "social state" and maintained a reasonable balance between market competition and promotion of social justice through the social charter. In the context of changing nature of development cooperation, the EU has made commitment to MDGs and the other documents—Monterrey Conference on Finance and Development, Paris Declaration on Harmonization and Alignment and aims at reaching the target of 0.7 percent of GDP allocation to development assistance.

The multi-lateral cooperation in Asia, such as Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and ASEAN Plus Three ( China, Japan and South Korea) has been driven by ASEAN's imperative for economic dynamism, regional security, peace and stability. In these regimes, confidence building has become an overriding objective of Summits, upon which solution-oriented approaches to regional challenges are applied through various tiers of functional cooperation. The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMST-EC) promises new institutional expression of a regime, which seeks the wellbeing of regional peoples through shared development initiatives and provides links of South Asia to Southeast Asia. The Asian Highway Project of ESCAP aims integrated cooperation in the areas of infrastructure connectivity, energy, communication, investment in human capital and structural transformation of the region's economy while the plan for Asian energy grid linking SAARC with China and Gulf Cooperation Council will likely to add synergy for cooperation. An embedded cooperation minimizes the possibility of deadly conflict.

What proved wrong so far is the hope that the domination of politics by the economic and technological condition of modernity can alone bring perpetual peace and address a host of complex strategic and non-traditional security challenges. The abolition of conflict through a balance of power or nuclear deterrence has simply remained flawed because it did not address the root causes and build sufficient level of trust for conflict resolution.
The renewal of South Asian consciousness and identity is inspiring the regional leaders to converge their expectations in the areas of cooperation and shape their common future. Rational leaders are sources of regime-building and economic integration. But, the institutional learning of SAARC from these regimes is cautious one. As a consequence, strong bilateralism has yet to keep pace with expanding horizon of multilateral cooperation. The greatest challenges in South Asia spring from the struggles for space, power, resource and identity, centrifugal movements of sub-national groups and other problems of transnational nature. Poverty, disease, rights violations, refugees, state fragility, terrorism, weapon proliferation, hunt for energy, etc. are embedded in the structural conditions of soft-state of the regime. The solution of these problems requires a coordinated, multi-national response.

The regional LDCs require a structure of incentives that brings forth the productive partnership, integration of city-centered economies with rural regions and absorption of their huge surplus workforce. They need a higher level of trade to overcome the insufficiencies of domestic markets, foreign assistance and direct investment to complement poor internal resources base and a safeguard against the vulnerability of their economies to external developments, such as inflation, ecological decline, debt crisis, market fluctuation, etc. Greater cooperation among the regional states, market institutions and civil societies can easily foreclose geopolitical rivalries, contribute to reducing security risks arising out of power disequilibrium and enable collective action to achieve the basic objectives of SAARC social charter so that systemic orientation of upward economic integration can balance downward social integration of the life-world.

What gives the South Asian leadership an extraordinary confidence is their faith in the tolerance of peoples, culture of argumentation, formation of a lively public sphere generated by cross-border sub-systemic movements of regional peoples and multi-track peace initiatives generated by the cross-border networks, associations and fora of civil society bodies representing judges, legislators, lawyers, journalists, business persons, teachers, artists, youths, women, etc and fostering a common SAARC identity. These civil society groups have already created a South Asian public space, which coincides with the cosmopolitan community in quest of humane governance. What is still important is how the demands generated by South Asian civil society groups can be absorbed by the institutional mechanism of SAARC, vision matches with capabilities and social organizations unleash production revolution.

Expanding the Framework of Multilateralism

In the Declaration of 12th SAARC summit regional leaders agreed to "establish dialogue partnership with other regional bodies and with states outside the region, interested in SAARC activities." Inclusion of Afghanistan as the eighth member in SAARC has not only ensured the integrity of South Asian strategic geography but also established a connection with the Middle East and Central Asia. Millions of regional workers in the Middle East have cemented this link. SAARC needs to make major investment in human resource development and formulate a regional strategy to develop skilled workforce to match with knowledge-based society. To leverage the opportunities provided by the current economic dynamism of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), due to capital and resource (oil and natural gas) surplus and expanding labor market opportunities, South Asian policy communities have shown interest in expanding the base of remittance economy, trade, foreign direct investment and market opportunities.

Addition of China and Japan as observers of SAARC is enlarging its vision and opening itself to the outside world. Open regionalism has disadvantages if internal coherence and symmetry of information are not properly attuned, opportunities for mutual interests remain vaguely defined and policy coordination suffers due to structural and institutional deficiencies. The SAARC responded positively to the request of the United States and South Korea seeking observer status. For EU, South Asia's importance is fundamental. The EU is, therefore, following a pro-active policy of engagement with the region and consistently affirmed its interest in strengthening links with SAARC.

China , Japan and South Korea by the logics of geo-economics of proximity are attracted towards the economic potential of this region. Economic cooperation strongly anchored within the South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) and WTO is expected to produce spillovers into other sectors and generate contextual confidence in harnessing mutual investment, economic union and ultimately the formation of a South Asian economic community. But, there is a need to create a level playing field so that even small countries can also reap reasonable benefits. Expansion of member and engagements of regional and global powerhouses in the region mean raising the profile of South Asian regionalism, expanding the scope for multilateralism, enlarging the areas of functional cooperation and building a foundation for security.

Comprehensive security devoid of collective economic cooperation is simply unsustainable. This is the reason the South Asian countries are developing a flexible multilateral partnership and trying to secure their freedom of maneuver through mutual accommodation and multiple regime membership. China's recent observer status in SAARC and India and Pakistan's at the five-nation Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) illustrates this point. On the one hand India is developing a strategic and cooperative partnership, instituting a political mechanism to resolve the boundary issue and expanding trade on the other hand it has signed a deal on civilian nuclear energy with the US. Pakistan and Afghanistan are members of the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO). Other smaller countries of the region are not far behind in seeking leverage for national self-assertion and mutual accommodation with the neighbors and global powers. Utilization of soft power, however, is central to foster the moderation of state behavior and minimize the conflict through the principles of subsidiarity.


The negative orientation of power politics in the region is the main reason for the repudiation of politics by SAARC in the formal processes and a search for the harmony of interests through core economic, social, ecological and technological issues. What proved wrong so far is the hope that the domination of politics by the economic and technological condition of modernity can alone bring perpetual peace and address a host of complex strategic and non-traditional security challenges. The abolition of conflict through a balance of power or nuclear deterrence has simply remained flawed because it did not address the root causes and build sufficient level of trust for conflict resolution. Making regional peoples and states common stakeholders requires the sharing of benefits of cooperation and strengthening the web of comprehensive security at inter-societal and inter-state levels.

The rationale for regional cooperation in South Asia has been reinforced by the rapid global changes taking place at strategic levels and by trends in the information technology, economy and the modernization processes unleashed by globalization. Securing an effective management of regional cooperation requires the collective strength, backed by unity of purpose and action in the region and international fora, commitment in the pursuit of SAARC goals and flexibility and adaptation in the changing dynamics of regional and international politics.

South Asian countries can overcome trade, finance and technological handicaps and can even gain bargaining power through mutual cooperation if they pro-actively harness the centripetal tendency of regional public. An embedded cooperation requires not just the palliative measures, which do not go to the root of the regional problems but a deep structural transformation of political economy. Successful progress in the region cannot be imported. It is vitally linked to the resiliency of the member states, markets and civil society groups, all acting in a common spirit to optimize the prospect for shared cooperation, peace, progress and identity of South Asia.

Dahal is Head, Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) in Kathmandu and can be reached at Dev Raj Dahal mailto<>

This article was posted in on 4 July 2006

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