The ASEAN Miracle: A Catalyst for Peace by Kishore Mahbubani, Jeffery Sng

Summary and takeaways from the book.

"ASEAN has brought peace and prosperity to a troubled region, generated inter-civilizational harmony in the most diverse corner of the earth and brought hope to many people".

Authors call this "'fusion of civilizations' to refer to the areas of commonality between the great world civilizations, driven by the spread of a modern outlook originating in the West that relies on science and rationality to solve problems".

ISBN: 978-9814722490
Published: July 15, 2017
Pages: 286
Available on: amazon

Prof. Kishore Mahbubani, a Distinguished Fellow at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore, has had two distinguished careers, thirty-three years in diplomacy and fifteen years in academia, when he was the Founding Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. He lived in New York for over ten years as Singapore’s ambassador to the UN. In 2019, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is globally recognized as one of the world's leading public intellectual.

He has authored several books, among them Can Asians Think?, Has the West Lost It?, The New Asian Hemisphere, The Great Convergence, and Beyond the Age of Innocence. He travels extensively and lives in Singapore.

Prof. Mahbubani was also "President of the United Nations Security Council between 2001 and 2002".

He is uniquely qualified to write about this.

"Jeffery Sng is a writer and former diplomat based in Bangkok. He graduated from Singapore and pursued his PhD in Southeast Asian Studies from Cornell University. He has written many articles on the Chinese diaspora, Thai-Chinese business community, Chinese handicrafts and Bangkok’s Chinatown".

ASEAN: Association of Southeast Asian Nations. This association for regional cooperation includes the countries of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.

The book is about ASEAN, published in its 50th year of existence(1967-2017).

"No other regional organization has done as much as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to improve the living conditions of a broad swath of humanity. The more than 600 million people living in the region have seen remarkable progress in the 50 years since the formation of the association.

ASEAN has brought peace and prosperity to a troubled region, generated inter-civilizational harmony in the most diverse corner of the earth and brought hope to many people. It may have also acted as a critical catalyst for China’s peaceful rise.

ASEAN is therefore more deserving of the next Nobel Peace Prize than any other person or institution today

"ASEAN never progresses in a linear fashion. It often moves like a crab: it takes two steps forward, one step backwards and one step sideways. Viewed over a short period, progress is hard to see. Yet miraculously, when one takes a longer view, analyzing progress decade by decade, ASEAN’s forward progress becomes visible. Despite its many imperfections, it keeps moving forward. This book hopes to explain the great mystery of how this happens".

Why ASEAN matters

"It is no secret that our global discourse is dominated today by pessimistic voices. In many areas, however, ASEAN has generated optimistic narratives. In an era of growing cultural pessimism, where many thoughtful and influential individuals believe that different civilizations—especially Islam and the West—cannot live together in peace, ASEAN provides a living laboratory of peaceful civilizational coexistence".

"in an era of growing economic pessimism, where many young people, especially in America and Europe, believe that their lives will get worse in coming decades, Southeast Asia bubbles with optimism... ASEAN has generated economic optimism".
Not just Soft Power, thanks to ASEAN's optimistic narrative backed by good governance and regional co-operation, this "once-impoverished region has experienced a remarkable economic miracle".

"in an era of growing geopolitical pessimism, when many leading geopolitical thinkers predict rising competition and tension between great powers—especially between America and China—ASEAN has created an indispensable diplomatic platform that regularly brings all the great powers together".

ASEAN is also remarkably efficient. "In contrast to the budget of the EU Secretariat, which is US$154 billion, the annual budget of the ASEAN Secretariat is US$19 million".

Why ASEAN succeeded

Peace, thoughtful actions, excellence, slow progress, and quiet success does not generate interest, or generate emotions, or get big funding, or sell newspapers, or win elections. But, it brings results.

"Some wise soul once remarked that for every thousand books written on the causes of war, one is written on the causes of peace".

Key factors that contributed to the success of ASEAN were:

"First, the main impulse that drew together the five founding members of ASEAN was fear. The founding countries feared that they would become falling 'dominoes' as Communism expanded".

"Second, the ASEAN countries were blessed with relatively good leaders. Leadership is always a critical factor in international affairs". "They sprang from very different cultural roots, reflecting the unique cultural diversity of ASEAN. Yet, they shared one strong critical attribute: they had strong spines". "Equally important, they had hidden reserves of political wisdom". Another quality of leaders of ASEAN nations at that time was their consistency. "Lee Kuan Yew said of Suharto, 'I found him to be a man of his word. He made few promises, but delivered whatever he had promised. His forte was his consistency'".

"Third, luck was also a factor".

"Fourth, the ASEAN countries successfully wove themselves into the thriving East Asian economic ecosystem, at a time when world trade was expanding. They set this in motion by learning economic lessons from Japan and the 'Four Tigers' and emulating the best practices of these successful East Asian countries in their national development policies".

"Fifth, as the ASEAN dynamic gained momentum and ASEAN moved towards creating hundreds of multilateral meetings a year, the Southeast Asian region became more closely connected, with several spiderwebs of networks in different areas. The role of these networks in delivering peace has not been well analyzed".

Another factor was that none of the member countries tried to dominate ASEAN. The author gives example of "Organization of American States and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. The former failed because its most powerful member state, the United States, always tried to dominate it. By dominating it, the US prevented the emergence of a regional sense of community. Similarly, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation failed because India, by far the most powerful member, also tried to dominate it. This prevented any real sense of regional cohesion. Like the US and India, Indonesia is by far the largest and most powerful member state of ASEAN. Unlike the US and India, Indonesia showed extraordinary wisdom in not trying to dominate ASEAN".

Strength in weakness

"One essential paradox about ASEAN needs to be observed at the very beginning of this volume: ASEAN’s strength can be found in its weakness. The reason ASEAN has emerged as the indispensable platform for great-power engagement in the Asia-Pacific region is that it is too weak to be a threat to anyone. So all the great powers instinctively trust it. As George Yeo, the brilliant former Singapore foreign minister, said:"
"In the end, everybody came to the conclusion that however ungainly, however inefficient, however elliptical ASEAN’s ways are, it’s still better than not having an ASEAN. That is the genius of ASEAN foreign policy. In the end, almost with a sneer, they accepted that ASEAN should be in the driving seat. Yes, ASEAN’s leadership is the most preferred because no other driver would be trusted by the others".

The Human Element

"One more factor was important. Kishore has often said—only half in jest —that Southeast Asia is at peace because of a four-letter word. This four-letter word is golf. Kishore resolved many thorny issues with his ASEAN colleagues after a happy round of golf that generated friendship and camaraderie.

Former Foreign Minister of Singapore Wong Kan Seng agreed that “Golf was an important factor. It helped to break down barriers and promote camaraderie. We even had an ASEAN golf game at a weekend when we attended the annual UN General Assembly

ASEAN and external powers

"Indeed, the greatest threat to ASEAN as a regional organization comes from outside forces".

"ASEAN benefited from favourable geopolitical winds, especially during the Cold War when ASEAN was conceived and created. Looking back, it is clear that ASEAN’s growth in the 1980s was positively influenced by the close collaboration between America and China against the Soviet Union and against the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia. The common American and Chinese interest in supporting ASEAN gave it a major boost".

"In theory, great power policies are driven by careful consideration of long-term interests. In practice, the desire to win short-term advantage often trumps long-term thinking".

"Persuading the great powers to behave wisely is never easy. All too often, short-term political interests, especially short-term electoral interests, trump long-term interests. Many EU politicians, for example, wanted to look good to their home constituents on Myanmar. Hence, they called on the EU to suspend its relations with ASEAN because ASEAN had admitted Myanmar as a member in 1997. Yet, it was precisely because ASEAN engaged with the military regime in Myanmar that Myanmar began its peaceful transition away from military rule".

"China has long and deep memories and often acts on the basis of long-term considerations. By contrast, America is often driven by short-term considerations. It can also be forgetful. At the end of the Cold War, when America began to distance itself from ASEAN, it unwisely abandoned the valuable reservoirs of goodwill it had accumulated in the organization".

The author hopes the whole world specially the western civilization can learn from ASEAN miracle, but also laments that that they tend to ignore anything outside the West. "Europe has been the most successful continent for the past four centuries, especially in economic and social development. Europeans can barely conceive of the possibility that they could learn important lessons from other parts of the world. That is one reason for this volume on ASEAN, to stimulate the hitherto closed European mind to explore the possibility of learning lessons from other regions".

"Kishore’s literary contacts in New York told him that Western publishers had no interest in the ASEAN story, despite its global significance".

Peace, thoughtful actions, excellence, slow progress, and quiet success does not generate interest, or generate emotions, or get big funding, or sell newspapers, or win elections. But, it brings results.

* * *

It is not good heart or benevolence that holds diverse regions together, but cold hearted geopolitical and economic benefits.

ASEAN succeeds because it "appeals to the naked self-interests of each great power".

"American model of handling cultural differences is to create a melting pot in which all differences disappear and a single American identity emerges. Our world will never become a melting pot. Indeed, with the ongoing resurgence of different Asian civilizations, the need is to handle a world of greater, not less, diversity".

"This is why ASEAN, the only truly multi-civilizational regional organization in the world, can serve as an alternative beacon of hope.

As the world moves away from two centuries of dominance by Western civilizations and towards a multi-civilizational world, ASEAN provides a valuable model for how very different civilizations can live and work together in close proximity

"The importance of demonstrating that different civilizations can work together has become more pressing as there is growing global pessimism".

Authors call this "'fusion of civilizations' to refer to the areas of commonality between the great world civilizations, driven by the spread of a modern outlook originating in the West that relies on science and rationality to solve problems".

"Empirical evidence alone is not enough to convince the world that the dominant global dynamic is a fusion of civilizations. The world also needs to see that the process is actually happening, and ASEAN can provide this evidence because it demonstrates on a daily basis that different civilizations can coexist and cooperate on the basis of what they have in common, while working around their differences".

ASEAN "will also benefit the remaining 6.7 billion citizens of planet Earth, who will have a second beacon of hope (besides the US) that they can look up to". ASEAN hopes to be another 'City upon a Hill'.

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