Regional Actorness: The EU as a role model for ASEAN


After our discussion on Tuesday I came across an interesting journal article (Wunderlich 2012) about regional actorness and the potentials of the EU and ASEAN regarding the respective criteria. Most of the studies and concepts on international/global actorness are actually based on the EU as this organisation “sui generis” has been the first of its kind and shows a unique development. The debate about the EU as an international actor rose with the Treaty of Maastricht an the introduction og the Common Security and Defence Policy (Wunderlich 2012: 656).

One of the most well-known concepts was introduced by Bretherton/Vogler (2006) who suggest a framework to evaluate actorness using presence (relationship between international development and external expectations), opportunity (external dynamics that foster/hinder the construction of EU actorness) and capacity (capability to respond to opportunities and external expectations) (ibid.).   dFurthermore, they identify four requirements for actorness: shared values and principles, the ability to formulate coherent policies, policy instruments and legitimacy of decisions (ibid.).

Based on this concept, the EU is often criticised for not being an effective international actor. Moreover, the concept itself is challenged for its limitations to be generalised and used for other regional organisations. It also does not take into account the importance of norms and indentity. Wunderlich therefore suggests a different approach that looks at levels of regional actorness and takes into account three criteria:

1. Internal self-understanding/ self-image

2. Recognition and presence

3. Institutionalisation and decision-making structure (Wunderlich 2012).

Regarding self-understanding, there are clear differences between the EU and ASEAN. The EU’s norms are influenced by lessons learned from history, the danger of nationalism and war.  The EU is therefore built on values such as democracy, free trade, transnational cooperation, rule of law, and human rights (Wunderlich 658f). These norms are also reflected in the EU’s foreign policy.

In contrast to that stands ASEAN. One of the most striking points of Wunderlich’s article is that he acknowledges the lack of a mature Westphalian state system in Southeast Asia (Wunderlich 2012: 659). The Westphalian state system has been introduced by colonial powers and the indigineous elite used it effectively in their struggles against the colonisers. In contrast to Europe, nationalism has been a tool of choice in the Asian state-building process (ibis.). Looking at the historical development, it is understandable that one of ASEAN’s purposes is to strengthen state sovereignty. Further norms of the organisation are non-interference and regional autonomy. It becomes clear their historical backgrounds are reflected in the self-understanding of both organisations.

Regarding recognition and presence, both organisations have various agreements with other countries/regions/organisations and even work together with each other. So both can be seen as recognised organisations (Wunderlich 2012: 660.f.). Both even have a legal personality (EU -> Treaty of Lisbon, ASEAN: ASEAN Charter) that improves their recognition.

However, the differences that became obvious in the organisations’ self-understanding become even more obvious regarding institutionalisation and the decision-making structure. The EU has a clear preference for formal and legal institutions, and uses both the community method and intergovernmental agreements (661f.). ASEAN rather uses its own, so-called ASEAN approach that is rather unofficial, consisting of consultation and consensus (Wunderlich 2012: 662). And it is this need for consensus that sets clear limits for potential regional actorness and leaves ASEAN unable to address several challenges (Vietnam’s invasion to Cambodia, East Timor crisis, reaction to 9/11, etc.) (Wunderlich 2012: 663). Taking into account Hill’s capability-expectation gap (Hill 1993), ASEAN might be partly recognised as a regional actor but not capable of fulfilling the expectations (Wunderlich 2012: 663). Therefore, more institutionalisation and commitment is clearly needed. However, attempts to improve that gap are clearly there. ASEAN is about to incorporate whole parts of the EU’s structure, so one could wonder if the EU even serves as some kind of a role model. The creation of ASEAN community, a legal personality, and a summit structure and chairmanship is very similar to the European Council and EU Presidency. There are no supranational institutions (yet), however, there are clear attempts to go beyond the informal structure (ibid.).

It becomes that regional actorness depends very much on the social-historic background and the organisation’s self-understanding. European integration required a pooling of sovereignty, and an institutionalised structure. ASEAN member states are developmental states in political and economic terms and their late independence serves as an explanation for the avoidance of supranationality. But moving towards a more formal structure enhances its regional actorness and the re-structuring of ASEA might develop into a good example for successful policy learning.


Bretherton, Charlotte/ Vogler, John (2006): The European Union as a Global Actor (2nd edition). London:  Routledge.

Hill, Christopher (1993): The Capability-Expectation Gap, or Conceptualising Europe’s International Role.  Journal of Common Market Studies, 31 (3), pp. 305-328.

Wunderlich, Jens-Uwe (2012): The EU an Actor Sui Generis? A comparison of EU and ASEAN Actorness. Journal of Common Market Studies, 50 (4), pp. 653-669.



One comment on “Regional Actorness: The EU as a role model for ASEAN

  1. clintonwatson says:

    Really interesting post, Katia. I’d like to follow up on one of your points. You say that ASEAN’s need for consensus has left it unable to address a number of challenges, such as Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia and the East Timor crisis. But the EU with its formalistic modalities also has not been able to address quite a number of its own challenges. I’m thinking here of Northern Ireland, the Basque separatist movement, Corsica, French/British riots, and of course the Balkans. I understand the states of the former Yugoslavia, with the exception of Slovenia (always close to Austria anyway), are not members of the EU, but this problem rests far from unsolved.

    You suggest that the formal institutional approach of the EU is the way forward. I think such an approach would be disastrous for ASEAN. As I said in our class on Tuesday, ASEAN states do not have the same shared history and common values of Europe. Nor is there the same degree of historical integration and cooperation. The Chinese-centred tribute system had much less effect on SE Asia, with the exception of Vietnam. Shared identity and common understandings cannot be built overnight. Perhaps I place too much weight on history and la longue durée, but identity and institution building take decades, if not generations, or even centuries. ASEAN states are artificial constructs, rather than organically, home-grown, as in the case of Europe. There is little shared identity between them. To take religion for its simplicity: the Philippines is Christian, Indonesia Muslim, Thailand Buddhist, Vietnam a strong Confucian influence, Malaysia a potpourri, etc. Europe does not have the same diversity. Where it does have some diversity, i.e. the Balkans, look at the mess! A long period of trust-building, through consensus-building, socialisation and the application of soft, informal measures, is needed before formal structures could be applied. Even then it would be difficult to develop formal institutions suitable to the diversity. Institutions need to respond to local contexts and settings. In Europe this is much easier done than in Southeast Asia.

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