US Engagement with Regional Organizations

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    This issue of GREAT Insights will hit the road as United States (US) citizens welcome either incumbent President Barack Obama or Governor Mitt Romney as president. Through the campaign, conventions and debates almost every aspect of policy – domestic and foreign – has been subjected to untrammeled scrutiny and dissection. In the field of foreign relations one of the elements that receives little attention has been the approaches of both candidates and their respective parties to regional organizations.

    It may be anodyne that only a dearth of emphasis is placed on such regional organizations, yet the constellations of challenges which the US hopes to address will hardly be appositely sanctioned without strong and reliable regional institutions. What is remarkable in US’ approaches to regional organizations is that there is no coherent strategy for its engagement with regional institutions even though some, like Peter Katzenstein, contend that through its influence in countries like Germany and Japan the US has shaped regionalism (territorial and otherwise) in Europe and Asia (1) . This could be explained by the very chaotic tapestry of regional institutions that litter the globe. But there is no gainsaying that there are identifiable and viable regional bodies with which the US has and can engage on a wide array of issues. The approach of US administrations to regional blocs following the Cold War has been marked by responsibility delegation and consistent ad hoc steps rather than by an implicit or explicit grand coherent strategy.

    Grounds for US engagement with regional organizations

    Basically, the US’ engagement with regional organizations can be understood from three main, yet non-exclusive strands. The first strand is security delegation. Such delegation could be partial (with minimal involvement as needed, for instance its use of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in Libya) or extensive (with complete deference of authority to a regional entity like the African Union in dealing with Al Qaeda affiliates in Somalia). While there was hardly any bi-partisan fiesta concerning the US’ participation in NATO’s recent involvement in Libya, there has been a consistent effort by Democrats on the Hill to approach certain international challenges through regional organizations such as the Arab League and NATO. The former director of Policy Planning at the State Department in the Obama Administration (Anne-Marie Slaughter) aptly captured this when she noted in April 2012 that greater emphasis ought be accorded the role of NATO in Syria mindful of the possibility of invoking NATO’s Article 5 on collective security in the event of a Syrian attack / incursion into Turkey. Recent developments corroborate the prescient quality of these remarks.

    The second strand includes democracy promotion whereby certain regional entities have attracted the interests of Washington, especially in the wake of the Arab revolts. These include entities like the Arab League which has been used basically as a tool to enhance the ex ante legitimating process of yet another “external” involvement in the Arab World. Other similar groupings have been exploited by the US for democratic bashing of certain countries in other regions. This has been the case of the Organization of American States (OAS) for Cuba and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) for Russia.

    Finally there is an economic interest strand that dwells on specific regional entities that are of strategic economic import such as the European Union and, in some respects, the Gulf Cooperation Council. These regional entities are often invoked when their actions and existence are of an economic interest to the US. US’ economic interests have also been at the heart of an approach that even sidelines partnership or trade agreements with the Common Market of the South (MERCOSUR), the ASEAN Economic Community and the African Economic Community in favor of direct deals with the likes of Chile, Colombia, Peru, Singapore and Morocco.

    Lackluster engagement

    Apart from regional organizations such as NATO, the Arab League, the OAS, the AU and the OSCE, little attention is placed in Washington on the myriad of regional bodies that exist. It is arguable that the impact of US electoral politics has heretofore had has been minimal. But why is this the case?

    There is a strong perception that under the Republican Administration of President George W. Bush there was very little effort in building multilateral or regional coalitions in dealing with shared problems. So regional organizations were basically sidelined on key issues. For instance no one sought the views of the Arab League or the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) before the US and Coalition forces invaded Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Second, some of the regional organizations are now dominated by specific countries that tend to call the shots and are members of groups such as the G20 or other relevant G-constellations. This means that it has become easier and fashionable to talk to Brazil instead of engaging MERCOSUR or the OAS and that it has become common to call Pretoria or Abuja instead of the African Union when real challenges are underway in Africa.

    This issue is linked to the third problem on a reliable and viable regional partner. In many regions the canvass of regional organizations can simply be breathtaking. Many countries participate in numerous regional bodies and this begs the question of effectiveness and durability of the schemes. With a multitude of regional organizations in developing country regions it becomes hard for interlocutors to identify the real partner for engagement. This in turn relates to the fact that some of the regional bodies themselves are bereft of the mandate in acting in specific areas where US’ interests may be on the line.

    Moving forward

    It is very important that the US should engage with specific regional entities in addressing given problems. Determinants that range from willingness to act, legitimacy of actions and capacity for engagement can be put to use by governments to determine which entities are viable enough to be approached or considered for strategic partnerships. The importance of regional coalitions in dealing with certain challenges cannot be minimized.

    Take the current disputes around the East and South China Seas. These are problems that involve countries of the Association of South East Asian Nations +3 (ASEAN+3). The nations in that region have made encouraging progress in the area of financial regionalism and this entente could be built upon in identifying common solutions surrounding the maritime security conundrums. The US needs a bi-partisan approach that supports ASEAN+3 in dealing with this.

    Second, while we should be encouraged by the signs made by the Obama Administration to reduce nuclear stockpiles, the threat of the use of weapons of mass murder remains patent. Moving forward it could be useful for any US administration to support existing nuclear free zones and to extend this assistance to regional legal regimes that seek to curb the incidence and proliferation of weapons of mass murder.

    Third, the fight against terrorism is an issue that remains top priority for the US Government. It is true that gains have been made in recent years with the killing of leading terrorists through unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) and navy seals but this approach may just not be sustainable without a regional (local) support. The US may do whatever it wants in Afghanistan but it is ineluctable that a solution to some of the intractable problems in South Asia can only be resolved regionally through an institution like the SAARC where most of the belligerents sit as members. SAARC could even be used to address the contentious questions linked to one of its observers: Iran. It is true that SAARC has been toothless. Yet its mere existence could be an exploitable platform for engaging belligerent states.

    Farther afield in the Sahel it is simply unclear how the US hopes to deal with the influence of the Islamic jihadists and terrorists of the Sahel and West Africa if this is not done regionally by engaging entities like the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and Community of Sahel Saharan States (CENSAD). It is true that the US has its regional commands which cover most regions. But these cannot operate effectively and legitimately without buy-in from local actors. The more regional the pool of such actors the better in addressing shared security threats. Some institutions like ECOWAS and SAARC may be weak but in a sense the approach of not engaging them validates a self-fulfilling prophesy: non-engagement based on institutional weakness itself reinforces institutional weakness.

    Fourth, the simple fact that the US could place more attention on regional organizations in certain hotspots could itself be of invaluable strategic import because such a shift will also push countries like China and India to pay greater heed to entities like ASEAN+3 and SAARC.

    Finally, there have been concerns expressed by the White House on the need for the EU to adopt a bolder approach in dealing with the crisis, mindful of the fallout that a weak response in Europe could have in terms of US job numbers. What has not been also sufficiently reported is that Europe is not the only region where bailouts and firewalls have been put in place. In the ASEAN+3 framework countries of South East Asia have augmented the Chiang Mai Initiative Multilateralization and hope to increase the currency swaps to 240 billion US dollars. Such developments on financial regionalism appear increasingly to be the way forward with Latin America and Africa likely also mimicking the trend. The US cannot afford not to take a serious look at such regional processes.


    The perennial problem when discussing regions has always been which to engage. Other issues have been related to the fact that many regional organizations are only talk shops marked by convoluted and slow bureaucracies. In this regard one may understand the absence of a coherent strategy on regional entities from Washington especially during electoral seasons. However, on the first issue engagement with regional organizations needs to be based on consistently applied principles. Also, the US and eventually other interested parties should focus more on performance in determining which regional organizations warrant partnership. On the second charge, it is true that some of these organizations often morph into mammoth behemoths steeped in procedures and processes that stifle prompt performance. However these entities help in institutionalizing shared solutions in cases where nations exhibit an inclination to go it alone. In addition, regional entities do help in checking excesses in which a number of countries may be wont to engage.

    Stephen Kingah is Research Fellow, United Nations University Institute of Comparative Regional Integration Studies (UNU-CRIS), Bruges, Belgium. He is grateful to Luk Van Langenhove (Director at UNU-CRIS) for his comments.

    1. Katzenstein, P. (2005) A World of Regions, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

    This article was published in Great Insights Volume 1, Issue 9 (November 2012)


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