The “English School”, South East Asia, and Indonesia: Locating and Defending Productive “middle ground”

“Theorizing” Southeast Asia (SEA) is notoriously problematic. Collections of theoretical perspectives (Acharya & Stubbs, 2006; Rüland & Jetschke, 2008) attest to widely varying views, none of which is wholly satisfactory on its own. Realists account for the “power” elements of the SEA story, but not the “community” elements; liberals understand the institution-making impetus, but not the rather thin nature of these institutions; constructivists grasp the importance of ideas and norms, but sometimes give more weight to identity than the region can comfort-ably bear (Narine, 2006); left-oriented theories speak powerfully to structural constraints, but less convinc-ingly to agential strategies. None alone can tell a story that adequately captures all these many contradictory streams and strands.

Nor is this simply an academic conundrum. All observers – activists, diplomats, government officials, television viewers – have a political lens, whether they acknowledge it or not. The difficulties of framing SEA therefore do not stay comfortably within academia. They resurface at the level of expectations, perceptions and policy, both in SEA and beyond. How SEA is seen and talked about matters.

This article will suggest that the so-called “English School” (ES) of International Relations has a useful contribution to make, and is currently under-ex-ploited. It will argue that the ES’s capacity to recognize and defend conceptual “in-between” spaces makes it a natural bridge between realist and constructivist, statist and liberal, or structural and agential interpreta-tions. It therefore facilitates a more nuanced – and sometimes more positive – interpretation of the region’s dynamics, with implications for our under-standing of both the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Indonesia’s role within it.

It is emphatically not being claimed that the ES is a complete, final, stand-alone answer to the problems of interpreting SEA’s politics. But its contribution, though partial, offers a valuable alternative view, which deserves greater attention.

Furthermore, this is a two-way, open-ended conversation. As Halliday notes, using a theory to look at a region should never be a one-directional affair (2009, 2). Regions have data and political cultures from which theories can and should learn. The ES is still developing, and input from SEA can usefully influ-ence that development. There is a synergy here that has not yet been sufficiently exploited.

The argument will be developed as follows. The first section briefly reviews the key concepts that characterize the ES’s approach to International Relations, and relates this perspective to SEA. The second section suggests two areas where ES theory, by locating some useful middle ground, can provide a different view of SEA – and, turning the tables, the equivalent areas where the theory can gain from observing ASEAN’s experience. The third repeats this process, but looks more specifically at the example of Indonesia. The fourth section evaluates the usefulness of this theoretical approach, arguing that it makes a modest but positive contribution to our overall understanding of political dynamics in SEA, but contending, too, that the theoretical framework has much to learn from continued interaction with the region.



Key ES ideas

The English School (ES) is best known for its concept of international society. The basic idea, Buzan explains, is quite simple: “Just as human beings as individuals live in societies which they both shape and are shaped by, so also states live in an international society which they shape and are shaped by” (2001, 477). But the international version is an anarchical society. Without a recognized “world government”, it has to rely on more complicated mechanisms for the establishment and maintenance of order. The ES’s hallmark, therefore, is an interest in the inter-state cooperation and socialization that still exist despite all the reasons they might be expected not to exist.

It attaches particular importance to the institutions that underpin that cooperation; however, it under-stands institutions not primarily in the sense of visible organizations, but in the sense of underlying sets of “habits and practices shaped towards the realisation of common goals” (Bull, 2002, 71). The existence of an international society therefore presupposes that a group of states have not only become aware of “com-mon interests and common values”, but also under-stand themselves to be “bound by a common set of rules”, and share in “the working of common institu-tions”. Bull’s institutions include sovereignty, diplo-macy, the balance of power, the managerial role of great powers, and international law (2002, 13, 39). However, institutions vary in accordance with the notions of legitimacy prevalent at any given time. Indeed, for Clark, it is the idea of legitimacy that makes an international society. Where there is a belief among states that they are bound to a certain set of institutions and practices, he argues, there is also an international society (2005, 23).

ES tradition, however, has never maintained that international society is the only dynamic at work in the world. The societal impulse shares the stage with powerful patterns of inter-state rivalry on the one hand, and various kinds of state-transcending ideology on the other. Wight’s “three traditions” (realism, pragmatic internationalism, and universalism) clearly articulate a realm of political plurality (1991), and there is never any guarantee that the middle (societal) element in this conversation will survive (Bull, 2002, 39). While remaining aware of these competing strands, ES scholarship has traditionally focused on the middle-ground tradition of international society – precisely because this is the one that is most easily squeezed out by the loud voices of power and transnationalism on either side. On a rough spectrum of ideas and theories, then, the ES’s points of emphasis (on society, order, and inter-state social relations) would sit somewhere between realism (with its focus on anarchy, power, and inter-state competition) and the various transnational theories (liberal, Marxist, religious, and so on), which in different ways focus on transcending the state to reach emancipation in a borderless world. In its belief in the possibility of political progress, likewise, the ES sits somewhere between realism (where power patterns endlessly repeat themselves) and liberalism (which tends to the teleological). In its interpretation of power, it sits somewhere between realism (with its focus on material power) and constructivism (with its focus on ideational power). It would be a mistake, however, to think of these categories as rigidly separated. They are more like pools of paint on a palette, which blend into each other at the edges. On a narrower theoretical spectrum ranging, for example, from classical realism (à la Morgenthau), through ES ideas, to thin constructivism (à la Wendt) – there is considerable overlap at the edges. It would also be a mistake to think of ES middle ground as the grey, watered-down zone of “not quite this” and “not quite that”. The middle ground, as depicted by ES scholars, is a pragmatic, creative, productive, and potentially progressive area. It is constantly under assault from political currents with more seductive slogans, but it is eminently worth defending.

Applying ES ideas to SEA

Whatever its overlaps and struggles, this middle-ground positioning allows the ES to facilitate conver-sations between a range of opposite polls, and this, it will be argued, is one of its major advantages in interpreting the politics of SEA.

International societies, according to ES scholars, are not all the same. “Thinner”, pluralist societies stress the values of individual state autonomy, diver-sity, and minimalism, while “thicker”, solidarist societies seek a more ambitious level of cooperation, in a wider range of areas, and with a higher tolerance of enforcement. ASEAN’s pluralism, for example, is often contrasted with the European Union’s solidarism.

Normatively, too, individual ES scholars also endorse different positions. “Pluralists” stress the virtues of gradualism, tolerance, and the preservation of diversity, while “solidarists” push for faster progress and higher goals, with the aim of more quickly reach-ing solutions to pressing problems. This article is written from a pluralist perspective. This is partly because that position best reflects where ASEAN currently finds itself (as will be discussed in the next section), but also because the vantage-point offered by a pluralist perspective gives better traction in isolating a distinctive ES position, and defending the middle ground that is so vital in SEA.

The ES also has interesting arguments to advance about the nature and role of non-state actors in SEA (see Quayle, forthcoming), but these are beyond the scope of the present article.

Early ES scholarship concentrated on the interna-tional society that manifested itself at a global level. More recently, however, interest has turned to “sub-global international societies” (Buzan, 2004; Buzan & Gonzalez-Pelaez, 2009; Hurrell, 2007). In this article, therefore, ASEAN will be understood as the organiza-tional expression of a regional international society (a subfield of the global international society).

ASEAN does not technically need to exist for there to be an international society in the region. ES writers, keen not to distract attention from the Productive “middle ground underlying institutions of international society, tend to portray inter-governmental organizations such as ASEAN as part of its “auxiliary framework” (Jackson, 2000, 105). Of course, ASEAN as an organization is important. It plays a significant role in symbolizing “a shared commitment to fundamental international institutions and principles” (Narine, 2006, 205), and in testifying to its members’ desire to play a more demanding regional version of the international society game, in parallel with the minimal version that exists on a global level. But ASEAN is essentially a symptom of cooperation, not a cause. It is not surpris-ing, then, that its hands are often tied. It is essentially the servant, not the master, of the international society that underlies it.

From the point of view of ES ideas, the interna-tional society observable in SEA has succeeded in identifying a number of common interests (reducing vulnerability, maintaining independence, resisting hegemonial threats inside and outside the region, protecting sovereignty, promoting economic growth, and bolstering regional order and stability) and common values (consultation, non-aggression, non-interference, and a sense of cultural distinctness). The common institutions it has formed (sovereignty, diplomacy, the pursuit of economic resilience, and socially organized balancing strategies, including the shaping of a role for great powers) reflect these inter-ests and values, and indicate that SEA is essentially a pluralist society. The fact that many of these values and institutions are starting to shift, however, points to a society that is also investigating moves towards solidarism.

Scholarship that applies ES ideas to SEA is still fairly limited in scope. The idea that SEA can be seen as a regional international society, with ASEAN as the outward expression of some of its institutions, has been noted (Chong, 2009; Narine, 2006, 2008, 2009), as has the relevance to SEA, and to Asia more generally, of ES ideas about order (Alagappa, 2003) and power-balancing (Acharya, 2005; Emmers, 2003; Goh, 2007/08; Khong, 2005; Odgaard, 2007). Passing references note further potential connections (for example, Acharya & Buzan, 2007, 289-290; Bellamy, 2005, 23; Buzan, 2004, 238). But much more remains to be explored.

Author : Linda Quayle