Friday 10 Apr 2020 | 00:25 | SYDNEY
Friday 10 Apr 2020 | 00:25 | SYDNEY

The regional architecture debate continues


Sam Roggeveen


20 June 2008 15:13

The debate that Hugh White, myself and others have conducted on the merits of Prime Minister Rudd's Asia Pacific Community proposal has migrated to the Australian National University-based East Asia Forum blog. Peter Drysdale argues there that we should not wait to build a new regional order until the major regional powers agree on fundamental principles. I made a similar argument, and went on to suggest that if we build the right institutions, agreement on principles might follow. But Peter takes a different tack:

Indeed the trick in Asia and the Pacific is not to start from trying to secure agreement on principles across a complex plurality of economic, political and security interests in our region but to engage in the process of developing rules that are acceptable to the key players – even the simplest rules for engagement in dialogue in these issues – and not to attempt to impose a comprehensive common set of principles or values. The reality is that the latter course dooms the enterprise before it starts.

I strongly agree, and offer an analogy from political philosophy that might reinforce the point. The British political philosopher Michael Oakeshott argued that, in the abstract, there are only two ways to organise a state. One is as an enterprise association, in which members of the state cooperate together in pursuit of an agreed purpose. The other is as a civil association, in which members of the state band together only to create rules so that individuals can pursue their own purposes.

In practise, states tend to combine elements of both, though in times of crisis like war, they are more likely to resemble enterprise associations. But members of a state organised as an enterprise association must agree (or at least acquiesce) to the purpose being pursued, and since that's very hard to do among millions of people, such purposes are often imposed from above. States organised as permanent enterprise associations thus tend to be dictatorships.

Civil associations, on the other hand, allow for much greater individual autonomy. There's no need to agree on an overarching purpose for such a state, since the only role for the state is to make and enforce and adjudicate on rules that are designed to allow people to pursue their own purposes.

So, an enterprise association tells its members which direction to go in, whereas a civil association only lays out the rules of the road. Which direction the members then choose to travel is their business, so long as they observe the rules.

One can easily see the advantages of the latter approach for our culturally disparate region. If a regional community is imagined as a civil association, all that is required is agreement on the rules of the road, and not on which direction we ought to collectively travel. Not that agreeing on these rules will be easy, but it is a far less ambitious agenda than developing common principles or values. The latter would probably not even be desirable, even if it was achievable.