What new US leader must know

By Kavi Chongkittavorn, The Nation/ANN

BANGKOK — New U.S. President Donald Trump must be “fantastically” happy with a “wonderful” ASEAN because it is the only “great” regional organization that has no military might and has not been at war. The problem is, he might not know about the grouping at all. Here is a six-point dossier on the 50-year-old ASEAN and its top secrets.

1.ASEAN is not too weak and is not too strong as a regional organization. It was established in 1967 out of a desire to prevent conflicts and wars and to promote peace and stability. After three days of “sport-shirt” diplomacy in Bang Saen in August five decades ago, as former Philippine President Fidel Ramos described it, the foreign ministers from the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore signed the Bangkok Declaration. This 752-word document, excluding their long names, has saved the region from the scourges of many potential wars. Like the European Union, ASEAN should be a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize in the coming decade, given its long and impressive stretch of peace and stability. Well, the U.S. has one less region to worry about.

2.ASEAN members talk a lot among themselves. Outsiders often describe the regional grouping as a talk shop. Indeed, it is. But that is nothing to be ashamed of. Those talks have not been in vain as they have effectively prevented wars and promoted cooperation. There would be less talks in the future, meaning fewer meetings, if the current ASEAN chairmanship, the Philippines, has its way.

Manila wants to streamline ASEAN meetings. On an average day, at least two or three meetings are being held. That makes it approximately 1,200 annually. Last year, Laos cut it down to less than 1,000 meetings. The ASEAN members discuss and consult a lot until they reach a consensus — very few organizations have that kind of perseverance. It is an open secret that sometimes when ASEAN members agree they do so not because they thought it was the best solution but rather it was the lowest denominator that all members would accept. In Indonesia, it is called “mushiwara” or the art of bringing everybody together to make decisions by consensus rather than choosing winners and losers, which has helped ASEAN to survive without any “exit” from the 10-member grouping. ASEAN seldom says “you are fired” because it prefers to say “you are hired” — to be inclusive and people-centered.

3.ASEAN has a long standing tradition — it does not promise what it cannot deliver. It is a bit different from Trump’s style of leadership. Say it out loud first and then follow-up on those promises. In ASEAN, action speaks louder than words — that is the reason the regional grouping has so many action plans. For the ASEAN Vision 2025, a total of 571 action plans have been identified for the next 10 years. That explains why ASEAN goes slow before any decision is reached. They have to be sure all promises could be delivered. Failure is not an option. Quite often, outsiders do not understand the ASEAN way of handling challenges, whether they are disruptive or longstanding issues. In short, slow but sure is a preferred approach.