The Middle East Needs an ASEAN

The Middle East Needs an ASEAN

How forming an Association of Southwest Nations could help fix the Middle East.


During the roaring globalization years of the 1990’s when “Friedmanism”—Tom, not Milton—was all the rage, Israel’s elder statesman was putting fantasy to paper in The New Middle East (Henry Holt, 1992).

Peres, the chief architect of the Oslo Agreement with Yasser Arafat, imagined the birth of a democratic and free-market-oriented region. Israelis and Palestinians would be integrated into a reconstructed Middle East, a regional economic and political superstructure, along the lines of the European Union, providing enduring security and lasting prosperity for “all the nations of the Middle East.”


To borrow Friedman’s favorite metaphors, the “Lexus” was destined to crush the “olive tree” with young Israelis and Arabs surfing the Internet and enjoying the fruits of globalization instead of continuing to fight over ancient religious sites. Immanuel Kant’s “perpetual peace” would be spreading not only to the new liberal democracies emerging in eastern and central Europe but also to the eastern Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf.

But for close to twenty years the Middle East seemed to be not getting “new” but “older” on certain levels, with Muhammad beating Kant in the war of ideas as the atavistic sources of identity of ethnicity, religion and tribalism gain momentum and ignite pressure towards the breakup of states instead of providing incentives to form regional superstructures.

If anything, one could drive a Lexus on the way to liberating the grave of a religious saint in the Holy Land and use a blog to mobilize support for one’s side in the sectarian wars in Mesopotamia or the Levant. And while the dreams of the New Middle East have been fading, there are signs that nationalism and other forms of particularism are beginning to erode the foundations of the EU, with calls for protecting national currencies, closing borders to immigration and partitioning existing states raising the prospects for the reemergence of an Old Europe.

Yet it would be wrong to suggest that the only choice facing the Middle East is between disintegration into the messy tribalism of sub-Saharan Africa—Robert Kaplan’s forecast of the “coming anarchy”—and a post-Westphalian, if not postmodern, vision of “imagine there is no country” that seems to have pervaded the thinking of European political and economic elites and the Eurocrats in Brussels in recent years.

Instead, the preferred regional model of cooperation for the governments in the Middle East should be the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). There is nothing post-Westphalian or pseudo-utopian in this geopolitical and economic grouping of ten Southeast Asian countries. Established in 1967 by Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand and expanded to include Brunei, Burma (Myanmar), Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, the ASEAN is the kind of marvel of realpolitik—as opposed to an exercise in idealism—that would have made a Metternich or a Bismarck proud.

Underlying the EU’s raison d’être is the claim that Western principles of liberal democracy are universal in their application and should serve as the ideological foundations of the organization and as the acceptable standards for membership as well as for relationship with non-EU countries. But notwithstanding the so-called Arab Spring, no one seriously believes that liberal democratic values are going to dominate Middle Eastern politics anytime soon. Even under the best-case scenario it would be unrealistic to expect that common ideological bonds would—or should—help advance cooperation between the governments of the region.

The ASEAN, on the other hand, is based on “mutual respect for the independence, sovereignty, equality, territorial integrity, and national identity of all nations,” “the right of every State to lead its national existence free from external interference, subversion or coercion” and the principle of “non-interference in the internal affairs of one another.”

Indeed, the ASEAN members have not been brought together by common ideology—or religion or culture, for that matter—but by the recognition of their mutual economic and political interests. It is a mosaic of various political systems and old and new civilizations in various stages of economic development: The most populated Muslim country and an evolving democracy under the influence of the military (Indonesia) and a constitutional monarchy and messy democracy where the primary religion is Buddhism (Thailand); A harsh military dictatorship (Myanmar), a communist-ruled state (Vietnam) and a former U.S. dependency (the Phillippines); Booming economic success stories (Singapore; Malaysia) and struggling developing countries (Cambodia; Laos).

Which reminds us very much of the existing Middle Eastern mosaic of monarchies (Saudi Arabia; Jordan; Morocco), military regimes with socialist systems (Egypt; Algeria) and democracies with free-market economies (Israel; Turkey); of multi-sectarian states (Iraq; Lebanon) and states with large minorities (Israel; Turkey; Morocco; Algeria); of Arab and non-Arab states and entities (Turkey; Iran; Israel; Kurds; Berbers) and large concentrations of non-Muslims (Maronites; Copts; Assyrians; Israeli Jews).

In a way, in addition to becoming a vehicle for facilitating trade and investment in the region and with outside economies, the ASEAN has also served as geopolitical system under which the regional hegemonic tendencies of powerful states like Indonesia and Vietnam were contained—and tensions between old antagonists like Singapore and Malaysia were managed—while U.S. military presence was institutionalized in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the economic and political integration of China was eased.

Currently, the ASEAN countries are hoping to ensure that the United States will continue to project its military and economic presence in East Asia to counterbalance the rise of China, which has disputes with Vietnam and other members over competing claims in the South China Sea.

Consider now the idea of applying the ASEAN model to a strategic part of the Middle East—the Fertile Crescent or the Levant. Notwithstanding the current divisions between Israelis, Palestinians, Syrians, Jordanians and Iraqis, the governments of Southwest Asia—not unlike the members of the ASEAN—share mutual geopolitical and economic interests.

It goes without saying that the formation of a free-trade zone in the area, one that would make it possible to utilize its large and educated middle class and to combine Israel’s high-tech industry, Lebanon’s financial center and Iraq’s energy resources—not to mention large Diaspora communities—and traditional ties to the EU and the oil-producing states in the Gulf, could transform it into a global economic powerhouse.

Moreover, the potential members of the Association of Southwest Nations (ASWAN) have an interest in maintaining friendly relationships while containing possible challenges from the three rising regional powers—Turkey, Iran and Egypt—an interest they share with the U.S. and the EU as well as with Saudi Arabia. An ASWAN system will also provide a regional system to help co-opt the Shiites in Iraq and Lebanon and provide a broader response to Palestinian and Kurdish aspirations.

The United States and the EU could help form the foundations for such a regional group by leading an effort towards an Israeli-Palestinian agreement and a peaceful political transition in Syria. The facilitation of an Israel-Palestine accord and the coming to power of a Syrian government that downgrades partnership with Iran and Hezbollah and upgrades an effort to reach accommodation with Lebanon and Israel could fit into a new overall U.S. strategy to prevent Iran from emerging as the hegemon in post-U.S-occupation Iraq and Middle East. That is the kind of strategy that could win support from Turkey and Egypt and help maintain U.S. influence in West Asia—in the same way that the ASEAN assists the U.S. in remaining a central player in East Asia.