International Relations of Southeast Asia: Realism vs Constructivism in Michael Leifer and Amitav Acharya’s debate

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International Relations of Southeast Asia:

Realism vs Constructivism in Michael Leifer and Amitav Acharya’s debate

The contributions made by Michael Leifer and Amitav Acharya to the study of the international relations of Southeast Asia have been of indisputable importance. Both scholars have been mutually engaged in debates challenging each other’s views and putting new perspectives to the test. Leifer and Acharya have been associated with the two contrasting theories of realism and constructivism respectively, however, while the points of divergence between their arguments are numerous, there can also be noted several similarities which cause Leifer’s realism to diverge into the English School theories and dilute into a more ‘soft’ realism and Acharya’s constructivism to incorporate elements of realism. Interestingly, when raising the question of what caused the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to be established in 1967 and not at an earlier date, both Leifer and Acharya seem to emphasize a debate on exogenous and indigenous factors and both scholars seem to unintentionally converge under the balance-of-threat theory. In order to give a clearer assessment of both scholars’ contributions and understand where their arguments seem to converge, this paper will first briefly outline their respective standpoints, it will then move on to compare and contrast their contributions to several issues: the case of the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, the territorial disputes in Southeast Asia, the relevance of external and internal threats as preconditions for the creation of ASEAN and the importance of regionalization.

One of the main arguments brought forward by Michael Leifer was his belief that in order for effective regionalism to grow and survive, it needed the prior existence of a great power balance as a precondition. Contrary to Acharya, Leifer puts less attention on norms and regional identity formation, however he does mention that within ASEAN there is ‘an adherence to common norms’ along ‘close working relationships between ministers and officials’.

Throughout his works, Leifer has dismissed neoliberal institutionalism by rejecting the existence of corporate interests within ASEAN. His main stance was claiming that while international institutions might have the capability to cope with some uncertainties, they would never be able to overcome the perennial problem of power, especially in face of rising powers and challenges to the status quo.

While often been perceived as highly skeptical of the prospects of regional integration, of the issue of regionalization and of the notion of finding ‘Asian solutions to Asian problems’, Leifer has actually devoted much attention to the study of regionalism. Acharya himself suggests that ‘it might be erroneous to align Leifer with American (neo-)realism, of the kind associated with Waltz and Mearsheimer’, it would be wiser to align him with the works of Hedley Bull instead. Similarly to Bull and the English School, Leifer saw in international institutions their importance for shaping world politics and was very attentive to the issue of intergovernmental conflict and cooperation within ASEAN.

 A very good evaluation came also from Sorpong Peou who places Leifer in the field of foreign policy analysis, noting that Leifer has often explained the balancing behaviour of ASEAN through studying each state’s domestic sources of foreign policy rather than through “a system of relationships among states”.

 The theoretical foundations of Amitav Acharya’s arguments greatly distinguish him from Leifer. Acharya’s arguments rests on two key notions: norms and collective identity. By “norms” Acharya means the ASEAN member states’ adoption of notions of non-interference, non-use of force, regional autonomy, avoidance of collective defense and the practice of the “ASEAN Way”, calling for consensus building, compromise, avoidance of legally binging obligations and of strict reciprocity. According to Acharya, ASEAN member states are “norm consistent” and in multiple occasions have already been abiding to the norms of non-interference and non-use of force.

By rejecting the realist argument that hegemony and coercive power are a precondition to institution building, Acharya views ASEAN’s security community as a “social construct” where collective identity is one the main driving forces. Fundamental to his theory is what he refers to as “incremental socialization”, a gradual process of socialization and regionalization whereby ASEAN and its norms and identity develop ‘not so much from preordained cultural sources, but also from a subsequent and long-term process of interaction and adjustment’.

While overall strong, there do exist several inconsistencies in Acharya’s argument, most notably in his evaluation of indigenous versus exogenous factors shaping ASEAN’s creation. Acharya states that ASEAN’s regionalization ‘was indigenously constructed rather than exogenously determined’, however in most of his writings he often puts a very strong emphasis on the issues of domestic stability originating from perceived common external threats which he claims to be another of the main factors which ‘brought together the ASEAN member states’. This inconsistency and Acharya’s emphasis on domestic common threats cause his constructivist arguments to fall into a more balance-of-threat theory and to increasingly align with many of Leifer’s arguments.

The case of Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia causes great divergencies of opinion between Leifer and Acharya. Moreover, in this case, both scholars’ genuine theoretical stance is more visible. Here, Leifer’s stance is typically realist, believing that the case of Vietnam showed that political cooperation is strong especially when facing common external forces. Leifer sees the ASEAN’s governments, faced with Vietnam potentially acquiring a position of dominance, “closing ranks” motivated purely by ‘convergent considerations of principe, balance-of-power and corporate solidarity’. He rejects understanding the ASEAN governments’ response as bearing a moral nature, backing his argument by giving the example of the ASEAN governments cooperation with China assisting the Khmer Rouge in the 1980s.

Acharya instead has been describing the ASEAN’s response to this case as the proof that norms are respected. According to Acharya, ASEAN’s willingness to negotiate with Vietnam rather than form a military alliance against it, is an example of ASEAN abiding to the norm of non-use of force. Moreover, Acharya described the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia as reinforcing polarization as well as creating a common goal to fight for among the ASEAN nations.

While Leifer also uses this case to back his argument against ASEAN being a “peace process” by arguing that ‘ASEAN took part in the peace process which resolves the Cambodian conflict, but it was not resolved through an ASEAN peace process’, Acharya states that ASEAN should still deserve credit for ‘keeping the peace process alive’.

 The notion of ASEAN as a “peace process” comes into play when looking at ASEAN’s handling of the numerous territorial disputes afflicting Southeast Asia. Leifer makes a point here to even doubt the actual existence of an ASEAN “peace process”, since throughout the recent years there has never been a ‘credible casus bellum’ and peace-making has never been an issue. Issues and disputes have always been kept under the control of the respective governments and bilateral responses have been preferred to a supranational response at the ASEAN level. For example, despite the existence of the High Council, an ASEAN dispute settlement mechanism, ASEAN governments have never convened a meeting of the High Council, proving that ‘direct bilateral negotiations have been the preferred mode of conflict management’.

While this tendency is seen by Leifer as the “weak point” of ASEAN, ASEAN members tend to see this nature of ASEAN as its real spirit, ‘the intangible, but real “spirit” of ASEAN’ as also expressed through the so-called “ASEAN Way”.

 As mentioned earlier, there seems to be an inconsistency in Acharya’s arguments in regards to the indigenous and exogenous factors leading to the creation of ASEAN. While one of the main points made by Leifer in his realist arguments explains ASEAN developing due to domestic and external threats leading to an internal collective security, Acharya seems to depart from his purely constructivist argumentation and incorporate few elements of realism in his discourse.

In The Quest for Identity, Acharya develops a list of factors, combining great power policies as well as domestic factors which are seen to have pushed for the formation of ASEAN. Acharya’s belief that factors such as the declining willingness of the Western powers to maintain their security umbrella in Southeast Asia, the alignment of the non-communist states in the region, the threat of communist insurgency, of ethnic separatism as well as the contribution made by economic growth and market capitalism collaboration, is in deep contrast with Acharya’s views claiming to be rejecting both liberalism and realism as theoretical explanations for the creation of ASEAN.

While Acharya states that in order to explain ASEAN’s success and failure it would be better to take his ‘sociological approach’ which puts emphasis on regional norms and identity formation, rather than Leifer’s ‘diplomatic investigations focusing on the balance of power’, there are few points which can be raised against Acharya’s constructivism.

Firstly, the unsuccessful experiments with regionalism prior to ASEAN are in contrast with Acharya’s theory of “gradual regionalization”. While it is true that at that time regionalization might not have been strong enough to push for the creation of a regional institution, it is also the case, as Acharya himself states, that the external factors and threat perceptions at the outset of ASEAN were more favorable in 1967 than in earlier years.

Moreover, even though Acharya often rejects the theories of liberalism, by arguing that one of the pushing factors for the creation of ASEAN was the anti-communist common strategies, he brings into the discourse strong notions of liberalism. Acharya himself seems to acknowledge this by noting that Burma’s interest in regionalism in fact ‘ended with the collapse of its democratic experiment in March 1962’.

Interestingly, while Acharya seems to cross the line over the realist side into a balance-of-threat theory, also some aspects of Leifer’s arguments seem to converge with constructivists views, especially when he argues for the important role geographic proximity, political ideology, ethnic and cultural identity and historical legacy play in the region. On one occasion, Leifer explains that the Japanese forces invasion and occupation of Singapore in the early phase of the Pacific War left ‘a more bitter legacy’ than long British Colonial rule, so as to explain Singapore’s preference for a close and direct backing from external powers outside of the region.

In conclusion it could be argued that even though there does seem to be a gradual process of regionalization within ASEAN, bridging common norms and identities, it does also seem that those common characteristics among the ASEAN member states have been resulting from perceived domestic and external threats, such as for example countering communist insurgencies, or in more recent years, cooperating to fight terrorism, drug trafficking or smuggling. It seems plausible to argue that even though Leifer and Acharya have been representing  theories believed to be at the two opposite sides of a spectrum, probably due to both scholars immense understanding of the Southeast Asian region, there are also many similarities in their argumentations, in particular in their notion and understanding of a balance-of-threat theory. The several points of convergence in their arguments as brought forward in this paper should be elements for further research and further understanding of the international relations of the area.

London School of Economics, December 2011 – by Roberta Cucchiaro

The piece has not been published and cannot be quoted. References have been intentionally removed. If interested in obtaining further information contact the author at roberta.cucchiaro [at]


One thought on “International Relations of Southeast Asia: Realism vs Constructivism in Michael Leifer and Amitav Acharya’s debate

  1. Pingback: International Relations of Southeast Asia: Realism vs Constructivism in Michael Leifer and Amitav Acharya’s debate | karmelsianturi's Blog

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