ASEAN’s Imitation Community

The political philosopher Michael Oakeshott coined the term “imitation states” to describe the incomplete nation-building of many newly formed countries in the postcolonial world. Riven by ethnic, social, and economic fissures, these states struggled to establish themselves in a decolonized world. Developing this line of thought, Elie Kedourie, Oakeshott’s colleague at the London School of Economics, argued that leaders of imitation states “labor under strong feelings of insecurity generated by their lack of legitimacy. The product of fake elections or military coup d’‚tat, their unrestrained power does not rest on the loyalty of those whom they rule.” Going one step further, this same insecurity can also inspire regional institutions that are essentially rhetorical shells that give form but no substance to domestic and international arrangements.

That, sad to say, is the case with the much-vaunted Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a case study of what we may term an imitation community. For much of the 1990s, political scientists extolled ASEAN for its successful management of regional affairs, maintaining that ASEAN had done much to promote the stability that underpinned the impressive economic growth rates in the region from the 1970s until the Asian financial crisis of 1997/98.

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