Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Non-Official Diplomacy in Southeast Asia: "Civil Society" or "Civil Service"?

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Non-Official Diplomacy in Southeast Asia: "Civil Society" or "Civil Service"?

Article excerpt


Over a decade has passed since the phenomenon of non-official diplomacy emerged as a notable theme in the international affairs of Southeast Asia. (1) The emergence of unofficial diplomats from epistemic communities as well as "Track 2" networks across the Southeast Asian region--such as the ASEAN-ISIS (ASEAN Institutes of Strategic and International Studies) and CSCAP (Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific), among others--has contributed to a more expansive understanding of diplomacy as a multi-tracked enterprise with governmental as well as non-governmental features (Hernandez 1994; Simon 2002; Woods 1993). Moreover, in the light of ongoing (albeit incipient) institutional changes to long-standing regional norms and practices, non-official diplomacy has arguably had some impact in engendering those regional transitions. (2)

Nevertheless, efforts to arrive at some definitive conclusion about the nature and context of this broadened notion of diplomacy have not been entirely successful. This is largely due to the disagreement among analysts over the aims and accomplishments of non-official diplomacy vis-a-vis the Southeast Asian region. For the purpose of this essay, at least two broad observations, both apparently antithetical of each other, are noteworthy. On the one hand, non-official diplomacy in Southeast Asia is seen by some as emblematic of a growing and thriving civil society throughout the region, although it is clear that civil society is more developed in some regional states than others (Acharya 2003; Yamamoto 1995). On the other hand, this diplomatic form has also been viewed more critically as having supported and legitimated regional governments and their policies (Jones and Smith 2002a, 2002b, 2001a, 2001b; Khoo 2004). In this sense, non-official diplomatic agents, in their "licensed" role as "scholar-bureaucrats", ostensibly serve as a sort of shadow civil service, as it were. (3)

Upon closer inspection, however, a more complex picture emerges that calls into question the supposed coherence of that distinction. Against that backdrop, this paper analyses the evolution of non-official diplomacy in Southeast Asia in the post-Cold War era, paying close attention to the multifarious practices and processes in which nonofficial diplomatic agents engage that make them not only civil society participants whose ideas challenge the identity and interests of the state, but, paradoxically, also "civil servants" who promote and protect those very things. Whether this inherent tension is resolvable is open to question. If anything, the heterogeneous "nature" of non-official diplomacy resists efforts to fix and reduce it to an either/or option between civil society and "civil service".

Drawing upon Der Derian's (1987) "genealogical" interpretation of French diplomacy during and after the Revolution of 1789, this study seeks to examine various diplomatic forms and forces that comprise non-official diplomacy in Southeast Asia, including those that lie outside the pale of the modern "common sense" logic that underpins orthodox diplomatic theory but which play an integral part in the ongoing formation and preservation of modern diplomacy. (4) As Maurice Keens-Soper (1973, p. 913) once conceded, it may "be more accurate to say that diplomacy is partly defined by the invasions and distortions which permanently threaten its purposes". In this respect, this article argues that non-official diplomacy embodies and embraces both orthodox diplomatic as well as radical "anti-diplomatic" practices, which coexist in irresolvable tension with one another. By probing the ambiguities and contradictions of non-official diplomacy, we find that the enduring story of diplomacy has been and is being defined more by the demands of a hyper-realist and state-centric reading of diplomacy and less by actual day-to-day activities of which diplomacy consists.

The Many Faces of Modern Diplomacy

James Der Derian's (1987) conceptual categories of "diplomacy", "anti-diplomacy", and "neo-diplomacy" are particularly useful for capturing various diplomatic activities that exceed the representational limits of modern diplomatic theory. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.