Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Promoting "Diplomatic" or "Cosmopolitan" Culture?: Interrogating ASEAN-Focused Communication Initiatives

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Promoting "Diplomatic" or "Cosmopolitan" Culture?: Interrogating ASEAN-Focused Communication Initiatives

Article excerpt

In his seminal work on international society, Hedley Bull speculated:

   The future of international society is likely to be determined,
   among other things, by the presence and extension of a cosmopolitan
   culture, embracing both common ideas and common values, and rooted
   in societies in general as well as in their elites, that can
   provide the world international society of today with the kind of
   underpinning enjoyed by the geographically smaller and culturally
   more homogeneous international societies of the past [emphasis
   added]. (1)

For Bull, a crucial mainstay of the current global international society was what he called "a diplomatic or elite culture, comprising the common intellectual culture of modernity". This shared cultural base, he suggested, included key common languages, especially English, and a concerted focus on science, development and technology. Problematically, however, "this common intellectual culture exists only at the elite level [emphasis added]". (2) In the long run, Bull feared, this would not be sufficient to sustain, let alone deepen, societal relationships faced by multiple threats.

This concern with the durability of an international society that possesses a shared elite overlay but lacks a "thick" common cultural base is strikingly reminiscent of a persistent anxiety surrounding the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which developed as a diplomatic community on the basis of elite solidarity. (3) This diplomatic culture is valuable--indeed has proved indispensable--but it lacks depth and, as ASEAN and its member governments are finding, it is difficult to extend to the larger environment of people in the region.

Yet if the goals of the ASEAN Community are to be realized, this is precisely what needs to happen. As the former ASEAN Secretary-General Rodolfo Severino puts it: "Southeast Asia cannot be an enduring security community or an effective economic community--indeed it cannot be an ASEAN Community in its truest and deepest sense--without being a socio-cultural community." (4) If regional objectives are to be lastingly and meaningfully reached, therefore, the inhabitants of Southeast Asia as a whole must be able to find enough social and cultural commonality for regional self-identification. (5) Key initial steps to this end include contact and communication, essential prerequisites for people "to imagine themselves as part of an emergent functional whole". (6)

Bull does not take his reflections on "diplomatic/elite" versus "cosmopolitan" cultures very far. Nevertheless, the duality he hints at furnishes an alternative conceptual springboard for examining current efforts to fulfil the communication goals of the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC). It offers a slightly different diagnosis from the already well canvassed distinction between "top-down" and "bottom-up" regional approaches, suggesting not that official initiatives by ASEAN and member governments are redundant, pending the growth of a "we-feeling" over which they have little control, but rather that communications need to be tailored towards a somewhat different goal.

The argument is made in several stages. The first section further unpacks key concepts (international society, culture--cosmopolitan and otherwise--and identity) as well as expanding on the communicational goals of the ASCC. The second and third sections consider a variety of specific attempts to familiarize the citizens of Southeast Asia with what ASEAN has to offer. They contrast initiatives that appear more suited to promulgating a quasi-diplomatic or intellectual culture (turning citizens into representatives of a regional ideal through the acquisition of more knowledge) with others that have the capacity to develop a more genuinely cosmopolitan culture (inviting citizens to connect with, and feel at home in, their region on a deeper--discursive and emotional--level). …

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