Since the founding of the United Nations more than 65 years ago, groups of regional nations – in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas – have become the organization’s political, peacekeeping and development partners. While some of these groups have kept a low profile, several now find themselves in the international spotlight as crucial issues of governance grip Africa, Southeast Asia and the Middle East.
Two of the oldest UN partners are the Organization of American States, which predated both the League of Nations and the UN, and the League of Arab States, which was created in 1945. The OAS, as it is known, is based in Washington and has been shepherding the return to the democratic development of Haiti. And the Arab League has taken a surprising lead in dealing with the implosion of Syria.
These two regional groups, however, are not alone in the international spotlight. Two other, post-colonial entities, the African Union and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, are also in the news.
The African Union, founded in 1963 as the Organization of African Unity and renamed in 2002, is active in battling an Islamist movement in Somalia that has devastated regions of that country and unsettled the Horn of Africa. The violence has strained the resources of UN humanitarian agencies as well.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, known officially also as Asean, was created in 1967 after aggressive acts by Indonesia threatened its neighbors. It was a time when Singapore and Malaysia had recently been born acrimoniously as separate nations after the rupture of what was once British Malaya, and Communist insurgencies had created turmoil in the region.
Admitting Dubious Members
Now the issue is Burma, a latecomer to Asean and for years an embarrassment to the association.
After internal dissension over whether to admit Burma’s military government at all, the country talked its way in, with the support of a few neighbors, in 1997. This was an example of a very Southeast Asian preference for “constructive engagement” rather than confrontation with a neighborhood delinquent with a record of large-scale human-rights abuses. The Burmese membership brought considerable criticism to the association, which then admitted Cambodia under an undemocratic strongman in 1999.
But the association also had other concerns in mind, a major one being the expansion of Chinese economic (and more recently military) power in Southeast Asia through influence in Burma, renamed Myanmar by its military leaders. It was a concern shared by India, on Burma’s western flank.
Though Europeans and many others in the West would still disagree, Asean’s members would say that steady engagement with Burma, in partnership with the UN, has paid off. Ban Ki-moon made the first visits to Burma as secretary-general in nearly half a century in 2008, when he persuaded the country’s military to allow outside humanitarian aid into the country after the devastation of cyclone Nargis, and in 2009.
Ban plans to go there again soon, after the Burmese military’s first openings to the democratic opposition led by Aung San Suu Kyi, who plans to seek election to the country’s fledging parliament.
The U.S. Ventures to Burma
Ban, a former South Korean foreign minister who worked well in the nonconfrontational style of the region, sent a series of envoys to Burma over recent years. He is now being joined in the effort by Washington.
President Barack Obama, citing “flickers of progress” in Burma, announced in Bali this month that he would be sending Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the country, the first high-level American official to visit in more than 50 years. Obama, who seems to have reveled at being back in Southeast Asia, where he spent years as a boy and later as he worked on his autobiography as an adult, has energized American policy not only in Burma but also in the wider region, from Australia to Vietnam.
Southeast Asia, with an eye always trained on China, welcomes the moves, even the stationing of American Marines on Australia’s northern coast, within striking distance of the South China Sea.
In working with Southeast Asians, Obama may find a partner not only with Ban but also with Asean’s secretary-general, Surin Pitsuwan, a Muslim from Buddhist Thailand’s restive south, who was educated largely in the United States and once served in the Congressional office of the late Rep. Geraldine Ferraro while on a fellowship in Washington.
He tells the story of how, when he ran (successfully) for the Thai parliament in 1986 and was asked to don a uniform for his official portrait, as was the custom, he chose to be pictured instead in his Harvard graduation gown and crimson Ph.D. hood.
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.