Enacting the Security Community
ASEAN's Never-ending Story
Stéphanie Martel



A Cautionary Tale

Discourse in the Making of a Security Community

ON DECEMBER 31, 2015, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations1 formally announced the establishment of the ASEAN Community (ASEAN 2015f). This declaration was made despite the organization’s inability, by its own admission, to meet its self-defined criteria for claiming this status. Indeed, the actual fulfillment of the grouping’s professed goals, which include its transformation into a genuine “security community,” was pushed back to yet another target spelled out in its Vision 2025. In this programmatic document, ASEAN admits that community-building is an “ongoing process,” the next step of which is to “elevate” regional cooperation “to an even higher plane” (ASEAN 2016). And yet, ASEAN has also referred to itself as a security community on numerous occasions since the turn of the twenty-first century (ASEAN 2003; 2009; 2015c; 2015f). A former ASEAN secretary general, the late Rodolfo Severino, even argued that “in a very real sense, ASEAN is already a security community” (Severino in C. Jones 2015, 4).

Five years after the community was formally declared by its champions as both a tangible reality and a work in progress, in August 2020, ASEAN held a consultation on “the narrative of ASEAN identity.” This consultation, chaired by the current secretary general, Dato Lim Jock Hoi, was premised upon the recognition that while the institution was indeed transforming into a community, it still needed to “develop a sense of ‘we-ness’” (ASEAN 2020a). This characteristic, it so happens, is a central feature of security communities as defined in scholarly literature (see Deutsch et al. 1957; Acharya 2014). In ASEAN’s own words, this goal ought to be supported by “providing a narrative that addresses fundamental questions such as ‘Who are we? What do we stand for? and What does ASEAN mean?’” (ASEAN 2020a). This book starts at a very similar place.

FIGURE 1. Map of Southeast Asia. Source: The World Factbook.

At first glance, that ASEAN could declare itself a “security community” without having provided compelling answers to these questions, while also recognizing that it is not actually one (yet?), is a blatant example of a gap between rhetoric and implementation. This gap, it is often suggested, is especially salient in the case of ASEAN. Yet it is also common in multilateral institutions where the pursuit of security is concerned. Beyond the surface, it also alludes to another, less obvious, but equally important aspect of security governance and community-building: the central role discourse plays in the social construction of security, collective identity formation, and the conduct of world politics in practice.

By acknowledging the necessity for ASEAN to produce a compelling self-narrative, practitioners themselves now explicitly recognize the power of discourse in bringing the security community into existence. The phrase “security community” is itself firmly tied to how ASEAN envisions itself and what it must become. Yet the recognition that discourse is not “just talk,” “mere rhetoric,” or “divorced from practice” but instead holds explanatory power in and of itself, and not just as a transparent conduit for other factors, is remarkably absent from most accounts of ASEAN’s journey. This book’s foremost concern, therefore, is to better understand the effects of discourse on security community–building.


ASEAN’s tendency to prioritize buzzwords, showboating declarations, and empty slogans over concrete results despite conducting more than a thousand meetings a year is well known and often criticized. For its detractors, while ASEAN shares limitations that are common to multilateralism across various contexts, no other international/regional institution is more deserving of the label “talk shop.” The grouping’s bid to transform into a security community is often offered as a case in point. Indeed, the end point of this initiative remains especially elusive and ambiguous today.

The ambiguity of ASEAN’s status as a security community, however, has not prevented scholars and practitioners of Asia-Pacific international relations to consistently suggest that such a community is, in fact, in the making.2 ASEAN is not only still described by some as “the most successful regional organization in the Global South” (Stubbs 2019, 941–942) but remains a favorite example of a “nascent” security community beyond the West (Adler 2008, 206). At the same time, it departs significantly from how this concept is understood in International Relations (IR), that is, as a group of states that have renounced the use of force as a legitimate means of dispute settlement and among which exist dependable expectations of peaceful change (Deutsch et al. 1957; Adler and Barnett 1998a).

From renewed tensions in the South China Sea to the Rohingya crisis, among other issues, ASEAN is also widely seen by both its critics and its supporters as ineffective in the face of pressing security challenges. ASEAN’s impotence also leads to much frustration for many of its partners as well as non-state actors involved in Asia-Pacific regionalism. These concerns add to a familiar and fairly consensual cautionary tale about the organization since at least the turn of the twenty-first century, if not its very inception. If ASEAN is not able to walk the proverbial talk and offer practical solutions to regional insecurity, this warning goes, it will inevitably become obsolete and be sidelined, if not unravel entirely.

In fact, “ASEAN’s irrelevance or even death has been predicted several times before” (Acharya 2009b, 265). Its longevity could certainly not be surmised at the birth of the organization in 1967. After a series of failed attempts at regional cooperation, many predicted that ASEAN “would probably not survive its infancy” (T. Koh 2011, ix, in Stubbs 2020, 604). Since then, ASEAN’s future has also been consistently put into question, as its ongoing difficulty to manage a never-ending list of crises and other “litmus tests”3 dealt additional blows to its credibility. And yet, grim prognoses about the grouping’s fate have still not materialized, as ASEAN recently commemorated its golden jubilee in 2017.

Of course, doubt continues to proliferate over ASEAN’s capacity to meet the myriad of challenges it currently faces, and for good reason. Multilateral institutions, regional or otherwise, from every corner of the international system are currently under severe strain. These include some with far more resources than an organization that is certainly “no NATO” (Hemmer and Katzenstein 2002) and is still commonly—if unfairly—portrayed as a poor parent of European integration (Rüland 2017).4 Some of these challenges result from specific events and developments: Brexit, military coups in Mali and Myanmar, the trade war between China and the United States, and the rise of illiberal leaders in Turkey, Hungary, and Poland are just some examples among many. These crises only exacerbate long-standing and ongoing concerns over the ability of multilateralism to keep “making the world hang together” (Ruggie 1998), to provide solutions to “wicked problems” like pandemics and climate change, and to continue to offer key opportunities to “mediate estrangement” (Der Derian 1987) in international society. ASEAN, in this sense at least, is not as unique as is often suggested.

Despite its many flaws, ASEAN does more than merely carrying on. Not unlike other multilateral institutions facing similar charges, it continues to defy its skeptics through the steady extension of its security agenda as well as the continuous commitment of its member states and external partners. The latter category includes all current and (re)emerging major powers—China, the United States, Russia, and India. It also extends to many other secondary players—Japan, Australia, Canada, South Korea, the European Union, and New Zealand—aspiring to position themselves favorably in an “Indo-Pacific” order that is bound to become increasingly central to the conduct of world politics. Given the intensification of strategic competition between the United States and China, which plays out first and foremost in the Asia-Pacific region although its impacts are global, the significance of ASEAN as the institutional focal point of this regional order in transition is hard to deny.5 The grouping indeed remains at the core of broader multilateral, regional, and security governance processes that have become stable, albeit contested, features of world politics. As such, it carries hope for a better future for the region at least as consistently as it disappoints.

In this context, the idea that ASEAN is a necessary, although not sufficient, condition for regional peace has proven remarkably persistent, even as a causal link between the existence of the organization and the absence of war among its member states might very well be impossible to establish (Emmerson 2005). The realization of a security community with ASEAN as its locus is widely recognized as an imperfect but laudable quest that anyone involved in regional affairs should strive to improve.

As frustrating as it can be to deal with such a “weak” (Stubbs 2014) regional institution, at least according to Western-centric standards, doing without ASEAN seems increasingly hard. The organization continues to escape forecasts of its impending doom and proposals for alternatives—whether in the form of an “Asian NATO” (Heydarian 2021) or something else. It does so despite not having reinvented itself (Tay, Estanislao, and Soesastro 2001) to the extent and in the way many, including its champions, have deemed necessary for it to prevent its decline. Further, the fact that so much criticism is waged at ASEAN for not being able to resolve the latest wave of major power tensions or the current crisis in Myanmar is a testament to the high expectations that even its most adamant detractors keep placing on it. Most tend to agree that, notwithstanding its limitations, the more ASEAN does, the better for regional peace and security.

For these reasons, how ASEAN endures against less than favorable odds is, in and of itself, a crucial question of world politics (Stubbs 2019, 924). The importance of this question, however, is severely underestimated in a discipline that, in theory and as praxis, still struggles when it comes to “worlding beyond the West” (Tickner and Wæver 2009; see also Shilliam 2015; Acharya and Buzan 2019). This inquiry into ASEAN, Southeast Asia, and the Asia-Pacific region also serves as a stepping-stone for engaging broader questions that are currently taking on new salience. Multilateral governance, which increasingly takes place on a regional basis, is diversifying at the same time as it faces significant challenge and opposition. In the context of rising concerns about renewed great power rivalry, the transformation of global order, the crisis of multilateralism and, as a result, the unprecedented pressure exercised on security community–building institutions in every corner of the world, asking how these institutions work in practice (Bially Mattern 2001) remains as relevant as ever.

This book seizes this moment to shed new light on the following: What does it mean to form a security community? How is such a community brought into existence, in the Global South and beyond? What effects does the diversification of security governance have on this process today? How do security community–building institutions that, like ASEAN, seem to be eternally in crisis, with no clear end point in sight, not only survive repeated foretelling of their demise but adapt in the face of changing circumstances, even as they consistently fail to bring about dependable expectations (Deutsch et al. 1957; Adler and Barnett 1998a) of peace and security?

While these concerns are especially relevant for “nascent” security communities, they can also shape how we approach “mature” ones like NATO and the European Union (EU). Further, some of these questions have long shaped the study of not only security communities, but multilateralism and regional governance more generally. Others arise from new developments that already attract sustained attention in these fields of study, such as shifts in the distribution of global power, the proliferation of transnational and multidimensional problems of governance on top of more traditional challenges, and the rise of new interpretations of the rules of international society. In this context, scholars have noted a need to move past state-centrism, an exclusive concern with formal processes, and a tendency to center Western experiences as the basis for a “false universalism” (De Lombaerde et al. 2010, 748). Many also share the view that more attention needs to be paid to how institutions, actors, and regions not only interact but overlap (Breslin, Higgot, and Rosamond 2002; De Lombaerde et al. 2010; Börzel and Risse 2016; Börzel 2016; Söderbaum 2016; Acharya 2016a; Telò 2017).

This realization is a key driver behind the surge of interest in comparative regionalism (e.g., Börzel and Risse 2016; Shaw, Grant and Cornelissen 2011; Telò 2017) in recent years, including scholarship that features ASEAN among others as case studies (e.g., Loewen and Zorob 2018; Coe 2019; Jetschke et al. 2021; Glas, forthcoming). Similar impulses also characterize ongoing discussions about the future of multilateralism and security governance that this book participates in. This interest extends to assessing the implications of the development of a post-Westphalian (Hettne and Söderbaum 2006) or post-hegemonic global order (Telò 2017) that appears increasingly fragmented and complex (Acharya 2016b). In this context, regional institutions, particularly those in the Global South, are seen as playing a growing role in the fostering of peace and security (Glas and Zarnett 2020).

This book tackles these important questions from an innovative angle, by shedding new light on the productive power of discourse in security community–building. It shows that discourse plays a central role in bringing the security community into existence, whether it is already recognized as established or, like ASEAN, remains aspirational. While it does not engage per se in the kind of “truly comparative” (Börzel and Risse 2016, 5) analysis that many scholars of regionalism have been calling for in recent years, the book speaks to similar concerns. ASEAN is treated here as an especially “relevant laboratory,” borrowing from Telò’s (2017, 2) description of the European Union, to yield insights into the multilayered, multidimensional, and contested character of multilateralism, regionalism, and security governance in the twenty-first century.6 I argue specifically that ASEAN can be conceived as a community of discourse, (re)produced through a never-ending debate between competing, potentially incompatible versions of its security community. More generally, security community–building, and especially in the twenty-first century, is a deeply polysemic, omnidirectional, and contested process.

First, security community–building is informed by distinct interpretations of (1) what the pursuit of security means for a given community and (2) where the boundaries of the community lie, thus making it inherently polysemic. In other words, the security community holds different meanings for social agents involved in its (re)production, with significant effects on the institution that purports to embody it. The book shows how these positions come together in various, relatively self-coherent “epic stories” that states, but also non-state actors, mobilize to enact the security community in ways that are not easily reconciled. These stories feature various kinds of “monsters” that the security community in the making must vanquish in order to be fully realized. Second, this process is omnidirectional, because these distinct interpretations set the security community in the making on equally distinct “heroic” quests, which are pursued not just sequentially, but simultaneously. Third, social agents draw from these competing interpretations to challenge the views of their counterparts as they all work to bring the security community into existence, thus making this process deeply contested. Once combined, polysemy, omnidirectionality, and contestation help make sense of why security community–building often, and surely in the case of ASEAN, appears as if it is never-ending.

In the following sections, I situate the value of a discourse-based approach as the basis for providing a new explanation for ASEAN’s resilience as a regional security institution, distinct from rationalist but also “mainstream” constructivist approaches. I then discuss key components of my framework (unpacked in further detail in the next chapter) before turning to methodological considerations.


Excerpts of this chapter draw on material previously published as Martel, Stéphanie. 2020. “The Polysemy of Security Community-Building: Toward a ‘People-Centered’ Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)?” International Studies Quarterly 64(3): 588–599, by permission of Oxford University Press.

1. ASEAN’s current membership includes Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.

2. This claim has been made by many, but the most systematic examination of ASEAN as a “nascent” security community remains Amitav Acharya’s Constructing a Security Community in Southeast Asia, now in its third edition (see Acharya 2014).

3. A quick Google search reveals how prevalent this assessment is and the scope of issues (e.g., the South China Sea, COVID-19, the 2021 coup in Myanmar) that present ASEAN with such a test.

4. An EU official who worked at the EU mission in Jakarta recently referred to ASEAN as “a sort of EU ‘Extra-Lite’” (Blankert 2020).

5. The “Asia-Pacific” region, as with “Southeast Asia” and the “Indo-Pacific” region, is a geopolitical construct with ambiguous boundaries. In this book, it is understood as comprising Southeast Asia, Northeast Asia, and South Asia, while also extending to ASEAN’s “dialogue partners.”

6. This interpretive, abductive, and nominal approach to case selection is meant to “advance insight, understanding, and explanation by conceptualizing the particular in more abstract terms, as an instance bearing on something more general” (Soss 2018, 23; see also Schwartz-Shea and Yanow 2012). This approach also echoes calls for more contrapuntal analysis in International Relations (Said 1993; Chowdhry 2007). Indeed, it contributes to turning on its head the pervasive tendency to use Western experiences of such processes as paradigmatic cases against which others ought to be judged (Breslin, Higgot and Rosamond 2002, 12; Acharya 2016a), while refraining from overgeneralization.