Amid last week’s commemorations of the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York City and Washington DC (including the Flight 93 crash) came a much more obscure anniversary on September 8: the founding of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) in 1954.
I had heard of SEATO before I had heard of ASEAN. As a boy, my dad the political science professor (a Malaysian, he had studied Southeast Asia at Yale and wrote his Fordham PhD thesis on Chinese foreign policy in Africa) would read back issues of Far Eastern Economic Review (FEER), Asiaweek, and the New York Times, and occasionally would use an article to teach me something about his work.* One evening he explained that SEATO was a U.S. creation that had attempted to impose a NATO-style defense organization in Southeast Asia, and that it had ultimately failed in 1977. But, he added, it had been “replaced” by something called the Association of South East Asian Nations, or ASEAN.
At least that’s what I remembered. In reality, of course, SEATO and ASEAN were very different organizations with very different aims. SEATO was a mutual defense pact whereas ASEAN is a regional grouping with security, economic and social aspects. But there are a few historical lessons that can be taken away from this forgotten footnote in Southeast Asian history.
First, despite its name, SEATO never really was by or for Southeast Asia. It members were Australia, France, New Zealand, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Only the Philippines and Thailand were part of Southeast Asia, with the colonial powers of France and the United Kingdom still holding much territory in the region. Yet when their colonies became independent, they were either unable (in the case of the former French colonies because of the Geneva Accords) or unwilling (in the case of the former British colonies) to join the organization. After the French and British left the region, they had no interest in actively supporting SEATO. Neither Indonesia nor North Vietnam were part of SEATO, as they were ostensibly part of the security “problem” SEATO was meant to deal with.
Second, SEATO also operated by consensus, yet that consensus also failed the organization. The U.S. was never able to get the entire grouping to intervene in the Vietnam War despite the fact that SEATO was intended by the U.S. to deal with such matters, mainly due to objections from the French and British governments. This demonstrates both the limits of pure consensus in international organizations, as well as the fact that the “ASEAN way of consensus” actually existed before ASEAN itself.
Third, SEATO actually managed to achieve more in social and economic issues. Efforts intended to win the “hearts and minds” of Southeast Asians improved the human infrastructure in the region.
SEATO thus serves as an example of how importing Western style regional institutions wholesale into Southeast Asia is ill-advised, a partial explanation of why ASEAN wants to have a regional structure which learns from the European experience, but does not completely copy the European institutions. Yet ASEAN also needs to learn the negative lessons from SEATO. ASEAN institutions need bottom-up support from the peoples of the region, unlike SEATO which was imposed by the colonial masters from the top. Consensus can work (and does work) in ASEAN, but there will be limits. ASEAN also cannot be a purely politico-security entity, which the ASEAN leadership acknowledges by having the economic and socio-cultural pillars of the grouping.
NATO, the EC, and even ASEAN itself are products of the Cold War to varying degrees. With the Cold War over, regional institutions have to keep reinventing themselves to remain relevant. SEATO shows that failure to adapt will result in regional institutions being tossed into the dustbin of history.
*Thanks to Dad and to all the great “Asia hands” in the media, diplomatic corps, military, aid agencies and elsewhere. We owe y’all a debt for your lessons and experience.