Regionalism in World Politics

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Regionalism in World Politics: Past and Present

Louise Fawcett

This chapter offers a introductory survey of regionalism in world politics from the Second World War to the present. 1 It has two related aims: to track and explain the development and growth of formal regional institutions. Its terms of reference are broad ranging and comparative with particular attention paid to the evolving relationship between regionalism and multilateralism.

I. Introduction It is plain to even the most casual observer that there has been a significant growth in both the overall numbers of regional institutions and in the range of their activities over the last half century. 2 There has been a corresponding interest in the study of regionalism. All this seems to indicate that regionalism has become a more important, indeed a well established feature of world politics. 3 However, as this chapter argues, such a claim needs to be subject to critical scrutiny. The mere growth in numbers of regional institutions may not necessarily imply that they have become more important. It may mirror the growth in numbers of states in the international system. And it is certainly true that institutional growth correlates closely with periods of state formation and breakdown, like the end of the Second World War or the end of the Cold War. Further, the expansion of activities of regional institutions, may not necessarily reflect an overall expansion, or increase in effectiveness, but a shift in activity from one area to another, for example a move from economic to security regionalism. 1

This chapter draws on recent work by the author including ‘Exploring Regional Domains: A Comparative History of Regionalism’, International Affairs 80/3 (2004), and ‘Regional Institutions’ in Paul Williams (ed) Security Studies: An Introduction (London: Routledge, 2008). I would like to acknowledge the work of Helene Gandois and Miriam Prys in informing my comments on African regional institutions. 2 For a list and brief description of current regional arrangements and membership of regional organizations by country, see the UNU-CRIS Regional Integration Knowledge System at 3 Mary Farrell, Bjorn Hettne and Luk Van Lagenhove, Global Politics of Regionalism. Theory and Practice (London: Pluto Press, 2005).


A related consideration is that the importance of regionalism may wax and wane according not only to the membership but also to the overall design of the international system. The current regional moment is designed around the features of unipolarity and globalization with the opportunities they provide and constraints they impose. Rather than displaying linear or sustained growth it is possible therefore that the current size and shape of regional activity is only a temporary phenomena, and one that might be succeeded by more ‘global’ or indeed ‘local’ forms of international order. As Ian Clark has suggested in relation to the processes of ‘globalization and fragmentation’, such integrative and disintegrative tendencies have always competed and coexisted historically and are likely to continue to do so in the future. 4 While critically examining the growth of regional institutions, this chapter also looks at the parallel development of theories and approaches to the study of regionalism. 5 These have expanded in two main ways. First, in line with mainstream theoretical approaches in political science in general and International Relations in particular which have employed different methods for explaining institutional development and cooperation between states. Second, in what we might call the ‘cottage industry’ of regionalism which has seen the rise of theories specific to explaining regional integration, often in Europe, but also in different regional settings. All these clusters of theories provide useful explanatory power, and in many respects are complementary. In considering the growth of regionalism over the period since...
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