The future of Asean

David L Carden is a pioneer. He was the first-ever American ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean). Appointed by President Barack Obama in 2010, Carden served from 2011 until 2013.

The future of Asean

David L Carden is a pioneer. He was the first-ever American ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean). Appointed by President Barack Obama in 2010, Carden served from 2011 until 2013. And he was always on the move covering 10 countries isn’t easy. He traveled frequently to expand American interests and further develop relations with governments in a vital region of the world. Now back in the private sector, he recently released a book, “Mapping ASEAN: Achieving Peace, Prosperity and Sustainability in Southeast Asia.” He took time out from a recent trip back to Jakarta to speak to Strategic Review.

When you first arrived in Jakarta to take up your post in 2011, did you have a detailed game plan in mind for your relations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations?
I didn’t. It had been suggested to me that I identify a few issues in which I had a personal interest and focus on “having some wins.” I declined that advice. I thought I needed to spend learn more about the region before acting. Specifically, I wanted to know how the opportunities and challenges the region is facing are connected. I also needed to assemble the team the US Mission to Asean would need in order to do so, which was difficult given budgetary pressure.

What did you learn?
I learned the issues Asean is facing are parts of larger systems upon which the people of the region depend. These “complex adaptive systems” include those in the human and natural world. Maritime and terrestrial ecosystems, and systems of governance, the economy, defense and public services are
examples.

Explain a bit more what you mean by complex adaptive systems?
Complex adaptive systems are filled with many heterogeneous agents, by which I mean individuals and legal entities; phase transition, which means they change, sometimes rapidly; and are emergent, which means they evolve toward a future which has yet to be determined.

Did you have to adjust as your posting continued?
We did. US-Asean was not large when I arrived in Jakarta. We needed to be creative in how we used our resources, which included learning from others in our analysis of the region. These included no only other agencies from the United States government, but also the governments of our Asean friends, those of other governments and the private sector. We also hired a science adviser, Dr Montira Pongsiri, who was from the Environmental Protection Agency. She gave the Mission far-reaching capabilities in researching and understanding the region.

Why is systems thinking important?
Managing systems effectively is essential to the peace, prosperity and sustainability of the region. If issues are evaluated and managed independently, how they affect one another can’t be seen. Many unintended consequences can follow from their interrelationships. Some can be quite destructive and increase the costs associate  with managing them. The problem is made worse when governments assign exclusive responsibility for the management of specific systems, such as the environment education, to a specific agency. Too often these agencies don’t coordinate their programs with one another. Indeed, the incentives are not there for them to truly collaborate.

How can this be changed?
The region needs a map that provides a better idea where it is and what forces will shape where it is going. Until it has such a map, it will have no control over its destination. I tried to provide some ideas how to begin the process of making such a map in my book, “Mapping ASEAN.” But as I say in the beginning of the book, my map only is a way of looking at the challenge. Much more needs to be known to prepare a proper map.

As I understand it then, the title “Mapping ASEAN” refers to a way of understanding how the region’s human and natural systems are connected. Can you explain that a bit more?
Too often public and private sector leaders prefer to all identify and talk about opportunities, including such things as the “demographic dividend” the region enjoys because of its relatively young population. But they don’t give the challenges the same emphasis. More needs to be done to identify and manage these risks. For example, just how will the region empower the young people upon which the region’s future depends? And how will it minimize the effects of such things as climate change, human migration and potential for a pandemic. These and other forces will shape the region’s future much more than the region’s demographics. For example, the Federal Reserve estimates unless the Paris Accords are followed, climate change will reduce worldwide GDP by 7 percent. The reduction could be held to 1 percent if the parties adhere to the Accords. The pandemic could have a similar effect and much more
immediately. Some estimates are that it could cost the world economy $6 trillion. I think this low; it also doesn’t appear to take into account the loss of life, which would be destabilizing and have a long-term effect.

How did your private sector career impact your vision of the strategy to improve the human and natural landscape of the diverse region, especially given its diversity?
What is needed will take much more capital than presently is available. This capital shortfall is a major challenge across most of the region. Tax revenues as a percentage of GDP are too low. Put simply, multinational corporations and wealthy individuals are beggaring the very countries upon which they rely for their profits and livelihoods. Tax-advantaged jurisdictions, tax havens and other forms of tax avoidance are reducing government revenues and adversely impacting their ability to provide needed public services. There is an estimated $30 trillion in tax havens, according to the Tax Justice Network. The taxes alone on thi  money would be hundreds of billions of dollars. And tax-advantaged jurisdictions are costing the countries where multinational companies have operations and make sales an estimated $600 billion a year.

The result will be an increasing governmental inability to provide public services, especially to rural areas where it is inefficient to do so because populations are scattered. This will increase urban migration in the region, further crowding cities that already are struggling to manage. Instability is a real risk.

What are the key challenges facing the Asean region today and moving forward?
The cross-border forces themselves will be the principle challenge. Foremost among them will be human migration, nutrition, climate change and infectious disease. But how governments respond to these challenges also likely will test the region. These forces will cause the leaders of some countries to argue only strong central authorities will be able to manage them. Let me give you an example. Karl Marx and Karl Wittfogel, among others, observed that hydraulic societies, by which I mean those affected by water shortfalls and floods, have demonstrated an impulse toward despotism. Leaders of such societies often have positioned themselves as “masters of waters.”

We could debate whether despotism has been effective in governing such societies in the past, but I don’t believe it will be effective in the future. One of the principle characteristics of complex adaptive systems is that they resist top-down management. There are several reasons for this. First, they have a large number of actors involved, which complicates what can be done. The number of actors has increased and been made even more problematic because the systems now are having cross-border effects. This was not always the case. The systems also are changing more quickly, in part because of feedback loops we don’t understand. Finally, they also are moving forward increasingly faster. All of these realities will make it difficult for central governments to manage them without the informed participation of local agents and broad, multilateral coalitions. This is one reason that those who are questioning democracy today should think again. So too nationalism and sovereignty, which threaten
to make management of cross-border systems impossible.

Which country within the Asean 10 is the linchpin to future success?
Success will depend on all of them acting together.

Final thoughts on your book?
The region, like the rest of the world, needs a map. My book offers some ideas how one might be made. But to make its own map, Asean needs better information and data. Only then will it be able to develop and implement evidence-based policies. Let me close by offering a few practical ideas how this might be done.

Six Asean countries have a national academy of science that are members a of a formal Asia region grouping, the Association of Academies and Societies of Sciences in Asia, including Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. See http://aassa.asia/member/ academies.php.

Asean could use these national academies to provide the science it needs to inform policymakers. It also could ask universities and think tanks, both inside and beyond the region, to participate. Together they could produce analyses to inform policymakers as they assess priorities in the region.

These priorities need to include both opportunities and risks. A systems approach is especially important in this regard because it is necessary in order to understand the positive and negative impacts, tradeoffs and unintended consequences of policies that are being developed BEFORE they are implemented. Only in this way can priorities be set for the long term. The real costs of actions needs to be evaluated before they are undertaken.

Asean also could lead the way in rethinking what it means to be prosperous. The world is living with an outdated concept of prosperity that will not be sustainable. Defining what sustainable prosperity means would be valuable not only for the region, but beyond it as well. For example, what role does community play in human happiness? Health? Education? Sanitation? Tolerance? Emphasizing policies that reinforce and enhance these and other characteristics could lead to a new perspective on
prosperity. An Asean Commission on Sustainable Prosperity could be organized to create such a perspective, which would help maintain stability in the face of the challenges ahead.

It also could provide a counterweight to those who think business as usual will work. The commission could help make the case that the health and development gains we have enjoyed over the last 50 years have come at a cost we no longer can bear. This warning is common across many authoritative global health and intergovernmental reports, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. So, we need to prosper differently, in a way that does not endanger our future health and the well-being of our natural systems.

Asean has shown leadership in the past. Its mere existence is the best example. But it may need to adjust the architecture of the Association and the regional conversation which it oversees, including becoming more interdisciplinary. Fortunately, it is well positioned to do so. All it needs is leadership, and better information and data. With these, it will be better able to provide the people of the region with the futures they deserve.



David L Carden was the first United States ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. He now lives in the United States again and works in the private sector.

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