Assessing the contributions of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to regional security can be a rather perplexing exercise. ASEAN has no shortage of admirers who readily valorise ASEAN as, according to one formulation, “the success story of the Third World.” Referring to the grouping as “a well-functioning, indispensable reality in [Southeast Asia],” Kofi Annan, the late former secretary general of the United Nations, once opined that ASEAN “is a real force to be reckoned with far beyond the region.” The historical record also suggests that ASEAN states have collaborated among themselves, successfully in many instances, on both political and security issues such as counterterrorism, maritime security and conflict management more broadly. The fact that no major war has hitherto broken out among the ASEAN member states has even led some observers to suggest the Southeast Asian region has enjoyed a “long peace.” Unlike the European Union (EU), which was awarded the 2012 Nobel peace prize for its efforts to advance international peace, ASEAN’s contributions to regional peace and security have been considerably more modest but arguably no less significant in their own regional context.
On the other hand, the historical record is also peppered with myriad examples of the organisation’s inability and unwillingness to act when regional situations have demanded concerted action. More often than not, ASEAN has fallen short on its own express aspirations as was the case in 2015 when its member states failed to realise their goal to form a regionally integrated community out of Southeast Asia by the stipulated deadline. In this paper, I take stock of ASEAN’s shortcomings and successes as a security actor in Southeast Asia and beyond. Remarkably, for a small grouping of relatively weak nations—the 10-member countries are Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam—ASEAN’s diplomatic and security influence extends well beyond the confines of Southeast Asia. I therefore look at how ASEAN has fared in this regard by comparing two of its wider security offshoots, the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus). I then conclude by discussing a couple of lessons that could be drawn from ASEAN’s experience an applied to the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region where regional cooperation and architecture are concerned.