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Amitav Acharya Whose Ideas Matter Essay

Over the last decade, a range of actors have pressed for states and regional organizations to take action against the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons. Some regional bodies have responded with comprehensive plans of action and impressive policy responses; others have done very little. This article examines the `patchy' response of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). It looks at how ASEAN played a mediating role between global norm entrepreneurs seeking to promote small arms norms in the region and member-states that opposed many of their goals. Unlike much of the scholarship on norms, which focuses on the origins and `export' of principled ideas, this article builds on the emerging literature on norm localization, in particular exploring the way global and local actors contest the content and framing of a norm as it is diffused. It argues that ASEAN officials localized small arms as a transnational crime and counter-terrorism issue in a deliberate strategy designed to limit the scope and effect of the norm. Linking small arms action to `transnational' issues permitted and even encouraged some action, but also served to close off discussion of sensitive `internal' issues, such as military and police complicity in unlawful weapons transfers, and ruled out transparency measures that could impact on the legal arms trade. This reframing made small arms norms congruent with ASEAN's normative consensus based on the fundamental principle of non-interference in members' internal affairs.

Asia is a crucial battleground for power and influence in the international system. It is also a theater of new experiments in regional cooperation that could redefine global order. Whose Ideas Matter? is the first book to explore the diffusion of ideas and norms in the international system from the perspective of local actors, with Asian regional institutions as its main focus.

There's no Asian equivalent of the EU or of NATO. Why has Asia, and in particular Southeast Asia, avoided such multilateral institutions? Most accounts focus on U.S. interests and perceptions or intraregional rivalries to explain the design and effectiveness of regional institutions in Asia such as SEATO, ASEAN, and the ASEAN Regional Forum. Amitav Acharya instead foregrounds the ideas of Asian policymakers, including their response to the global norms of sovereignty and nonintervention. Asian regional institutions are shaped by contestations and compromises involving emerging global norms and the preexisting beliefs and practices of local actors.

Acharya terms this perspective "constitutive localization" and argues that international politics is not all about Western ideas and norms forcing their way into non-Western societies while the latter remain passive recipients. Rather, ideas are conditioned and accepted by local agents who shape the diffusion of ideas and norms in the international system. Acharya sketches a normative trajectory of Asian regionalism that constitutes an important contribution to the global sovereignty regime and explains a remarkable continuity in the design and functions of Asian regional institutions.

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