The Tyranny of the ACRONYMs


There is something about regionalism that bores me silly. It’s all those ACRONYMs, posing as real organisations.

Sometimes, reading articles about ASEAN, APEC, NAFTA, or CER (believe me the names don’t matter) is like reading the back of a cornflakes pack while nursing a 50-pound hangover. You need distraction, but you just don’t get it.

As you read a learned piece on ‘regional identity and ASEAN Track Two Initiatives’ your hungover brain feels like it’s riding pillion on a Kawasaki with shitty suspension. Every time you come across an ACRONYM (and there are so many) it’s as if you’ve hit some housing zone with five speed humps.

So I was glad to be out of Australia when all the spin about the East Asia Summit (EAS) was spun last week: it was historic, it augurs well for the future, Australia has made it to the table or maybe not.

Go back 15 years and the same stories were being spun: Australia is part of Asia, no it isn’t, well maybe geographically (if only we could find a big enough barge to tow us up in the world), those Malaysians are just projecting resentment of the British colonial experience on us, Asia is where we have to be if we are going to make it

Even Mahathir Mohamad, the former Prime Minister of Malaysia and permanent tiger paw in the side of ‘Big Picture’ Keating, made a showing last week expressing concern about Australia’s involvement in the EAS:

I am afraid, knowing Asians, who are always very polite and do not like to appear to be recalcitrant, the views of Australia are likely to dominate.

Well, let me say it: the ACRONYMS, and what they stand for, don’t matter sometimes not even to the Australian Government.

I swear on the integrity of the WTO that if you sent a gold-embossed invitation to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) to attend the inaugural Summit of ASS-SPAHNC, somebody from the Department would turn up. Maybe even Alexander in his fishnet stockings. Just don’t spell out the acronym, or at least, put it on the back of the invitation: Aimless Senseless Summit So Please Attend in Host National Costume.

No decent leader can afford not to be seen at an ACRONYM, linking hands with a row of malfeasance-ridden, democratically challenged leaders with conditional cheque-books under the table all in the name of national interest (see: When the Chips are Down the Gulls get Pecking). For the seasoned Summit-goer, not being at an ACRONYM is like missing out on the school dance with the promise of a touched-up can of coke.

Alexander fought to get us to the EAS, even agreeing to sign one ACRONYM’s meaningless Statement on Amity and Cooperation meaningless because Burma has also signed it, so what does it mean?

As for Howard, he’s into the senior parties (some ASS-SPAHNCing goes on there too). Howard recognises EAS as useful, but APEC’s the place for him, because it brings the US into the region.

APEC? It was once famously described by Gareth-Gareth Evans as four adjectives in search of a noun (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation). The absence of a noun says it all no unity of purpose, compromise as rule of thumb, and sluggish alignment of economic regulations and exchanges.

Thanks to Peter Nicholson

It is said that Hawke was put up to setting up APEC at the behest of the Japanese in 1989. At the time, the Japanese were regarded as regional pariahs for their failure to apologise (at least a billion times) for wartime atrocities, and so were not in a position to take the diplomatic lead in establishing APEC. It fell to Australia to establish this beacon of trans-regional liberal economic hope. Australia doesn’t just do the bidding of the USA.

But what comes of all these ACRONYMs? They have secretariats, they issue standards, they code thousands of items for de-tariffication, they issue statements. There is a standard text somewhere its title is so banal I cannot recall it on the various achievements of the ACRONYMs. I advise my students to read it because if I tried to cover it in a lecture I would fall asleep.

The text covers what one would expect of bodies made up of self-interested elitist diplomats intent on securing comparative advantage or absolute gain for their home States lots and lots of statements of common interest and regional identity. The ACRONYMs seem to have something of the 16th century about them, such is their ardour for the cataloguing of declarations, communiqués, schedules and the sublimely ridiculous. Let me quote ASEAN’s anthem:

ASEAN Song of Unity
Our voices rise as one.
From land to land from sea to sea,
Reach out to everyone.
Let’s link our arms and stand.
Behold the sun has risen to
The level of our eyes;
Behold the sun has risen to
The level of our eyes.
(Available at

Conventionally, it can be said of all regional ACRONYMs that they are born of high-mercenary hopes but with the expectation of low achievements, knowing that agreements will fall prey to protective ‘national interest.’ And this is what gives the ACRONYMs their tedious history the push and pull of different elite interests. They’re like Dallas, but minus the soap opera.

It’s not surprising then that some constituencies have been thinking outside the ACRONYMs. One of the greatest levels of economic integration in Asia has occurred in the absence of regional frameworks the overseas Chinese investing in China.

My intemperate disposition towards the study of regionalism is born of a certain revelatory moment. I was sitting at a seminar in England some years ago listening to a rotund Latin American professor speaking of the merging of Latin-American and Asian regionalism. As he spoke of the glorious opportunities that awaited those bold enough to ‘step into history,’ he managed that quiet belch that is the mark of all accomplished academic-diplomats the ‘I have expensive luncheons with important people’ kind of belch. His wine-cultured breath could have been bottled, branded and exported were it not for problems of regional distribution networks, irregular sanitary standards, tariff walls and a web of regulations.

His presentation was shamelessly charmless, like many I have heard before. Read word for word, pausing not for dramatic effect but to turn the page. His monotonous tone invited a quiet meditation on the virtues of cacophony of riots in the streets for grassroots economics, of chants to unlink from neoliberalism, of a simple anarchistic punch-in-the-face to corporate greed and diplomatic carpet bagging; in other words, a return to adolescent rebellion.

I was not alone in this spontaneous urge. Regular seminar goers, known more for engaging in the linguistic turn than a left turn, were similarly bothered, judging from their shuffling bottoms on seats. I felt, for a moment, that we were all united in an urge to jump up and stage a spontaneous zap on this bloated symbol of utilitarian regional solidarities.

But only for a moment.

For that is the power of ACRONYMs they bore you into submission.

The professor was not to blame for his lacklustre presentation; there is not much point in putting effort into empty regional rhetoric. Still, the performance was necessary the comforting statement o
f the obvious, just like an ad jingle. What banalities have entered our consciousness through repetition?

No one realised the professor’s speech was over until the obligatory fawning thank-you from the Chair commenced: ‘I would like you to join me in thanking our speaker for his selfless sharing of wisdom. Thank you Professor umm, uh Professor (*&^$%#) ,’ and in the most entertaining part of the proceeding, the Chair, having forgotten the professor’s name, blurted out a word that sounded Spanish but quickly and diplomatically became a belch.

To be so not-named was no dishonour for the visiting professor.

And so it is with ACRONYMs. Now, which one were we speaking about ?

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.