Making sense of fuzzy regionalism

New Regionalism is the hydra with many heads for centralising states jealously guarding their power


De-coding New Regionalism: Shifting Socio-Political Contexts in Central Europe and Latin America
Edited by James W. Scott
2009, Ashgate
262 pages, hardback

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

LIKE SO MANY concepts in political science, New Regionalism suffers from an absence of consensus.

As James Scott points out in this effort to de-code this amoebic notion, New Regionalism encompasses an enormous variety of theoretical and analytical concepts. He writes:

“As a result, NR is fuzzy, imprecise and sprawling – a challenge, perhaps an affront, to those who seek unambiguous definitions, conceptual fixity and purity and ‘concrete facts’.” [p. 22]

One thing that clearly emerges from De-coding New Regionalism, however, is that NR has become an important element of normative discourses advancing new paradigms about development and good governance within the broader transitions/transformation literature that are articulated by international bodies disseminating the ideological basis for economic reform and democratisation.

In Latin America, such discourses have had a potent impact upon debates under the broader theme of democratisation, largely because of historically troubled relations between the centre and periphery and the overwhelming imprint of authoritarian centralism on political culture. There is no doubt that New Regionalist discourses have influenced a range of political forces in Latin America, from indigenous notions about territorially based self-rule to the quasi-separatist stance adopted by rightwing forces in eastern Bolivia.

Powerfully normative perspectives, for example, emanate naturally from the ideas that regions have inherent advantages over nation-states when it comes to economic growth in global urban networks and production chains; that they offer an inherent territorial framework for good democratic governance and effective development; and that they respond organically to the socio-cultural, historical and (geo)political bases for region-building.

But to what extent does practical experience of NR live up to these normative tenets, in particular good governance, and how can this be fruitfully assessed when such terms are themselves contested?

Way forward

Scott offers a way forward by integrating different approaches to the study of NR within a straightforward understanding of governance and by employing illustrative case studies from Latin America and Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) that place institutional issues at the heart of the study of regionalisation. De-coding New Regionalism includes a range of contributions that explore this phenomenon at a theoretical and economic level, as well as case studies from CEE and Chile, Mexico, Brazil and Venezuela.

It is an ambitious, but valuable, task: NR has prospered within a “double transition” in Latin America and CEE simultaneoulsy consolidating democratic government while promoting economic competitiveness within a globalising environment. New Regionalism can be seen as a set of institutional and policy responses to the multilayered and highly complex problems generated by this transition.

In Latin America, decentralisation and regionalisation have been informed both by competing notions of national development but also economic and political reform processes. Until recently, regionalism was understood primarily as an instrument for boosting economic performance and not in terms of the contribution it can make to democratisation.

The contributions to De-coding New Regionalism demonstrate that this is no longer the case: in Latin America, the crisis of the developmentalist model, which was accompanied by environmental concerns, globalisation and the resurgence of political pressure for reform, signalled the end of such a view. By the late 1980s, a decisive “new” regionalist tradition focusing on local societies and their opportunities to influence development, as well as sustainability, had emerged.

Ironically, the lack of support for NR in Latin America from multilevel and supranational institutional frameworks, largely due to a lack of resources and by contrast with Europe, has contributed to a situation in which the focus on social and environmental issues has again been subordinated to the objectives of economic growth and entrepreneurial development.

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books

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