The twentieth century witnessed a marked tendency towards regionalism which has affected all areas worldwide. Multiple regional entanglements form a complex global scenario and cover different practices. Despite crisis diagnoses, regional institutions play their part in defining and managing major contemporary problems.

Regionalism, defined as “a primarily state-led process of building and sustaining formal regional institutions and organizations among at least three states ” (Tanja Börzel and Thomas Risse), is a form of multilateralism that made its appearance during the second half of the 19th century and became a major trend in the 20th century. Europe’s integration is conventionally presented as the most advanced realization of the regionalization process – yet practices of regional dialog and cooperation are not an exclusively European prerogative, as evidenced by the development of regional initiatives in the Americas from the 19th century onward.

Regional integration initiatives and processes in the Americas, 1826-2018

Sources: From Germande la Reza; Biblioteca Digital Daniel Cosío Villegas, Conferencias Internacionales Americanas, 1889-1936 (Recopilación de tratados y otros documentos); Andrea Bianculli, “Latin America”, in Tanja A. Börzel and Thomas Risse (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Comparative Regionalism, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2016; Official organization websites

Comment: This series of four maps shows the major periods of regional progress in America. In Latin America these date back a long way, starting in 1826 with the Hispanic-American congresses. From the late 19th century until 1948, Pan-American conferences were organized. After World War II, intergovernmental organizations were created and multiplied, especially in Central and South America and the Caribbean.

Regional organizations multiplied at the end of the Second World War (Arab League, Organization of American States [OAS], Organization of African Unity [OAU], Central American Common Market [CACM], Southern African Customs Union [SACU]), followed by a period of disillusionment: distrust among partners, closed societies, and a failure to deliver results led to lower budgets, fewer meetings, and lower expectations.


Regionalism gained a new lease of life in the 1990s with the creation of new agreements (MERCOSUR [Southern Common Market], NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement]) and the reform of existing ones (African Union [AU], Andean Community [CAN], Southern African Development Community [SADC]). This neo-regionalism was outward-looking, multidimensional and open to private-sector involvement – and it still wasn’t the end of the story: the regionalist momentum continued, in a new phase, with the development of transregionalism (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation [APEC], Indian Ocean Rim Association [IORA]) and the emergence of new organizations (Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of our America [ALBA], Union of South American Nations [UNASUR], Community of Latin American and Caribbean States [CELAC], Shanghai Cooperation Organization [SCO]). The regional entwinements characteristic of the entire global arena in the early 21st century present a scene of such complexity that we need to think “beyond the ‘new’ regionalism” (Björn Hettne).

Timeline of regional processes, 1945-2018

Source: author’s compilation from official organization websites.

Comment: This non-exhaustive diagram lists 53 regional changes that occurred between 1945 and 2011. Their nature, objectives, and degrees of integration are extremely diverse (forum, trade agreement, military alliance). They concern all regions of the world and even, in the case of some, extend over several regions (trans-regionalism).

Regionalism, then, encompasses multiple practices, in both temporal and spatial terms. In this context, the European Union (EU) appears less as a model of regionalism than as an “original creation” resulting from an “unplanned process” (Guillaume Courty and Guillaume Devin). Unlike the highly institutionalized European construct, blending the intergovernmental and the supranational, not all regionalisms involve the creation of a highly formalized structure or a greater degree of regional integration. Other regional organizations are more respectful of sovereignty (ALBA, OCS) or operate on a more flexible, informal basis. And not all are equally significant: the various acronyms can designate advanced cooperation processes (EU) – and also structures that are struggling to function effectively (Arab Maghreb Union [AMU]).

Regionalism in crisis

Although most regional organizations are multidimensional, they do not necessarily concern themselves with the same issues (security, trade, development, humanitarian issues, environment, migration, human rights, etc.). Moreover, different regional organizations do not all perceive specific issues in the same way, as has been highlighted by a comparison of various regional texts and instruments for protecting human rights (Delphine Allès and Clara Egger).

Finally, the links between regionalism and regionalization (i.e. an intensification of interactions and exchanges between actors in a region – a process of which the participants may not necessarily be aware) are not straightforward and vary from one regional space to another: while European regionalism is driving economic integration, the space marked out by the developing regionalization of trade and finance flows in South-East Asia is not coterminous with ASEAN’s borders (Association of Southeast Asian Nations).

Main regional organizations, June 2018

Source: official organization websites.

Comment: This map shows the proliferation, complexity, and confusion of the regional institutions it lists. These prove to be extremely varied in nature, as well as in their objectives and degree of integration.

From Venezuela’s announcement of its withdrawal from OAS in April 2017, to Britain’s vote in favor of Brexit on June 23, 2016, to the unimpressive performances of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the AU in managing the Ebola outbreak between 2013 and 2015, more and more regional organizations are being labeled “in crisis.” They are revealing themselves to be ineffective in addressing current issues, unrepresentative, and lacking legitimacy. Opposition to them takes many different forms, arising from various sectors of society and from various parts of the political spectrum – as illustrated by a study of the Euroskeptics among members of the European Parliament (Nathalie Brack). This is both an institutional crisis and an identity crisis.

Despite these upheavals, regional institutions are playing a central, though differentiated, role in defining and managing most major contemporary challenges: migration, environment, development, security, etc. Their participation in global governance is helping to shape the social and political spaces of the global arena.

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