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Saving the states’ face: an ethnography of the ASEAN secretariat and diplomatic field in Jakarta

Nair, Deepak (2015) Saving the states’ face: an ethnography of the ASEAN secretariat and diplomatic field in Jakarta. PhD thesis, London School of Economics and Political Science.

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Among the most enduring diplomatic projects in the postcolonial Third World, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations or ASEAN has for long inspired antipodal reviews ranging from the celebratory to the derisive. These judgments notwithstanding, the varied practices of ASEAN’s diplomacy have impressively grown in scope, ritual, and ambition in the years following the Cold War and well into the contemporary post-unipolar conjuncture where ASEAN has emerged as a default manager of a geopolitical landscape bookended by the material and symbolic power struggles of China and the United States in Asia. Despite the abundance of writings on ASEAN and Asian security, much about its routine production and performance remain enigmatic. Little is known about the everyday practices that constitute this diplomacy; the varied kinds of labour nourishing its production; the sociological biographies of its practitioners and the endowments of class, language, and social capital shaping their shared dispositions; and the vernacular idiom in which this diplomacy is performed. This thesis interrogates ASEAN’s diplomatic practice with an eye on these concerns by pursuing ethnographic fieldwork for 13 months in a site of ASEAN diplomacy par excellence. This site is the ASEAN Secretariat in South Jakarta and a field of multilateral diplomacy of Great and Middle Powers clustered around it in a city that has laid claim to becoming “ASEAN’s diplomatic capital” (Ibukota diplomatik ASEAN). The thesis constructs two arguments. First, it argues against pervasive understandings of the ASEAN Secretariat’s inconsequentiality. As the only bureaucratic ‘organ’ to physically attend and memorialise every ‘ASEAN meeting’, the Secretariat is a key institution coordinating the burgeoning apparatus of activity in and through which a lexically and ritually coherent ‘ASEAN’ is produced. More importantly, as ‘servants’ of states, Secretariat staff render their ‘emotional labour’ to level the tortured inequalities of the ASEAN diplomatic field. Through practices of face-work, staff deploy an exacting solicitousness to ensure that ASEAN’s state representatives – with varying endowments of linguistic, cultural, and social capital– are not threatened with embarrassment by which they may ‘lose face’, be ‘out of face’ or ‘shamefaced,’ as they gather among each other and their vaunted foreign partners as equals. Second, by analysing the everyday practices of Secretariat staff, ASEAN diplomats, and foreign diplomats based in Jakarta, this thesis draws on the sociology of Pierre Bourdieu and Erving Goffman to construct a wider argument about ASEAN’s diplomatic practice. It argues that ASEAN’s diplomacy is produced in everyday life not by prevailing representations of the ‘ASEAN Way’ but instead through a stock of historically structured, sociologically patterned, tacit and embodied group dispositions – a diplomatic habitus. ASEAN’s diplomatic habitus is organised around a perennial concern among its practitioners to save the physical and figurative ‘face’ of the state – instantiated by its representatives – to enable their performances of a mythic sovereign equality among each other and satisfy their demands for recognition from Great and Major powers, especially as they strive for ‘centrality’ in the performative games of Asian security.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Additional Information: © 2015 Deepak Nair
Library of Congress subject classification: J Political Science > JZ International relations
Sets: Departments > International Relations
Supervisor: Haacke, Jürgen

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