In a really helpful critique of the new bipolarity, Andrew Carr argues that I'm overplaying the institutional differences between the Atlantic and Asian realms and points out that there is no shortage of institutions in Asia (though that figure of 700 meetings a year came as a bit of a shock to me).

I think we need to look a bit deeper than counting institutions and meetings. We need to look at what those institutions are committed to and what they do; once we do, the differences just become starker.

Atlantic institutions prepared to act

The Atlantic's institutions have undergone a profound qualitative change since the end of the Cold War.

In North America, the Organization of American States has acquired the right to suspend any member whose democratically elected government has been overthrown by force, through Resolution 1080 and the Protocol of Washington. In South America, Mercosur (through the Treaty of Asuncion) and the Rio Group have defined themselves as associations of democratic countries, stipulating that any member state in which democratic order is interrupted will be suspended until democracy is restored.

Europe also has formalised its commitment to democracy through the 1997 Treaty of Amsterdam, which amends Article 309 of the Treaty of Rome to allow the suspension of membership for any EU state that breaches the principles of democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

In Africa, the Organisation of African Unity's commitments to sovereign equality and territorial integrity, non-interference in domestic affairs and non-violability of borders have been replaced by the African Union's principles promoting the ability to intervene in genocide or crimes against humanity and to restore peace and security. The AU has also set out clearly through the Durban Declaration a clear framework governing democratic elections, while Article 30 of the AU Charter provides for the suspension of any member government that comes to power unconstitutionally. 

The Atlantic states go beyond just making commitments: they act on them. No government that has come to power by coup in Africa since 1997 has been allowed to participate in the African Union's ministerial or summit meetings. At various times Comoros, Cote d'Ivoire, Madagascar and Niger have been excluded. The AU has intervened to promote peace in the Sudan, just as the Economic Community Of West African States has in Liberia. 

In the Americas, the OAS convened a high level mission which determined that Peru's 2000 elections were illegitimate, leading to a suspension of its membership. Panama's membership has also been temporarily suspended.

Beginning with the Contadora Support Group, Latin America's states have become actively involved in resolving insurgencies in Central America, and an active suite of joint exercises, strategic dialogues and disarmament and arms control measures is well under way. NATO of course intervened in the former Yugoslavia and Kosovo.

Asian institutions missing in action

Here is a record that is starkly different from Asia's. While the 2007 ASEAN Charter makes repeated references to democracy, good government, the rule of law and human rights, there is no evidence that the grouping takes these commitments seriously. A coup and serious ongoing instability in Thailand didn't raise even a murmur of concern from the other members. That the Shanghai Cooperation Organization did nothing during Kyrgyzstan's bloody unrest surprises no-one.

On regional peace and security, Asia's institutions are also missing in action. While Africa's efforts in Darfur and Europe's in the former Yugoslavia are hardly paragons of success, at least they acted. Asia's institutions are not even allowed to discuss points of tension; I recently heard two Singaporean academics call the ARF 'Avoid Regional Flashpoints'. With Thailand and Cambodia shooting at each other over a border dispute last year, the failure of Asia's institutions couldn't be starker.

In a nutshell, the Atlantic takes its institutions seriously. Asia's institutions are a kabuki play, all movement and colourful shirts, while its states are free to arm, compete and conduct their affairs as they see fit.

Photo by Flickr user GanMed64.