The independent resource on global security

4. Regional security cooperation in the early 21st century



I. Introduction

II. Regions, regionalism and security

III. Conceptualizing regional security cooperation

IV. New patterns of regional security cooperation

V. The ‘quality’ of regional cooperation and how to promote it

VI. Conclusions


Read the full chapter [PDF].


Regional and sub-regional organizations have proliferated since 1945, with a fresh surge in the 1990s, and many of them have had the overt or existential mission of security building. There has, however, been little new generic analysis of the role of the ‘region’ (itself clearly a subjective construct) in relation to security, while the established analytical models—the alliance, the collective security system, the security regime and the security community—often fail to capture either the discourse actually used, or the work done, by today’s real-life groupings.


A new analysis in terms of security functionality points to at least four sets of purposes that a regional security group can perform (often concurrently).


  • The most basic is security dialogue and conflict management, aimed at establishing or maintaining peace within the region. European, African and Latin American organizations all have explicit conflict prevention and management instruments to this end, and the EU is the most ambitious in seeking to extend its influence for the purpose worldwide.
  • Second, groups can develop systems of military cooperation based on mutual restraint—to reduce dangers from military activity (like the confidence-building measures developed by the Conference on Security and Co operation in Europe, CSCE)—or on shared capacity building for older-style defence and new-style peace missions, which is now a key ambition for the African Union as well as NATO and the EU.
  • Third, regional organizations can intrinsically and expressly promote democratic standards in government, and respect for human rights, as ways of bolstering peaceful and secure conditions as well as being ends in themselves. This ambition has been a feature of European organizations (since the creation of the Council of Europe), of the Organization of American States and of the African Union, among others, but has faced greater cultural and practical obstacles in Asia and the Middle East.
  • Fourth, regional cooperation can promote security by advances in purely economic fields (improving both prosperity and interdependence), and by cooperative approaches to functional risks and challenges including those presented by the ‘new threats’ of terrorism and proliferation.


The USA has promoted several regional defence systems (most obviously, NATO) and other forms of multilateral security cooperation, but its policy has elements of ambiguity that have been apparent under the leadership of President George W. Bush. The USA is equally wary of frameworks that might constrain its freedom of action, and of regional ventures that may rise to challenge its power, while US policies sometimes—deliberately or not—drive wedges between regional neighbours. Even so, the US line in 2005–2006 has become more benign towards European (and African) security coordination, and there are positive general statements about regional frameworks in the revised US National Security Strategy of March 2006.


Regional security cooperation can also be examined from the viewpoint of normative quality and effectiveness. Relevant criteria are whether the cooperation is free and democratically conducted, or coerced and hegemonic; whether it takes a zero-sum approach (to another group, or outsiders in general); whether it is rigidly framed or shows ability to grow and adapt; and whether it gives an appropriate return on the efforts invested. It is difficult to say what conditions make such cooperation possible or impossible: some groups have worked well even with one member much bigger than the others (although it is hard to get deeply integrative results in such cases), in regions with a great diversity of states, among states of different material levels of development, and even in face of severe cultural and historical differences.


Regional security cooperation has become well entrenched across much of the globe and continues to spread. Critics may dispute its usefulness in face of the toughest security challenges, like terrorism and violent conflict, and it is true that even the strongest regional groups have imperfect records and could not pretend to master all such challenges on their own. Their strength lies rather in finding non-conflictual paths to difference resolution and peace-building, and in exploring the added value of multi-state cooperation for new as well as old security tasks. Can such security groups be good neighbours in a world that still contains many single-state powers and unorganized regions? In principle, their security achievements can be of more general value so long as they work within the framework of the UN and other global norms; but much remains unclear about their impact on practical global politics. Further objective research into the regional security phenomenon would be useful from this viewpoint, and also for discovering the best ways to help those regions most obviously bereft of its benefits.



Alyson J. K. Bailes (UK) has been Director of SIPRI since July 2002.


Dr Andrew Cottey (UK) is Jean Monnet Chair in European Political Integration in the Department of Government, University College Cork.