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Mediterranean Quarterly 12.4 (2001) 62-79

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The Economic Cooperation Organization: Regionalization in a Competitive Context

K. L. Afrasiabi and Yadolah Pour Jalali

Recent studies of post-Cold War transformation indicate a concurrent surge in two processes: globalization and regionalism. Scholars as well as policy makers, particularly in developing nations, are divided on the nature of the relationship between these two processes: are they complementary or contradictory? Efforts to resolve this question have been hampered by disagreements about the definitions of these terms--the fact that both globalization and regionalism are elusive concepts--and about the sources and implications of regionalism. 1 Some researchers regard regionalism as synonymous with protectionism and discriminatory trade blocs and thus contrary to the logic of global multilateralism, while others argue that regionalism promotes international trade and should therefore be viewed as a conduit for globalization, if not as one of its manifestations or subprocesses. Consistent with the latter position, Robert Z. Lawrence has pointed to the post-World War II regional organizations, that is, the North American Free Trade Agreement, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and the European Union, as reflecting the efforts of states "to facilitate their participation in the world economy rather than their withdrawal from it." 2 [End Page 62]

The lively and hitherto inconclusive debate on the global-regional connection also reflects a growing consensus that regionalism is not a singular process but rather a composite of responses driven by government and market forces that involves the interlinkage of territorial units in ways that may increase cooperation, interaction, interconnection, and, at times, even integration. 3 Scholars also agree that significant variations in regional experiences exist, primarily in terms of institutional design, the depth of cooperation, and the scope of "openness." Linkages between economic and noneconomic, that is, security, issues also differ from state to state and region to region. These variables necessitate a close scrutiny of cross-regional similarities and differences.

In this essay we seek to enrich our understanding of these issues by focusing on the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) as a noteworthy example of the so-called new regionalism proliferating in the post-Soviet Union milieu in Central Asia and beyond. 4 So far, ECO has received little scholarly attention in the West, and the scant, fragmentary references often reflect premature judgments about its alleged lack of importance and effectiveness. 5 Such negative conclusions do not seem warranted by an evolutionary view of ECO, its accomplishments, its plans of action, and its relevance to the future prosperity and stability of its member states.

ECO's Background: From RCD to ECO

ECO is a regional intergovernmental organization consisting of ten member states: Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. It is the successor organization to the Regional Cooperation for Development (RCD), which was established in 1964 by the triumvirate of Iran, Turkey, and Pakistan, then in concert as front-line states against the threat of Soviet communism under [End Page 63] the banner of the Baghdad Pact, later renamed CENTO (Central Treaty Organization). The RCD remained in existence until 1979, when the Islamic revolution in Iran threw it to the dustbin as a brainchild of the ancien regime. But in light of its continued relevance and utility, it was resurrected. At a ministerial meeting in Islamabad in June 1990, the Izmir Treaty, signed as the framework for the RCD in 1977, was modified to provide a proper legal framework for the transition from RCD to ECO. Following the ratification of the new charter in early 1991, the transition was completed.

In Europe and elsewhere, during the 1950s and 1960s, economic regionalism and Cold War alliances in the Third World often went hand in hand; in fact, functional spillover from security alliance to economic cooperation has turned out to be one of the more enduring legacies of the Cold War. 6 The RCD states, while forming functional components of a "subordinate system" in the Cold War scheme, exploited the space for maneuvering that was afforded them by the exigencies of...


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