Cargo trucks board a ferry on the Mekong River in Ban Houayxay, Laos.
Cargo trucks board a ferry on the Mekong River in Ban Houayxay, Laos.
Photo: Simon Berger

TRANSFORM - Regional Cooperation and the Transformation of National Sovereignty

Research project
Active research
Project period
2019 - 2022
Project owner
School of Global Studies

Short description

Previous research has failed to explain why the willingness of governments to cooperate varies greatly across different policy fields. While the most important theories focus on global norms and regional institutions to understand these differences, TRANSFORM studies how the transformation of state elites’ ideas about national sovereignty affects regional cooperation across different regions and policy areas. Over the course of four years, it studies mechanisms for the management of communicable diseases, natural disasters, and transboundary river resources in various parts of Africa and Southeast Asia.

Background and research aims

According to dominant theories of regional cooperation, global norms and regional institutions are expected to help states to solve many different societal challenges. However, existing patterns of cooperation frequently contradict this expectation. In some policy areas, like transboundary water management, egoistic state behavior clearly undermines regional cooperation in spite of strong norms and regional institutions. In other policy areas, such as communicable diseases, cooperation has quickly deepened and become relatively strong despite the absence of dedicated regional mechanisms and rather ambiguous norms.

The failure of existing theories to account for this puzzle risks perpetuating misguided support of regional cooperation, for example in the form of Western donors who expect that developing countries should replicate the model of the EU. TRANSFORM aims to recast our understanding of regionalism by unpacking the connection between the national sovereignty understandings of political elites and their inclination to engage in meaningful regional cooperation. The key hypothesis is that fostering regional cooperation depends not so much on institution-building or the spread of global norms but on the transformation of national sovereignty understandings among regional state elites. 

Applying an innovative comparative case study method straddling two regions (Africa and Southeast Asia) and several policy fields, such as transboundary rivers, disaster management, and health cooperation.



Fredrik Söderbaum and Kilian Spandler (2021)
Contestations of the Liberal International Order
Published online by Cambridge University Press on 31 May 2021.

Fredrik Söderbaum, Kilian Spandler, and Agnese Pacciardi (2020):
Contestations of the Liberal International Order: A Populist Script of Regional Cooperation.
Working paper presented at the Workshop “Regionalism, International Organizations and Global Challenges in a Fragmented World”, 17–18 February 2020, Barcelona.

Fredrik Söderbaum and Kilian Spandler (2019):
Why Cooperate? National Sovereignty Understandings and Regionalism
Working paper presented at the 5th Joint Nordic Conference on Development Research, 27 June, Copenhagen.



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