Saving Face in Diplomacy: A Political Sociology of Face-to-Face Interactions in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations

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    Face-saving is a ubiquitous yet under-theorized phenomenon in International Relations. Prevailing accounts refer to face-saving as a shorthand for status and reputation, as a “cultural” trait found outside Euro-American societies, and as a technique for defusing militarized inter-state crisis, without, however, an explanation of its source and repertoire. In this article, I argue that it is possible to recover face-saving from cultural essentialism, and that face-saving practices geared to avoid embarrassment are micro-level mechanisms that produce international institutions like diplomacy. Drawing on the work of sociologists Erving Goffman and Pierre Bourdieu, I propose a theory of face-saving that accounts for its source, effects, and variation. I evaluate this theory with a study of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a diplomacy that has long espoused a discourse of “saving face” couched in Asian cultural exceptionalism. I combine a political sociology of ASEAN’s ruling regimes with an ethnography of its diplomats based on 13 consecutive months of fieldwork in Jakarta, Indonesia, to substantiate this wider theoretical argument. I demonstrate that, first, ASEAN’s face-saving practices are rooted in the legacies of authoritarianism rather than essentialist “culture,” and, second, that face-saving practices enable performances of sovereign equality, diplomatic kinship, and conflict avoidance among ASEAN’s diplomats. This article grants a distinct conceptual space to face-saving in International Relations, contributes to international practice theory by situating practices in the context of state–society relations, and offers a novel interpretation of what the “ASEAN Way” of doing diplomacy looks like in practice.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)672-697
    JournalEuropean Journal of International Relations
    Issue number3
    Publication statusPublished - 2019

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