Regionalism in Politics: Importance & Effects

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Regionalism may be the wave of the future, but what does it really mean? Let's take a look at the real-world implications of regionalism and see what impacts it is having already.

A World of Regions

We talk a lot about globalization and the integration of economies on a global scale, but did you know that this is not the only change in how nation-states are interacting? In fact, it may not even be the most significant. At the same time many countries are globalizing, they're also seeing real impacts of regionalization.

Regionalization, in terms of international politics, refers to the grouping of nation-states into political regions. Okay, so what's a region? From the start, we need to acknowledge that there's no single definition of this term. Most scholars, however, define a region as a cluster of nation-states within relative geographic proximity, who share enough cultural, economic, or political goals to function as a geopolitical unit. Basically, most people define a region as a group of neighboring, cooperating states with common interests. Regionalization in this form has become a dominant part of how the world organizes and interacts, but why does this matter? Let's look at the effects of regionalism and find out.


To many people, regionalism is understood foremost in terms of economics. In our modern world, this is where the effects of regionalism become most immediately apparent. This is because many regions are officially and formally recognized as economic alliances with the goal of economic integration, or creating a cluster of countries whose economies are co-dependent. Basically, you create a defined trading bloc that can interact with the world as a unit.

Free Trade Agreements are significant parts of economic integration

This begins with two or more nation-states who agree to help each other's economies. While there are many ways to do this, a common one is to sign a Regional Integration Agreement, which outlines a mutual goal of integrating economies. These are a big deal today, and some sources suggest that up to a third of all trade in the world occurs within these blocs.

Countries with Regional Integration Agreements that want to create even stronger economic relationships may consider creating a Free Trade Area, or a zone with as few trade barriers as possible. One of the most notable of these is the North American Free Trade Zone or NAFTA, which includes the USA, Canada, and Mexico. According to the agreement, trade between these three countries is meant to be as open as possible. This includes eliminating tariffs and other forms of restrictions between the countries of North America.

To go even further, countries can form an Economic and Monetary Union, which is one of the highest forms of regionalism in the world today. The best example of this is the European Union. Countries in the EU are so economically integrated that they share customs borders, a single market, and even recognize a single, shared currency called the euro.

A form of economic integration between FTAs and EMUs is a customs union, a trade bloc that shares customs borders

Beyond Economics

Of course, the impacts of regionalization go beyond economics. Countries within a region tend to support each other's social and political agendas, which can come in handy. This is particularly true of nations with smaller economies. In the Cold War, African countries organized into the Organization of African Unity, which was replaced in the early 2000s with the African Union. More than just an economic integration, the mission of both bodies was to ensure the sovereignty and security of all its members in a world of intense economic (and often colonial) competition.

Basically, one African nation does not have enough power to threaten economic sanctions on a major world power. If all the African countries threaten to impose sanctions, however, then the rest of the world will listen. It's a strength-in-numbers idea, and it has proven effective in the past.

Many regions operate military alliances as well

The USA, Mexico, and Canada cooperate in NAFTA but don't really interfere in each other's domestic affairs. That's not the case in more actively integrating regions, however. For decades, public transportation that could effectively connect people throughout all of South and Central America was a huge priority of cooperative governments there. The same thing happened in Europe after the creation of the EU, to the point that borders between many member states became essentially irrelevant.

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