Speaking at Asean’s Regional Security Forum in Bali this past weekend, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged Asean, and Indonesia specifically, to help promote democracy in Burma, the Middle East and North Africa.

While the attempt to spread democracy is admirable and will be met with polite approval, it is very unlikely that Indonesia and Asean will assist the United States in promoting democracy, especially in Burma, for several reasons.

First is that the current economic weakness of the United States strongly undermines its position. The tsunami-like spread of democracy in the 1980s and ’90s to some degree was bolstered by the bankruptcy of communist countries. Governments in these nations fell after citizens compared their horrid economic conditions with the prosperity of the United States under Ronald Reagan.

Gorbachev’s decision to launch glasnost (political openness) and perestroika (economic reform) was influenced by what he considered to be a successful Western economic model. It was no wonder that in 1989, Francis Fukuyama published his famous essay, “The End of History,” celebrating the advent of liberal democracy.

In today’s economic climate, however, authoritarian leaders and their populations are appalled by America’s lack of economic discipline and massive debt. Authoritarian leaders and thrifty populations in Southeast Asia are more likely to applaud the responsible semi-authoritarian system of Singapore or the economic-oriented authoritarian system of China than the spendthrift democratic United States.

They see that whereas China and Singapore built themselves up under strong leaders, leading to strong economic growth, the democratic United States is currently in the grips of “the Great Recession.” In addition, current political gridlock in Washington between Republicans and Democrats, combined with Obama’s inability to keep things in order, has damaged America’s prestige — not to mention its economic ratings.

If democracy provides nothing but economic crisis, political squabbling and gridlock, why would anyone want it? Better stick with the authoritarian system of China, the thinking goes, or the semi-authoritarianism of Singapore, both of which seem to know what they are doing and can act decisively in times of need.

Recalling the Great Depression of the 1930s, it was economic crisis that discredited democracies. Popular demand for strong governments launched totalitarian regimes in Germany and Italy. Finally, it was the economic prosperity of the 1980s that signaled the end of communism.

In essence, former President Bill Clinton was right: It’s the economy, stupid. The sooner the United States can get its fiscal house in order, the sooner it will again be the beacon of democracy that many countries want to emulate.

The other reason that Hillary Clinton’s words are likely to have little effect on Asean lies in the simple fact that the grouping does not have much power over its members. Asean’s lack of formal organizational structure and punishment mechanisms means that getting something done depends on both the consensus and the willingness of its members to act. Unlike the European Union, which has a “carrot and stick” ability to punish and reward members through economic policy, Asean has nothing more than social pressure and the threat of expulsion from the group.

The power of social pressure, however, is strongly undermined by the geostrategic concerns of the bloc’s members. While political oppression, human rights violations and electoral manipulations in Burma have embarrassed Asean, member states have little economic leverage with which to force action. It would be far more damaging for Burma to upset its primary patron, China.

At this point, with the conflict in the South China Sea at the forefront of Asean’s attention, there is simply no appetite to engage and to enrage Burma over its human rights records, lest Burma, upset with what would be seen as international meddling, leave Asean and get pulled closer into Beijing’s orbit. This could further threaten the interests and security of Asean itself. Thus, Asean’s options are very limited in this case.

Moreover, the human rights records of many Asean members are not that stellar either. Recent political suppression in Malaysia over the Bersih 2.0 movement undermines the image of the country as a democratic state that guarantees freedom of speech and conducts elections fairly. In Indonesia, violence against religious minorities, some officials’ complete disregard of the rule of law in order to impose discriminatory policies on religious minorities and recent reports of possible human rights violations in Papua raise a lot of eyebrows. The rest of the Asean countries do not get off scot-free either. In short, many Asean countries themselves are not in the position to lecture others on human rights as they have their own human-rights skeletons in their closets.

Adding to all of this is the fact that there is no political will in Indonesia to assist the United States in promoting democracy. Indonesia at this point is completely preoccupied with political scandals involving President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s party. With each installment of Nazaruddin’s allegation drawing the government’s attention, foreign policy and initiatives become the first casualties of a government scrambling to douse public outrage.

In today’s Indonesia, many people are looking at the performance of the government and the legislature and lamenting the dysfunction and inability of both to get things done. They are looking back with nostalgia on the stability and economic growth of Suharto’s New Order, blaming current government paralysis on the excesses of “liberal democracy,” which is seen as not having local roots. While those people are in the minority, this is still a worrying trend, coming so close on the heels of Suharto’s repression.

Thus, Hillary Clinton was right to encourage entrepreneurship. A push for greater democracy is not the only component that is needed, economic fulfillment is also necessary. Prosperity is the best way to spread democracy and the first thing the United States has to do is to get its economy in order by making painful sacrifices. –Yohanes Sulaiman, The Jakarta Globe

Yohanes Sulaiman is a lecturer at the National Defense University. He can be reached at ysulaiman@gmail.com.