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Regional organisations and enduring defective democratic members

  • Mathew Davies (a1)


Instead of asking whether regional organisations can promote democracy, a well-established conclusion, this article asks what type of democracy regional organisations can promote. Where their commitments to democracy are weak, regional organisations can promote the transition away from authoritarianism but cannot drive that process to completion with the creation of embedded liberal democracies. Under such circumstances regional organisations serve as regimes of bounded toleration, and can provide regional linkages that sustain defective democracies. Through examining the relationship between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and Myanmar, three supporting roles are identified; regional legitimacy, defence from external pressure, and future-oriented accommodation. The presence of these linkages between defective democracies and regional organisations provides a caveat to the positive assessments of regional organisations as socialisers of democracy.


Corresponding author

*Correspondence to: Dr Mathew Davies, Coral Bell School of Asia-Pacific Affairs at the Australian National University College of Asia and the Pacific, ANU, Canberra, ACT, Australia, 2601. Author’s email:


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1 Merkel, Wolfgang, ‘Embedded and defective democracies’, Democratization, 11:5 (2004), pp. 3358 (pp. 48–9). See also Croissant, Aurel, ‘From transition to defective democracy: Mapping Asian democratization’, Democratization, 11:5 (2004), pp. 156178 .

2 This is Pevehouse’s term to describe an RO with no democratic commitment. The reason that such ROs do not support democratisation of any kind is obvious. See Pevehouse, Jon C., ‘Regional human rights and democracy governance’, in Tanja A. Börzel and Thomas Risse (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Comparative Regionalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), pp. 486509 (p. 501).

3 Hobson, Christopher, ‘Democracy: Trap, tragedy or crisis?’, Political Studies Review (2016), pp. 18 (p. 2).

4 Hobson, Christopher, The Rise of Democracy: Revolution, War and Transformations in International Politics since 1776 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015), pp. 26 . The most widely cited triumphalist text remains Fukuyama, Francis, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Free Press, 1992).

5 Morlino, Alfred, ‘What is a “good” democracy?’, Democratization, 11:5 (2004), pp. 1032 .

6 Merkel, ‘Embedded and defective democracies’, p. 37.

7 Ibid.

8 Exclusive denotes a situation where a portion of the adult citizenry is denied suffrage, domain where actors/issues are removed from oversight of democratic institutions, illiberal where the judiciary and constitutional norms only weakly bind government actions, and delegative where the legislative and judiciary only weakly control the executive. Merkel, ‘Embedded and defective democracies’, pp. 49–50. The scale of the variation that the term defective democracy captures, and the analytical costs that may come with this conceptual stretching, is investigated in Morgenbesser, Lee, ‘Elections in hybrid regimes: Conceptual stretching revived’, Political Studies, 62:1 (2014), pp. 2136 .

9 Merkel, ‘Embedded and defective democracies’, p. 48.

10 Morgenbesser, Lee, Behind the Façade: Elections under Authoritarianism in Southeast Asia (New York: SUNY Press, 2016), p. 2 .

11 Merkel, ‘Embedded and defective democracies’, p. 54.

12 See discussion in de Mesquita, Bruce Bueno and Downs, George W., ‘Development and democracy’, Foreign Affairs, 84:4 (2005), pp. 7786 ; Carothers, Thomas, ‘The backlash against democracy promotion’, Foreign Affairs, 85:2 (2006), pp. 5568 .

13 The literature on regionalism is extensive. Andrew Hurrell provides one reason for the spread of regionalism around the world when he states ‘the region is the most appropriate and viable level to reconcile the changing and intensifying pressures of global capitalist competition on the one hand with the need for political regulation and management on the other’. See Hurrell, Andrew, ‘One world? Many worlds? The place of regions in the study of international society’, International Affairs, 83:1 (2007), pp. 127146 (p. 131).

14 Flockhart, Trine (ed.), Socializing Democratic Norms: The Role of International Organizations for the Construction of Europe (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005); Schimmelfennig, Frank and Sedelmeier, Ulrich (eds), The Europeanization of Central and Eastern Europe (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005); Checkel, Jeffrey, ‘International institutions and socialization in Europe: Introduction and framework’, International Organization, 59:4 (2005), pp. 801826 ; Checkel, Jeffrey and Zürn, Michael, ‘Getting socialized to build bridges: Constructivism and rationalism, Europe and the nation-state’, International Organization, 59:4 (2005), pp. 10451079 .

15 Pevehouse, Jon C., ‘Democracy from the outside-in? International organizations and democratization’, International Organization, 56:3 (2002), pp. 515549 ; Risse, Thomas, Ropp, Stephen C., and Sikkink, Kathryn (eds), The Power of Human Rights: International Norms and Domestic Change (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999); Keck, Margaret E. and Sikkink, Kathryn, Activists beyond Borders: Advocacy Networks in International Politics (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998). See also Sikkink, Kathryn, ‘Human rights, principled issue-networks, and sovereignty in Latin America’, International Organization, 47:3 (1993), pp. 411441 .

16 Merkel, ‘Embedded and defective democracies’, p. 44.

17 Risse, Thomas and Babayan, Nelli, ‘Democracy promotion and the challenges of illiberal regional powers: Introduction to the special issue’, Democratization, 22:3 (2015), pp. 381399 .

18 Börzel, Tanja A., ‘The noble West and the dirty rest? Western democracy promoters and illiberal regional powers’, Democratization, 22:3 (2015), pp. 519535 ; Jackson, Nicole J., ‘The role of external factors in advancing non-liberal democratic forms of political rule: a case study of Russia’s influence on Central Asian regimes’, Contemporary Politics, 16:1 (2010), pp. 101118 ; Peter Burnell, ‘Is There a New Form of Autocracy Promotion?’, FRIDE Working Paper No. 96 (Madrid: FRIDE, March 2010).

19 Pevehouse, ‘Regional human rights and democracy governance’, p. 501; van Hüllen, Vera, ‘Just leave us alone: the Arab League and human rights’, in Tanja A. Börzel and Vera van Hüllen (eds), Governance Transfer by Regional Organizations: Patching Together a Global Script (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), pp. 125140 (p. 130), arrives at similar conclusions regarding the Arab League in 2015. See also Börzel, Tanja A. and Risse, Thomas, ‘Three cheers for comparative regionalism’, in Börzel and Risse (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Comparative Regionalism, pp. 621647 (p. 639).

20 Libman, Alexander, ‘Supranational organization: Russia and the Eurasian Economic Union’, in Anastassia Obydenkova and Alexander Libman (eds), Autocratic and Democratic External Influences in Post-Soviet Eurasia (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016), pp. 133158 .

21 Merkel, ‘Embedded and defective democracies’, p. 37. See the ongoing debate about defining democracy in Morlino, ‘What is a “good” democracy?’. Morlino builds his definition of democracy in a parallel direction to Merkel, emphasising the rule of law, accountability, responsiveness, and freedom and equality. Also, note his work in Morlino, Leonardo, Democracy between Consolidation and Crisis: Parties, Groups, and Citizens in Southern Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998). More recently, see Munck, Gerado L., ‘What is democracy? A reconceptualization of the quality of democracy’, Democratization, 23:1 (2016), pp. 126 .

22 See Pevehouse, ‘Regional human rights and democracy governance’, for an overview.

23 Börzel, Tanja A. and van Hüllen, Vera, ‘Towards a global script? Governance transfer by regional organizations’, in Börzel and van Hüllen (eds), Governance Transfer by Regional Organizations, pp. 321 (p. 3).

24 Jetschke, Anja and Lenz, Tobias, ‘Does regionalism diffuse? A new research agenda for the study of regional organizations’, Journal of European Public Policy, 20:4 (2013), pp. 626637 ; Börzel, Tanja A., ‘Do all roads lead to regionalism?’, in Tanja A. Börzel, Lukas Goltermann, Mathis Lohaus, and Kai Striebinger (eds), Roads to Regionalism: Genesis, Design and Effects of Regional Organizations (Farnham: Ashgate, 2012), pp. 255267 (p. 257).

25 Abbott, Kenneth W., Keohane, Robert O., Moravcsik, Andrew, Slaughter, Anne-Marie, and Snidal, Duncan, ‘The concept of legalization’, International Organization, 54:3 (2000), pp. 401419 (p. 404).

26 Ibid., p. 410.

27 ASEAN’s founding members were Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand. Only Thailand had avoided formal colonisation from Western powers.

28 For a discussion on the early nature of ASEAN, see Ba, Alice, (Re) Negotiating East and Southeast Asia: Region, Regionalism, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009), chs 2 and 3.

29 An overview of these changes is offered at Davies, Mathew, ‘A community of practice: Explaining change and continuity in ASEAN’s diplomatic environment’, Pacific Review, 29:2 (2016), pp. 211233 ; and in Ba, (Re) Negotiating East and Southeast Asia, ch. 4. See also Tan, Hsien-Li, The ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights: Institutionalising Human Rights in Southeast Asia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

30 ASEAN, The ASEAN Charter (Jakarta: ASEAN Secretariat, 2007), Preamble.

31 Ibid., Article 1(6).

32 Ibid., Article 2(2)(h).

33 ASEAN, ‘ASEAN Community Vision 2025’, in ASEAN, ASEAN 2025: Forging Ahead Together (Jakarta: ASEAN Secretariat, 2015), pp. 13–17, para. 8.2.

34 Goodman, Ryan and Jinks, Derek, ‘How to influence states: Socialization and international human rights law’, Duke Law Journal, 54:3 (2004), pp. 621703 (p. 675).

35 ASEAN, ‘ASEAN Human Rights Declaration’, Phnom Penh, Cambodia (18 November 2012).

36 Pisanò, Attilo, ‘Human rights and sovereignty in the ASEAN path towards a human rights declaration’, Human Rights Review, 15:4 (2014), pp. 391411 ; Davies, Mathew, ‘An agreement to disagree: the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration and the absence of regional identity in Southeast Asia’, Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs, 33:3 (2014), pp. 107129 .

37 ASEAN Intergovernmental Committee on Human Rights (AICHR), ‘Terms of Reference’ (Jakarta: ASEAN Secretariat, 2010), 2.1 a, b, c respectively.

38 AICHR, ‘Five Year Work Plan of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights 2016–2020’, 2015, available at: {} accessed 28 November 2016.

39 Davies, Mathew, Realising Rights: How Regional Organisations Socialise Human Rights (Abingdon: Routledge, 2014), pp. 3965 . Note that the claim here is not that ASEAN drove the limited democratisation of Myanmar – there is widespread assertion that this was not the case. Instead, the claim is that ASEAN’s cessation of pressure supported the continuation of defective democracy.

40 Derwin Pereira, ‘Straits Times interview with Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo’ (2–3 October 2007), available at: {} accessed 28 November 2016.

41 ASEAN, ‘Joint Communiqué of the 39th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting’, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (25 July 2006), para. 79.

42 ASEAN, ‘Joint Communiqué of the 41st ASEAN Ministerial Meeting, “One ASEAN at the Heart of Dynamic Asia”’, Singapore (21 July 2008), para. 50.

43 Emmerson, Donald K., ‘ASEAN’s “black swans”’, Journal of Democracy, 19:3 (2008), pp. 7084 (p. 75). Academic consensus around ASEAN’s proactive stance regarding Myanmar during this period has quickly developed. See Jones, Lee, ASEAN, Sovereignty and Intervention in Southeast Asia (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), pp. 180210 . Interestingly, Jones frames ASEAN as concerned with ‘oligarchic democracy’, paralleling the focus in this article with defective democracy. See also Davies, Mathew, ‘The perils of incoherence: ASEAN, Myanmar and the avoidable failures of human rights socialization?’, Contemporary Southeast Asia, 34:1 (2012), pp. 122 .

44 ASEAN, ‘Joint Communiqué of the 42nd ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting, “Acting Together to Cope with Global Challenges”’, Phuket, Thailand (20 July 2009), para. 68.

45 ASEAN, ‘Joint Communiqué of the 43rd ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting, “Enhanced Efforts towards the ASEAN Community: From Vision to Action”’, Hanoi (19–20 July 2010), para. 68.

46 United Nations, ‘Statement Attributable to the Spokesperson of the Secretary-General on Myanmar Elections’, New York (8 November 2010), available at: {} accessed 28 November 2016.

47 Talk Vietnam, ‘ASEAN Welcomes Myanmar’s General Elections’ (9 November 2010), available at: {} accessed 28 November 2016.

48 ASEAN, ‘Joint Communiqué of the 44th ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting’, Bali, Indonesia (19 July 2011), para. 104.

49 See discussion in Kingsbury, Damien, ‘Political transition in Myanmar: Prospects and problems’, Asian Politics & Policy, 6:3 (2014), pp. 351373 (pp. 356–8); Egreteau, Renaud, ‘The continuing political salience of the military in post-SPDC Myanmar’, in Nick Cheesman, Nicholas Farrelly, and Trevor Wilson (eds), Debating Democratization in Myanmar (Singapore: ISEAS Publishing, 2014), pp. 259284 .

50 See Pedersen, Morten B., ‘Myanmar’s democratic opening: the process and prospect of reform’, in Cheesman, Farrelly, and Wilson (eds), Debating Democratization in Myanmar, pp. 1940 ; Yin Hlaing, Kyaw, ‘Understanding recent political changes in Myanmar’, Contemporary Southeast Asia, 34:2 (2012), pp. 197216 .

51 Acharya, Amitav, ‘Regionalism beyond EU-centrism’, in Börzel and Risse (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Comparative Regionalism, pp. 109130 (p. 117).

52 ASEAN, The ASEAN Charter, Article 1(1).

53 Davies, Realising Rights, pp. 27–30; Iain Johnston, Alastair, ‘Treating international institutions as social environments’, International Studies Quarterly, 45:4 (2001), pp. 487515 .

54 Björkdahl, Annika, ‘Norms in international relations: Some conceptual and methodological reflections’, Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 15:1 (2002), pp. 923 (p. 15).

55 Narine, Shaun, ‘Human rights norms and the evolution of ASEAN: Moving without moving in a changing regional environment’, Contemporary Southeast Asia, 34:3 (2012), pp. 365388 , offers a typical review.

56 Hathaway, Oona A., ‘Do human rights treaties make a difference?’, Yale Law Journal, 111:8 (2002), pp. 19352042 .

57 Acharya, Amitav, Constructing a Security Community in Southeast Asia: ASEAN and the Problem of Regional Order (London: Routledge, 2001); Ravenhill, John, ‘East Asian regionalism: Much ado about nothing?’, Review of International Studies, 35:S1 (2009), pp. 215235 .

58 Ingo Nischalke, Tobias, ‘Insights from ASEAN’s foreign policy co-operation: The “ASEAN way”, a real spirit or a phantom?’, Contemporary Southeast Asia, 22:1 (2000), pp. 89112 . Extensive history into the genesis, development, and indeed exceptions to these values is offered by Ba, (Re) Negotiating East and Southeast Asia; Haacke, Jürgen, ASEAN’s Diplomatic and Security Culture: Origins, Development and Prospects (New York: Routledge, 2005).

59 Acharya, Amitav, ‘Ideas, identity, and institution building: From the “ASEAN way” to the “Asia-Pacific way”?’, Pacific Review, 10:3 (1997), pp. 319346 (p. 330).

60 ASEAN, ‘Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia’, Denpasar, Indonesia (1976); ASEAN, ‘Declaration of ASEAN Concord’, Denpasar, Indonesia (24 February 1976).

61 ASEAN, ‘Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia’, Article 2; ASEAN, ‘Declaration of ASEAN Concord’, Preamble.

62 ASEAN, ASEAN 2025: Forging Ahead Together (Jakarta: ASEAN Secretariat, 2015), para. 2.

63 Maung Maung Than, Tin, ‘Myanmar in 2014: Great expectations unfulfilled’, Asian Survey, 55:1 (2015), pp. 184191 (p. 191).

64 Shanahan Renshaw, Catherine, ‘Democratic transformation and regional institutions: the case of Myanmar in ASEAN’, Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs, 32:1 (2013), pp. 2954 (p. 38). Similarly, in reference to the Southeast Asian Games and Myanmar’s return to the competition, see Creak, Simon, ‘National restoration, regional prestige: the Southeast Asian Games in Myanmar, 2013’, Journal of Asian Studies, 73:4 (2014), pp. 853877 .

65 Than, ‘Myanmar in 2014’, p. 191.

66 Petersson, Magnus, ‘Myanmar in EU–ASEAN relations’, Asia Europe Journal, 4:4 (2006), pp. 563581 .

67 The draft resolution was ‘Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar’, A/C.3/61.L.38/Rev.1. For the voting pattern, see UN General Assembly Third Committee, Summary Meeting of the 52nd Meeting, 22 November 2006, A/C.3/61/SR.52, pp. 1–6.

68 Catherine Shanahan Renshaw, ‘Human Rights and Regionalism in Southeast Asia’ (PhD thesis, University of Sydney, 2014), pp. 180–1; Eileen Ng, ‘Myanmar told that Suu Kyi’s detention a slap to ASEAN, says official’, Kyodo (11 December 2005).

69 United Nations, A/HRC/31/13, ‘Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review’, 20 November 2015, paras 96, 24, available at: {www.upr-(} accessed 28 November 2016.

70 Ayoob, Mohammed, ‘From regional system to regional society: Exploring key variables in the construction of regional order’, Australian Journal of International Affairs, 53:3 (1999), pp. 247260 . See also Warleigh-Lack, Alex and van Langenhove, Luk, ‘Introduction: Rethinking EU studies: the contribution of comparative regionalism’, European Integration, 32:6 (2010), pp. 541562 (p. 547).

71 Tan, The ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, pp. 139–79; Davies, Mathew, ‘Explaining the Vientiane Action Programme: ASEAN and the institutionalisation of human rights’, Pacific Review, 26:4 (2013), pp. 385406 .

72 Forum-Asia, ‘Joint Statement: Calling AICHR to Release ASEAN Human Rights Declaration’ (8 April 2012), available at: {} accessed 17 January 2017.

73 Human Rights Watch, ‘Civil Society Denounces Adoption of Flawed ASEAN Human Rights Declaration’ (19 November 2012), available at: {} accessed 28 November 2016.

74 US Department of State, ‘ASEAN Declaration on Human Rights’, Press Statement (20 November 2012), available at: {} accessed 23 June 2017.

75 With Acharya’s work in the vanguard and a strong push back against those claims. See in particular Martin Jones, David and Smith, Michael L. R., ‘ASEAN’s imitation community’, Orbis, 46:1 (2002), pp. 93109 ; Khoo, Nicholas, ‘Deconstructing the ASEAN security community: a review essay’, International Relations of the Asia-Pacific, 4:1 (2004), pp. 3546 .

76 Dosch, Jörn, ‘ASEAN’s reluctant liberal turn and the thorny road to democracy promotion’, Pacific Review, 21:4 (2008), pp. 527545 .

77 Keck, Margaret E. and Sikkink, Kathryn, ‘Transnational advocacy networks in international and regional politics’, International Social Science Journal, 51:159 (1999), pp. 89–101 (pp. 93–5).

78 Tocci, Nathalie, ‘Europeanization in Turkey: Trigger or anchor for reform’, South European Society and Politics, 10:1 (2005), pp. 7383 (pp. 79–82). Merkel, ‘Embedded and defective democracies’, p. 47.

79 Katsumata, Hiro, ‘Mimetic adoption and norm diffusion: “Western” security cooperation in Southeast Asia?’, Review of International Studies, 37:2 (2011), pp. 557576 ; Risse, Thomas, ‘The diffusion of regionalism’, in Börzel and Risse (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Comparative Regionalism, pp. 87108 (p. 91).

80 Merkel, ‘Embedded and defective democracies’, p. 47.

81 Börzel, Tanja A. and Stapel, Sören, ‘Mapping governance transfer by 12 regional organizations: a global script in regional colors’, in Börzel and van Hüllen (eds), Governance Transfer by Regional Organizations, pp. 2248 .

82 Rittberger, Berthold and Schroeder, Philipp, ‘The legitimacy of regional institutions’, in Börzel and Risse (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Comparative Regionalism, pp. 579599 (p. 589).

83 Acharya, Amitav, ‘Comparative regionalism: a field whose time has come?’, International Spectator, 47:1 (2012), pp. 315 (p. 8).


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