Anti-coup protesters show their support for Myanmar's National Unity Government. Photo: Jose Lopes Amaral / NurPhoto via AFP

Francis Fukuyama in his famed essay “The End of History” back in 1989 focused on the turning point of human history when the Soviet Union and communism were on the verge of collapse, and when liberal democracy succeeded as an unchallenged ideology.

Some advocates like Jake Donnelly have been uncompromising on the compatibility of human rights, democracy and development. Nonetheless, he acknowledges that pure democracy and free markets are justified by arguments of collective good and aggregate benefit, not individual rights or social equity.

Therefore, he suggests that the welfare state is an important device to ensure that a minority that is disadvantaged in, or deprived by, markets is treated with a minimum of economic concern and respect.

In reality, not many states, especially developing, post-colonial and post-conflict countries, have the capacity to provide sufficient welfare.

In the late 2010s, Francis Fukuyama, agreeing with Larry Diamond’s “democratic recession,” acknowledged that state capacity in many new and existing democracies had not kept pace with popular demands for democratic accountability. The notable shift in his argument is the acknowledgement of the importance of state capacity for state-building in the promotion of democracy.

The United States’ pullout from Afghanistan has presented yet another failed attempt for democratization without proper plan for state-building, with some likening it to the fall of Cambodia to Pol Pot’s genocidal regime.

From the perspective of developing countries, Adrian Leftwich provided a more pragmatic understanding on the processes of democratization and development. He argued that democratic politics is seldom the politics of radical economic change but rather of accommodation and compromise.

He asserted the importance of state capacity to deliver public services, not only because that is required to ensure governments’ legitimacy but also for democracy to be sustained when demands from the people become diverse and disruptive.

Given diversity of interests in society, democracy is improbable in highly polarized societies, whether divided by income, class, ethnicity, religion or culture. As such, it is important that democratic politics does not promote the politics of radical change in the control, accumulation, distribution or use of wealth.

Rather, the promotion of democratic politics should be consensual, conservative and incremental in the change it brings about.

Democracy promoters often believe in interventionist policy. They care little about the consequences in terms of peace and stability due to the collapse of societies after ideological social experiments.

Peace and stability are also often left out of the discussion, or they are secondary to the values of democracy, while in reality, states cannot achieve anything when they are at war.

For developing countries, peace and stability are the primary goals, while from the perspective of interventionist democracy promoters, conflicts can be considered acceptable externalities so long as some forms of democracy are introduced.

Interventionists do not question who should be responsible for the loss of peace, nor do they question who should be responsible in ending wars caused by the imposition of democracy by external forces. For them, the moral responsibility for social collapse caused by democracy promotion is less important than the moral responsibility for not promoting democracy.

They lack due consideration of the violence that generally occurs due to abrupt changes, the inherent social behavior that is less tolerant to diversities and differences, levels of public education and awareness of democracy, and ability of citizens to distinguish among rights, freedoms and duties.

Democracy promotion also often presumes that people are rational and unselfish when choosing and deciding on policies that are beneficial for the nation. In fact, this is not always the case, because people are selfish in nature, and unpopular policy can push a government out of power. As such, electoral cycles can deter governments from taking risks for long-term social economic investment, even in advanced democracies.

Voters’ selfish demands can also provide a breeding ground for populism. Populism prospers not just on identity, interests and ideology, but also on the selling of ideas that are not economically or financially viable but are beneficial for voters in the short term, such as cash-handout programs and tax cuts. Diplomacy, border issues and national security are sensitive issues but they are prone to being exploited for short-term political gains.

Therefore, it is important that democracy promotion is consensual and that changes are incremental, while such promotion should not jeopardize peace and social harmony, which are still unachievable dreams for many countries.

Democracy advocates should also take due consideration of the capacity of the state to deliver public services, the level of education of the masses on democratic tolerance, and the masses’ critical thinking to distinguish among rights, freedoms and duties.

Sim Vireak

Sim Vireak is a strategic adviser to the Asian Vision Institute based in Phnom Penh. He has written articles on a variety of topics pertaining to Cambodia's political economy, development and foreign affairs. The views expressed are his own and do not represent those of his affiliation.