Nationalism and Democracy; Points of Departure in East Asia

Article excerpt


The contentious issues between Japan and China - such as the demonstrations in April in China and the territorial disputes between Japan and South Korea - remind us that managing nationalism is the key to the future stability of East Asia. Managing nationalism in the region is equally important as dealing with such issues as China's rapid development, the Cross Strait relations, North Korea, surging food and energy demand and demographic change.

At present, nationalism is a more pronounced phenomenon in Asia than in Europe, particularly in East Asia. As we learned from the birth of the nation-states in Europe in the 18th to 19th centuries, nationalism tends to run stronger in younger countries, especially if they are developing rapidly.

As we seek ways to manage nationalism in East Asia, democracy assumes an overriding importance.

Democracy matters in managing nationalism because democracy presents myriad opportunities for the expression of views and public discourse on policy. How diplomacy with neighboring countries should be conducted, how history should be understood, how to respond to territorial issues - all come to the public roundtable. In the democratic countries, government policies are examined and tested in the "policy market." Only the most persuasive and enlightened policies survive this process.

Democracy can also aggravate tensions in handling nationalism. When the people take a hard-line stance toward an adversary, governments with populist tendencies are easily tempted to adopt that stance as an official policy line. Further, democratic systems can also harbor extremely exclusive or self-centered views. In this age of globalism, such attitudes are immediately communicated to other countries, and in turn, elicit a strong response. Thus, the vicious cycles can actually be perpetuated by democracies. And further, during the early stages of democratization, nationalism tends to surge and be especially aggressive.

However, all things considered, the development of democracy facilitates the good management of nationalism. In diplomacy, the worst-case scenario in this content is when a government fans the flames of nationalism among the people. Nationalism itself is a strong emotion. Once inflamed, it easily burns out of control. But the public review characteristic of democratic systems highlights the dangers and exerts a calming influence. …