Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Can Developing Nations Be Independent? Today's Globalized Economy Is Dominated by a Single Ideology, but the Frontiers Which Imprison Poor Countries Are as Impenetrable as Any in History

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Can Developing Nations Be Independent? Today's Globalized Economy Is Dominated by a Single Ideology, but the Frontiers Which Imprison Poor Countries Are as Impenetrable as Any in History

Article excerpt

lnukai Tsuyoshi lay slumped over the bureau in his prime ministerial office. His argument with the young soldiers who had forced their way into the inner sanctum of Japanese power was settled with a bullet from a Japanese navy-issue handgun. Japan was entering the final stages of an ideological clash that would lead it into catastrophic war with the Allied forces.

Frontiers come in many forms. That night, 15 May 1932, a simple office bureau had served as the dividing line between an authentic clash of civilizations. Parliamentary democracy, reinforced with a belief in international engagement, the League of Nations, free trade, tolerance and progress domestically--an ideology that inspired Prime Minister Inukai's commitment--was purged that night in favour of a different path to modernity. The naval officers' ideology, legitimized by a reference to the spiritualist mystique of Japanese cultural tradition, demanded a militarist build-up, imperial authority and colonial expansion. Japan's independence would be achieved by subjugation of its Asian neighbors; it would be a nation in charge of its destiny once more.

It is not difficult to imagine Inukai pondering his nation's future and recent past in the hours prior to his assassination. Japan was strong-armed into the international community by the gunships of Commodore Perry in 1854, a national humiliation.

Inukai might have reflected that experiments with party democracy and cultural release during the 1920s had been halcyon days. However, after 1929, the devastated rural economy had fatally tipped the balance in favour of the militarists. The military were out of control, annexing the Chinese province of Manchuria and swathes of Inner Mongolia in what was euphemistically labeled an "incident". It was as much an "incident" as German tanks rolling into Prague. Japanese subordination and, in the mind of the navy, subservience at the London Naval Conference of 1930 worsened the hypertension in the body politic. The choice was simple. Japan could either subject itself to continuing political and economic humiliation at the hands of the Great Powers, or it could control its own economy, its own society, an independent path that would restore national pride and unity.

Inukai met his assailants' might with what he thought was the most powerful weapon in a democrat's arsenal. He debated with them. They responded with the most powerful weapon that they had to hand. They shot him.

Japanese history is salutary in a world where every nation, people, culture and creed is trying to come to terms with the rise to supremacy of one ideology. Liberal democracy, embodied in the mega-power of America, flows into every crevice of potential resistance. Bill Clinton is fond of saying that we live in a world that is interdependent but not integrated. His outlook is an optimistic one. We actually live in a world defined as much by its many frontiers as by its integration.

Japan symbolizes the struggle of a developing country to attain independence in the face of mighty external forces. It metamorphosed from an isolated feudal archipelago into the Asian outpost of international liberalism by the end of the 20th century, but not without struggle and not without unimaginable cost.

A bureau in Prime Minster Inukai's office separated militarism from parliamentary democracy. In our world, theocratic terrorism confronts modernity in a struggle to suppress a shoe-bomber in economy class on a transatlantic flight; alchemists of deadly poison are arrested in a flat in Wood Green, London; Great Powers face each other across the three-quarter moon of the Security Council table. Far from reaping a "peace dividend" bestowed upon us by the "end of history", we are faced with a world that is in many ways more terrifying than anything we have faced before. Premodernity clashes with modernity, alternative routes to modernity and independence collide. …

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