Nationalism and democracy

TODAY'S COLUMNIST By Mitsuru Kitano September 23, 2005 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.
Such checks and balances on the actions of government are absent in non-democratic systems.
In order to avoid the vicious cycle of criticism of a country's nationalism and retribution for that criticism, democracy, as a channel for exchange and competition among a diverse set of opinions, helps generate more balanced policies.
When such channels are not operative within a country, the role of the international media is of decisive importance as a mirror that faithfully reflects the truth about a country.
Another point of juncture between democracy and nationalism relates to the legitimacy of authority.
In Asia there have been more than a few countries that draw their legitimacy to rule from authoritarianism or ideology rather than the legal-rational authority conferred by democracy.
Recently, however, as seen in the Republic of Korea, the Philippines and Indonesia, democracy has played an increasingly important role as a basis of legitimacy of rule.
Considering nationalism in the context of legitimacy of authority, attention must be paid to the tendency of a country's leaders to resort to fanning the flames of nationalism when they are faced with an erosion of their legitimacy.
It goes without saying that when nationalism is used in this way, management of nationalism among neighboring countries becomes very difficult.
Thus, once democracy is achieved, it becomes a reliable basis for legitimacy of authority that diminishes the need to use nationalism as a tool.
In this sense, the advance of democracy in East Asia is an encouraging phenomenon.
However, as much as we hope for such advances in some countries, they do not seem likely.
That situation requires careful scrutiny from the outside to assure that these countries do not exhibit dangerous signs of resorting to nationalism to help legitimize their rule.
In order to manage nationalism, we need to craft appropriate approaches to specific issues, such as history and territorial disputes, strengthen regional frameworks and bilateral relations to foster mutual trust and devise ways to prevent issues from escalating to untenable levels.
But we should not forget the importance of promoting democracy to that end.
Mitsuru Kitano is the public affairs minister for the Embassy of Japan.