Global Democracy in Retreat

Recent elections in India and Europe, societies with a range of cultures and levels of wealth, have provided further proof that the liberal world order, is retreating into one dominated by sovereignty and the nation state.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on his Hindu nationalist ticket, won an even bigger majority. In European parliamentary elections, what have become known as populist parties increased their share of the vote to 29 percent of the total, up from just 10 percent two decades ago.

While each voter and community have individual reasons in casting their ballots, patterns have emerged on how populism is cutting across traditional issues. Income disparity and living standards are being pushed aside to be replaced by an as-yet indeterminate set of drivers as to how voters make choices at the ballot box. The impact is already being felt within international institutions, not least in the realm of defense. By looking at three regions, Europe, South Asia and Northeast Asia, we can broadly see to what extent rising nationalism might change the dynamics of global security.

For the past 70 years, Europe has prospered under the political and defense structures of the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization led by the United States. But now, America’s own nationalism under the Trump administration questions the value and future of NATO, and the EU is weakened by political movements wanting either to leave the union or tear up its rulebook and rebuild in a way that gives the union less power.
In Britain and France, among Europe’s most populous countries, nationalists won a plurality and those in Italy won an outright majority.

As Britain struggles to work out exactly how it is going to leave the EU, politicians that once stood firmly on centre ground, have veered toward nationalism, blaming the union for Britain’s problems and depicting it as an enemy and threat. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt has compared the EU to the Soviet Union. Dan Hannan, Conservative European parliament member, has reached back to 1066, proclaiming that with the Norman invasion by a coalition of continental forces, “Englishness became a badge of subjugation.”

Pro-Brexit parliamentarians deliver daily reminders of the Second World War with Boris Johnson, favourite in the current race to become the next prime minister, comparing the EU’s regional ambitions to those of Napoleon Bonaparte and Adolf Hitler. Meanwhile, dozens of intelligence, crime and defense arrangements forged around a united Europe are being unwound.

In South Asia, India’s Hindu nationalism, although based on communal antipathy towards other faiths, is broadly following a similar trajectory.

The United States is trying to strengthen its strategic alliance with India to retain Western influence in Asia and secure the Indian Ocean and South China Sea. But India’s electoral focus has been on hostilities with neighbouring Pakistan. During Modi’s tenure, the supposed danger posed by Islamic Pakistan has spread deep into India’s Muslim communities that makes up 14 percent of the 1.4 billion population. Muslim attacks and killings are rising while political rhetoric relayed through hawkish television shows and social media whips up anti-Pakistan sentiment in a way that discourages any potential for resolution.

The need by politicians to win grassroots nationalist votes challenges the prospect of making long-term peace with a threatening neighbour.

Here is a grim global scenario whereby, in two nuclear-armed antagonistic countries, politicians are using tough religious and nationalist language in order to get elected while American and European influence to mediate is diminished.

The weakened security trajectory continues into Northeast Asia, a region where neighbours, Japan and South Korea, led the way in showing how democracy could flourish in non-European societies. Their industrial ingenuity spearheaded the idea of the Asian century. At this stage, with the rising influence of authoritarian China, Tokyo and Seoul should be taking a natural lead in forging political and security alliances within Asia to complement the current series of bilateral arrangements with the United States. If Japan and South Korea initiated a trilateral US agreement, it could open the door for America’s other regional allies, Thailand and the Philippines, to join thus starting to build an Asian-led security alliance.

This is not happening because the two governments are deadlocked over the running sore of historical memory – Japan’s occupation of the Korean peninsula, encapsulated in the so-called “comfort women” issue, when soldiers forced Koreans into prostitution while Japan since refusing to acknowledge the pain. With an eye on the popular vote, South Korea’s President Moon Jai-in has torn up a 2015 settlement on comfort women and restricted intelligence-sharing arrangements with Japan. Meanwhile, South Korean courts have ruled that Japan must pay compensation for cases of forced labour, ensuring that historical grievances are kept alive in the minds of voters.

The winner of this impasse is China, able to paint Asia’s changing balance of power as a direct Cold War–style struggle between itself and the United States.

At least two common threads emerge from these three regions. One is that the focus of hostility is on a neighbour, rooted not in competing visions for the future but unresolved differences from the past. The other is that voters are opting for nationalist paths against overwhelming evidence that these bring less wealth and lower living standards.

British voters’ views have barely shifted despite a stream of reports warning of economic downturn. India went into the election with unemployment at a record high, sharply reduced farm incomes and a slump in industrial production. Modi’s majority increased.

One of the most detailed accounts of rising nationalism comes from Germany’s struggle after the First World War from 1918. As with many new democracies, Germany faced violent threats from the right and left before settling for a while into the period known as the Weimar Republic during which debate, art and science flourished.

Then recession hit, first in 1923 and again with the Wall Street crash of 1929. Poverty and hyperinflation paved the way for Hitler’s National Socialism to sweep the country. Not long ago, comparisons with Europe in the 1930s were frequently dismissed as fear-mongering. They are now central to the debate.

After the European election, German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke of the horrors of Nazism, urging young people to understand their history and emphasizing the need to face up to “specters of the past.”

For Germany, nationalism brought the Holocaust; for India, the Partition; and for Northeast Asia, the Pacific War and nuclear attack. Western democracies that influenced the international order since WW2 have yet to come up with a vision to balance this hazardous political trend. The need for a historically informed vision and new strategies is urgent.

This article was first published on YaleGlobal Online and written by Humphrey Hawskley. Hawksley is a former BBC Beijing Bureau Chief. His latest book is Asian Waters: The Struggle Over the South China Sea and the Strategy of Chinese Expansion. KJ Vids produced a video for the article in collaboration with YaleGlobal.

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