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Global perspective: Democracies must cooperate as populism wanes

In this Jan. 6, 2021 file photo, Donald Trump supporters try to break through a police barrier at the Capitol in Washington. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

The curtain has come down on nearly five years of drama, and the year 2021 will see a fresh start.

    In 2016, we observed the shocking developments of the U.K. referendum favoring Brexit and the election of U.S. President Trump. It appeared that the tragedy of the repeated acts of self-destruction committed by advanced democracies knew no bounds. The political gains made by Marine Le Pen, who heads France's right-wing National Rally party, leaders of the Alternative for Germany (AfD), and Matteo Salvini, federal secretary of Italy's right-wing League, all point to the political risks facing developed countries.

    The recent attack of the U.S. Capitol by rioters, instigated by President Donald Trump during his last days in office, was the final cry of this saga.

    Certainly, democracy in the developed world has been badly damaged, but it has not been broken. The so-called far-right populist forces have almost uniformly fallen out of favor in Western countries, and their momentum is waning.

    Most importantly, Biden was elected president of the United States, a major center of power. It will be much better for the U.S. and the world than another four years of Trump in power, who puts his personal interests ahead of national interests and allies.

    For the European Union (EU) and the U.K., this year also marks a fresh start, as the drama of the U.K. leaving the EU is finally over with trade and other deals after four and a half years including a transition period. The U.K. is now out of the Union.

    British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is elated that the U.K. has "regained its sovereignty" after leaving the EU. The cost, however, remains outstanding. Already, border inspectors have been overwhelmed, and the procurement of fresh food has been affected. The U.K. will now need about 5,000 customs officers, forcing many companies and travelers to do paperwork that was previously unnecessary.

    The cost may end up being the dissolution of the United Kingdom. Scotland did not want to leave the EU, and England effectively imposed the departure on the region. The British Northern Ireland shares an island with the Republic of Ireland, making it difficult to set up border checks between Northern Ireland and Ireland out of concern for the reemergence of ethnic and religious conflicts. As a result, Northern Ireland will remain the sole part of the post-Brexit United Kingdom that will follow regulations of the EU single market. This arrangement will also lead to centrifugal forces within the U.K.

    The EU will also be a different place in 2021, as Angela Merkel, who has served as Chancellor of Germany for 16 years, will leave the stage after the general election this fall. Along with the French presidential election in May 2022, in which Emmanuel Macron will seek re-election, the development of political leadership will prepare the ground for the next European drama.

    As advanced democracies struggle through these political dramas, authoritarian countries like China are on the rise. This is troubling because it involves their growing economic presence, as well as a deepening of domestic repression and, ultimately, the spread of authoritarianism to the rest of the world.

    The U.S.-China standoff intensified under Republican President Trump, but it is not expected to change much under the Democratic Biden administration. Unlike the previous administration, which was willing to criticize its allies, the new administration is emphasizing the importance of alliance. In addition, there is a bipartisan consensus among the U.S. elite to keep a hardline posture toward China. This means that the high tariffs on Chinese products are likely to be lowered only gradually, and the exclusion of Huawei and other Chinese telecom giants from the next-generation 5G market will not be easy to eliminate.

    It is true, however, that Biden's long diplomatic career includes glimpses of his admiration and dependence on China since his first visit to the country in the late 1970s. He was one of the first to publicly declare China as a partner. When he was vice president, he relied on Chinese capital to promote the environmental industry. At a time when China is prioritizing the protection of the global environment and aligning itself with the political agenda of the new U.S. administration, it is undeniable that there is momentum to use such issues as leverage to break the deadlock in U.S.-China relations. Concerns about direct diplomacy between the U.S. and China above Japan's head are not new, but Tokyo must take extra care in this regard as it prepares for the next stage.

    Fortunately, perhaps one can say, Japan agreed to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement with countries including China, South Korea, Australia, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) nations. Striking a right balance between economic interests and political principles over issues such as human rights and territories is difficult to achieve for any country. As no one can ignore the Chinese market, there is no choice but to continue parallel efforts on those two tracks. In fact, we may be able to use this agreement as a foundation to expand the scope of our political offensive.

    At the same time, we would have to accept efforts by other countries to secure their economic interests. In late 2020, the EU signed an investment agreement with China -- a move initiated by the departing Merkel despite the distrust against China swirling around in Germany and other EU countries. Europe, too, is trying to find equilibrium. A concerning scenario, which Australia actually had to go through, is China launching an economic attack on a country over political disagreements. This is where solidarity among democracies will be tested.

    Japan, too, needs to make a fresh start. The country, which had a new prime minister last fall, plans to hold the Olympics in this summer and a general election by this fall. Japan may be a country at a critical juncture, and I wonder if it will be able to survive the 2020s as a developed country that values freedom and democracy.

    According to a survey by the Centre for the Future of Democracy at the University of Cambridge, published early last year, distrust of democracy in developed countries has reached its highest level in a generation. Among them, Japan came second after the United States in a ranking of countries distrustful of democracy. Conversely, in Taiwan, South Korea, and the Philippines, trust in democracy had increased in recent years.

    As Japan is expected to team up with Biden's U.S., which is trying to restore normative correctness, and work with democratic forces such as Europe and Australia to counter authoritarianism, it is hard to see where Japan stands.

    Can Japan have a government worthy of trust? The looming general election in the year of reckoning may prove to be a crossroads for Japan.

    (By Ken Endo, Dean, Graduate School of Public Policy, Hokkaido University)

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