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LAUSANNE, Switzerland — In a recent editorial, the Financial Times admonished the European Union and its member states, “(for) having consistently failed to grasp the broad historic significance of the fall of the Berlin Wall nearly 13 years ago.” It is in fact an awesome event, the significance of which it will take years to distill.

Just before I was born (in 1945), the number of countries in Europe that were democratic numbered four: Britain, Ireland, Sweden and Switzerland, the latter two being exceptions on the European continent thanks to their “neutrality.” With Hitler’s defeat, democracy was restored in most of Western Europe, but communist dictatorships imposed in eastern and central Europe and the fascist regimes in southern Europe (Spain and Portugal joined by Greece after a coup d’etat in 1967) survived. For the next 30 years, the political map of Europe was frozen. Attempts at political change, including the Hungarian uprising in 1956 and the Spring of Prague in 1968, were brutally aborted.

When Spanish dictator Francisco Franco died in 1975, it was not at all obvious that Spain would embark on democratization. That was not the legacy Franco had intended; theories on “Iberian values” held that Spain and Portugal were not fertile ground for democracy. Although the Spanish Civil War had ended 36 years earlier, the wounds were still there. Both Portugal, which still had an extensive empire that had cost considerable bloodshed and needed to be dismantled, and Spain went through an initially quite traumatic transition.

On Feb. 23, 1981, I was watching TV when suddenly the news broke of the attempted coup d’etat by Lt. Col. Antonio Tejero Molina. The suspense lasted several days, as we held our breath. Would Spain return to its fascist past? The unknown quantity at the time was the king, Juan Carlos. As the appointed heir to Franco, he was assumed to be favorable to the ancien regime, and it was also generally believed that he was neither very bright, nor had much by way of an independent personality. In fact, the king displayed great courage, refused any compromise with the rebels, who had to surrender. From that moment, Spain was firmly on a one-way road to democracy.

Shortly after the Tejero affair, I was in Tokyo having lunch with a well-known Japanese historian. I suggested that a comparison could be made between the role Juan Carlos played in Spain’s “Ni-ni-san” incident and the one played by Hirohito in Japan’s infamous “Ni-ni-roku Jiken,” the Feb. 26 (1936) incident in which rebellious junior officers mutinied. Though the Showa Emperor did intervene and the mutineers were sent back to their barracks, his action was not in favor of democracy, but instead put Japan ultimately on a no-return road to totalitarianism and imperialism.

The contrasting stories of Juan Carlos and the Showa Emperor once again underline a point that needs constantly to be made: History is written by people, not by abstract forces.

Back in Europe, following the suppression of the Tejero coup, Spain accelerated its process of democratization and, with Portugal, joined the European Economic Community in 1986. All of Western Europe, from Finland to Italy, was now democratic. Whereas previously there had been several “Europes” — communist, fascist and democratic — now there were just two. The division between the two sides was taken as the “natural” order of things.

And then, beginning in 1989, the “natural” order of things collapsed, as nation after nation in central and eastern Europe overthrew totalitarian regimes. The transition once again has been traumatic and is by no means over. Many of the region’s economies went into free-fall, with the pernicious result that material life for many became more difficult. Institutions and infrastructure are sorely lacking. Problems of governance abound and corruption is rife. Attitudes are difficult to change. Expectations have largely not been met. Democracy can pose its own problems. Freedom of speech can be abused, such as by engaging in racist attacks.

The great tragedy of the European transition has been the bloody wars and ethnic cleansing in the Balkans. Recent elections in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia are not encouraging.

All this cannot be underestimated. At the same time, when one stands back and perceives the present through the prism of time, the results are stunning. Today all of Europe enjoys democracy. This is a fantastic — and, until recently, an undreamed of — foundation for the 21st century.

The European wave of democratization has engulfed other regions, albeit with mixed results. Significant improvements have taken place in Latin America. In Asia, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines and Indonesia have democratized. In Africa, apartheid has ended and free elections in Nigeria, Senegal, Ghana and a few other countries have been welcome, though the continent as a whole remains politically chaotic.

The region where no democratization has taken place is the Middle East and North Africa, or “MENA.” The excellent UNDP Arab Human Development Report, written by a collection of Arabic think tanks, identifies three “shortages” that account for the region’s economic backwardness and combustive environment: the shortage of freedom, shortage of learning and shortage of women empowerment. But MENA’s current situation does not mean it cannot join the world’s democracies in the not-too-distant future.

In all these heady developments, Japan has been a passive and bewildered spectator, as it has in virtually everything else over the last decade. When the European communist regimes were falling like dominoes, a close friend who is a senior government trade and industry official told me: “We Japanese have nothing to offer, nothing to say. The Americans gave us democracy. Since then we have not given the matter much thought. We have not had to struggle. We were led to democracy like a flock, a grand political “dantai-ryoko” (group tour), with MacArthur holding the flag and blowing the whistle.”

My friend was right. But things should change. Questions concerning the nature of Japan’s own democracy and how it can contribute to the globalization of democracy, especially in its own region, should be feverishly occupying the minds of Japanese intellectuals and policymakers at the dawn of the global era.

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