LONDON — The appointment of Shinzo Abe as Japan’s new prime minister has aroused considerable Western interest, and not a little enthusiasm. People in the West like to see a clear-thinking younger leader emerge. And they like what they hear from Abe about Japan becoming fully qualified as a normal nation and as a responsible global player, and about engagement with giant neighbor China, although very much on a firm, no-nonsense basis.
Some commentators have gone even further and waxed lyrical about a new Japan-China clean energy pact and other initiatives. But it is seems early days yet for such hopes.
After all, no one really knows anyway whether China is just being awkward over specific issues, like the delicate question of visits to Yasukuni Shrine, or whether the rulers in Beijing would carry on being hostile anyway, picking quarrels on other matters, even if the shrine did not exist. Time will tell.
Meanwhile Abe’s emphasis on a more outward-looking foreign policy for Japan is welcome and makes a clear distinction between open, cosmopolitan nationalism, which can be practiced and pursued by a state confident within itself, and the sort of nationalism that bedeviled the first half of the 20th century, with nations angrily demanding their rights and blaming their internal problems on foreigners, international conspiracies and so on.
On the whole, the British, and until recently the Americans, have been free of this narrower and uglier sort of nationalism, although there are some disturbing signs in the wind.
For example, U.S. President George W. Bush’s speeches, which constantly trumpet America’s superiority and its determination to “fix” the world whether other allies join it or not, are in sharp contrast to the wiser and less assertive public pronouncements of the great American statesmen of the immediate postwar period, such as U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall, and presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower. America was then top nation in every way, but it did not push the fact down everyone else’s throats. This strident, modern American nationalism has weakened rather than strengthened the Pax Americana that helped stabilize the world for the last half century.
The European Union, too, has its moments of narrow nationalism, albeit on a European scale. Hardly a day goes by without voices being raised in favor of a powerful new united Europe that will strut the world stage and step in where American influence and “soft power” have declined. Meanwhile European “nationalism” can be seen clearly in practice in EU trade and agricultural policies that make no attempt to help the developing world and squeeze struggling farmers in low-income countries mercilessly out of world markets.
Even in traditionally cosmopolitan Britain there are some worrying signs of nationalism taking a wrong turn, and of nationalism of the flag-waving variety being stirred up deliberately. The most obvious indications come from the sheer volume of immigration and the indignation this causes not so much for reasons of racial prejudice but because of the pressure on social and housing services to which it is claimed to give rise.
On the whole skilled immigrants from the new members of the EU are welcome in Britain and have greatly contributed to the country’s economic dynamism. But the sheer numbers can inevitably cause tensions.
When the new wave of Central European countries joined the EU in 2005 most existing EU members put restrictions on the numbers of immigrants from these origins. In Britain these fears were brushed aside and the door opened wide, with the official prediction that about 13,000 immigrants would arrive from Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, etc.
In fact the number has turned out to be nearer 500,000, 40 times as much. This careless figuring at government level merely makes matters much worse and undermines confidence in the issue being handled smoothly. Now there is the inevitable backlash, with the British government being compelled to install strong restrictions on the potential next wave of arrivals, this time from Romania and Bulgaria, both of which are due to join the EU on Jan. 1 next year.
Perhaps the most disturbing signs of narrow nationalism are to be found in the growing emphasis in high government circles on “Britishness.” In reality the British, while proud of their ancient nation, have always been outward-looking, and especially strong in their support of the 54-nation Commonwealth network that stretches across all continents and faiths.
Outgoing British Prime Minister Tony Blair, in his otherwise fine valedictory speech to the recent annual Labour Party conference in Manchester, made the extraordinary assertion that the British are “reluctant global citizens.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Such a view shows a profound ignorance of both British history and the British character. The British love trade and they like to be trading everywhere in the globe, rather than staying at home and ostentatiously trying to be “British.”
The only worry today is that wherever the British go in the world they find the Americans have been downgraded and that the new global players are not the European but the Chinese.
That brings us back to Abe and his new policy. Japan stretching outward can be a welcome counterbalance to Chinese expansionism. And despite all the nationalistic talk of Britishness Japan will find Britain a like-minded and welcoming ally in filling the global gap, now that Pax Americana no longer prevails.
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