Webcast Recap

Nationalism is often viewed as harmful to democratization and democracy in general. Liberal scholars often insist that nationalism is a major irritant in international conflicts, and even a cause of war. According to Nobuo Fukuda, the Wilson Center’s Japan Scholar and former Jakarta bureau chief at the Asahi Shimbun, this perception is not always accurate. In postwar Asia, nationalism has also played a positive role in democratic transitions, helping to bring about social and economic reforms. Nationalistic sentiment has been strong in young countries, but violent conflict has rarely broken out between nations of the region. 

Fukuda first pointed to Indonesia, which has been transformed from an authoritarian state to a democracy in the past decade, and noted that it can be seen as a success story of open nationalism. Most important for Indonesia was the limited form of devolution of political and financial power that began after the fall of the Suharto regime in 1999. For example, while there were calls for greater regional autonomy throughout the country, and mayors and local candidates were given more power, the nation’s cabinet rejected federalism outright, knowing that too much local autonomy would lead to the fragmentation of the state. 

Prioritization of national unity has continued to be a major factor in Indonesian identity politics. In the 2005 elections, for example, it was not uncommon to see candidates from different backgrounds and religions running on joint tickets in order to appeal to a sense of united Indonesian, rather than religious, identity. Debate over the electoral system, where liberal nationalists have supported proportional representation as a reflection of the diversity of Indonesia, is also characteristic of the commitment to open nationalism. Fukuda noted that because of this commitment to inclusive national unity, most of the violent domestic conflicts of the early post-Suharto years have been extinguished.

In India, open nationalism was also espoused by the nation’s pre-eminent political and ideological leader, Mohandas Gandhi. However, Fukuda noted that despite Gandhi’s teachings and his image today as a symbol of inclusiveness, India today stands as an example of the negative consequences for democracy of divisive, closed politics. Gandhi’s commitment to non-violence, secularism, pluralism, and the rule of law—all key elements of open nationalism—has been eroded by exclusivist, ethno-religious nationalism that has exploited India’s democratization. 

Unlike Indonesia, where a unified state was constructed out of difference, Hindu nationalists have taken advantage of decentralization to become highly visible in the political world. For the members of Hindu nationalist groups such as the Bharatiya Janata Party, which rose from relative obscurity to govern India between 1998 and 2004, or the National Volunteer Organization (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS), the largest existing private “paramilitary” body in the world, Hinduism is above all a symbol of Indian national identity. However, Hinduism is used by such groups to exclude others, as violence between ethnic groups in the nation and international friction between Pakistani Muslims and Indian Hindus demonstrates.

Indeed, open nationalist movements are not always successful. Fukuda also cited the 1989 pro-democracy protests in China as a significant, if failed, form of open nationalism. The students involved regarded themselves as the embodiment of Chinese patriotism and the vanguard of the legal and political reforms needed to end China’s stagnation. While student demonstrators were committed to universal ideals, their stated goal was to promote China’s strength and dignity through the implementation of democratic political reforms that guaranteed human rights and equality before the law. Theirs was a truly national exercise.

Despite the failure of open nationalism to take hold in China or in India, Fukuda sees it as an attractive concept for Japan, where nationalism in general has been discredited by its association with Japan’s history of colonization and war. Japan’s dependence on the United States for defense also meant that it could afford to take a low posture in foreign affairs, and focused on rebuilding and expanding its economic base as a focus of national efforts rather than debate about the appropriate position of Japan in relation to its neighbors. Recession in the 1990s and social and political malaise since then have given rise to feelings of frustration in Japan, and some commentators believe that a persistent sense of loss may be partly explained by the lack of progressive open nationalism.

Fukuda thinks that Japan should explore a new national identity in Asia, the region it belongs to geographically, but in which it has never been accepted as a full member. Japan might do well to embrace open nationalism as the theoretical backbone for its foreign policy as the earthquake-stricken nation positions itself in 21st-century Asia. Japan needs to set an example by creating a national discourse that is focused on the notions of human rights and democracy that it has successfully adopted and by opening its borders to foreign workers. Part of this new openness should be to accept and explore the open nationalisms of the region in order to forge a sense of community between nations. 

By Bryce Wakefield
Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program