"The French can reassure themselves that it is not just theirs but the whole Western model which is disintegrating"

The quote cited in the title of the post is by the French post-modernist philosopher Jean Baudrillard, noted in an article in The Nation by Sunil Khilnani (via Arts and Letters Daily). Khilnani explores the “malaise” evident in French society and the widespread disaffection with France’s governing class — “If trust in France’s political leaders has plummeted, their legitimacy too is eroding: When the number of those who do not vote is combined with those who vote for extremist parties, around 50 percent of the electorate are turning their backs on their political elites.”

Japan’s experience since the end of the cold war in many ways presaged the problems seen in France and elsewhere in Europe, and the current contrast between the sclerorsis seen in the French political system and the vigor in the Japanese political system is illuminating. France, like Japan, has long been governed by bureaucrats and politicians drawn from the graduates of elite schools, ENA in the former, Todai in the latter. Both proudly developed economic models during the cold war that deviated from the “Anglo-Saxon” model, and both enjoyed considerable economic success during the cold war, gaining seats at the head table of international politics (the G7) in the process. But both were quite unprepared for the acceleration of globalization and the political reordering of the world in the unipolar world. Japan spent the 1990s adrift, its economy stagnant, its bureaucrats’ right to rule discredited, and its position in East Asia in transition. But after its “lost decade,” Japan has emerged stronger, its politicians having developed a clear view of how Japan must change so to thrive in the new century.

France, meanwhile, may be in the midst of a lost decade of its own. Its economy may not shrink — Japan, after all, remained the second largest economy in spite of its decade of poor economic performance — but the legitimacy of its governing institutions are in question and its place in the region (the EU — see the May 2005 vote on the European constitution) and the world in doubt. Meanwhile, disaffection grows as voters question whether either of the two leading parties can effectively address the country’s problems. Japanese voters showed similar alienation during the 1990s; after decades during which seventy percent turnout or higher was common, turnout fell to as low as 44.5% (in the 1995 election).

There is reason to doubt whether France will be able to recover quickly. Popular hostility remains high to any reform of the French social model that concedes any ground to globalization (unlike in Japan), and, compounding the problem of French intractability, France has yet to figure out how to integrate its disaffected and restive minorities, a problem which homogenous Japan has yet to confront. If France is to recover, however, it will, like Japan, have to find dynamic leaders willing to challenge the bankrupt status quo.

To return to Baudrillard, it is not the “Western model” that is disintegrating — because there is no Western model. There are Western models, to be sure, but what we’ve seen throughout the developed world in the past three decades has been a progressive wave of malaise and discontent spreading from country to country, calling postwar modes of social organization into question and giving rise to new leaders capable of ushering in new orders. It is telling that in 1981, just as the Thatcher and Reagan revolutions unfolded in Britain and the US, France elected Francois Mitterand on a retrograde socialist platform. Having failed in the 1980s and 1990s to come to terms with the new world coming into being, France will be forced to do so now, or else see its international stature, and its stature within the EU, continue to diminish. Western models designed for the cold war have become outmoded, requiring societies to go through periods of political and economic upheaval — relatively speaking — as they determine the shape of new institutions. The US and Britain recognized early on that they needed to change, Japan has recognized the problem and is in the midst of changing. Now it is France’s, as well as Germany’s and Italy’s, turn.

To see how the post-cold war transformation of Japanese politics has contributed to the progressive intensification of Japan’s security role, check out a report written by Japan specialist Kenneth Pyle issued by the National Bureau of Asian Research. Pyle’s analysis happens to confirm many of the conclusions of my M.Phil dissertation, but that’s not the (only) reason why his report is worth reading. Using the inauguration of the Abe Cabinet as a starting point, Pyle makes a convincing case for how changing international conditions since the end of the cold war have contributed to a broad transformation of Japanese politics and policy. As he wrote: “In retrospect, the fifteen years after the end of the cold war may well be seen as a time of transition and of assessing the implications for Japan of the changes in its world, a phase of far-reaching adaptation to a radically changed international environment.”

While I am less certain than Pyle about whether political change in Japan has been driven by changes in the international system — I think that there were signs in the 1980s that Japan needed to reform its system, and in any event, there were other variables that accelerated the breakdown of the so-called 1955 system — there is no question that the two are closely related. Japan’s leaders have historically been extremely sensitive to the world around them, and the present era is no exception. Pyle notes how the failures of the 1990s discredited bureaucratic elites and the older generation of politicians, clearing the way for Shinzo Abe and other young turks in the LDP and DPJ, what Pyle calls the “Heisei Generation” after the reign name of the incumbent Emperor Akihito. To Pyle, members of the Heisei Generation are more globalized than their elders, more creative and independent, and less burdened by the weight of history, all of which make them more likely to desire that Japan take a more constructive, active role in East Asia. This need not entail intensive remilitarization — as I’ve maintained before and as Pyle notes, the fiscal limitations that lie in wait beyond the legal limits are not inconsiderable — but can also include Japanese leadership at the UN and in multilateral regional fora.

If there’s a problem with Pyle’s analysis, it’s that he overprivileges the military dimension of Japan’s transformation. It is no doubt important, as the US-Japan alliance has become a genuine alliance after decades of life as a paper-tiger alliance, but with competition with China in the region increasingly over political and economic ideas, Japan’s political assertiveness, seen most recently in the aftermath of the North Korean nuclear test, may prove more important than its military assertiveness, which, while a considerable change, will still most likely be geared to MOOTW, Pyle’s hints at Japanese desires for power projection capabilities notwithstanding.

Nevertheless, his piece is well worth reading, particularly as a primer for those unfamiliar with the specifics of Japanese foreign policy during the cold war and therefore unaware of how Japanese foreign policy has changed since the end of the cold war.

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