Blair looks forward while looking back

I think it goes without saying that outgoing British Prime Minister Tony Blair will be recalled as a tragic figure, full of potential but consumed by circumstances largely beyond his control. (Check out the debate hosted by PostGlobal on this question.)

Nevertheless, Blair remains impressive as a world leader who has tried to look forward and anticipate the myriad ways in which the world is changing, and thus his retrospective in the current issue of the Economist is well worth reading.

I particularly like his acknowledgment, “The line between ‘foreign’ and ‘domestic’ policy is being blurred.” That does not mean that globalization is homogenizing the world, but it does mean that what happens abroad has tremendous consequences within the borders of faraway states, and what happens within a state’s borders have tremendous impact on its position in the world and its ability to cope with challenges emanating from abroad. This is, of course, a lesson that Japan’s politicians and bureaucrats would do well to appreciate.

For all the talk about Japan’s playing a more active international role, it is all hot air if Japan cannot figure out how to open Japan’s economy and make it more dynamic, care for its elderly without permanently handicapping economic performance, determine the best way to make use of foreign labor, and revamp its education system to prepare Japanese children to compete in a service-driven global economy. Does anyone really think that Japan will be able to compete — and lead — in Asia without taking these steps? The Abe Cabinet’s Innovation 25 project sounds nice, but as this Sankei Shimbun editorial makes inadvertently clear, the cultural changes necessary to make the policy changes successful are daunting.

Also of interest, of course, is Blair’s insistence that “political parties will have to change radically their modus operandi“:

Contrary to mythology, political parties aren’t dying; public interest in politics is as intense as it ever was. As the recent turn-out in the French election shows: give people a real contest and they will come out and vote.

But politics is subject to the same forces of change as everything else. It is less tribal; people will be interested in issues, not necessarily ideologies; political organisation if it is rigid is off-putting; and there are myriad new ways of communicating information. Above all, political parties need to go out and seek public participation, not wait for the public to be permitted the privilege of becoming part of the sect.

So, membership should be looser, policymaking broader and more representative, the internet and interactive communication the norm. Open it all up.

While obviously some of this is unique to the British political system, the injunction to “open it all up” should resonate in all mature democracies struggling with voter apathy and disgust with partisan politics and mediocre governance.

In Japan’s case, it needs to reconsider its Public Election Law, which stifles democratic activity and serves in effect to shield incumbents from opposition.

So, to the last, it is worthwhile to listen to Tony Blair. Maybe in retirement he can come advise the DPJ.

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