Constitutions east and west

In his Sunday interview on NHK, Prime Minister Abe reiterated the importance of constitution revision as a point of contention in next month’s Upper House election.

Meanwhile, in Brussels this past weekend the European Union’s member states concluded a treaty that wraps up the questions that were intended to be addressed by the nixed constitution. The treaty, however, arguably retains a number of the constitution’s substantive changes while jettisoning troublesome symbolic changes.

What do Japan’s and the EU’s constitutional debates share in common?

Without even considering the content of the documents, both drafting processes are wrapped up for the democratic development of both polities. For Japan, the process by which constitutional amendments are debated and presented to the public for approval will be an important test of the strength of Japanese democracy. Will the process be elite-driven, as every other epochal change in the Japanese political system, or will the Japanese citizenry stake a claim in the process and demand that elites respect their wishes and introduce amendments that reflect public desires? In the EU, which is struggling to craft a democratic polity out of more than two dozen democratic polities (i.e., the democratic deficit), the changes envisioned by the constitution — and now the reform treaty — constitute a substantial change in how the member states, their peoples, and the EU interact, but it is unclear the extent to which the new EU will reflect the wishes of the governed. As George Washington University’s Henry Farrell wrote at Crooked Timber in a post reviewing the treaty: “It’s a shame and a disgrace that the EU member states have responded to the 2005 defeat by going back to their old practice of seeking to achieve integration by boring the general public into submission, and a very substantial backward step. If people aren’t willing to sign up to major changes in the EU system of governance, then too bad for the EU system of governance.”

This comparison only goes so far, of course, given that the Japanese people recognize themselves as a polity — whereas it is as of yet unclear if Europeans really think of themselves as European citizens, as far as governance is concerned.

But what both share is a concern about the role of their state/supranational-confederal organization of states in a world of new rising powers (read China and India) that already dwarf both demographically and are prepared to surpass both in economic performance. Hence the debate about article nine, which is not simply about one-country pacifism but signifies a range of questions about how Japan will relate to the US and other powers in the region. And in Europe, the provisions in the treaty about a European president, a de facto foreign minister and foreign service, and mutual defense clause hint at an EU desirous of a proper place at the table alongside the great powers. Niall Ferguson makes this argument in the Daily Telegraph:

The world is a big, bad place and the relative importance of Europe’s individual states is declining economically and demographically with every passing year. As Mr Mandelson has found, it is hard enough to sustain the momentum of trade liberalisation even when Europe speaks with one voice. In other spheres, the EU is simply a negligible quantity. What would have been more absurd than to leave foreign policy divided between yet another set of twins, the High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy (Javier Solana) and the Commissioner for External Relations (Benita Ferrero-Waldner)? The choice is no longer between national foreign policies and a European foreign policy, but between national irrelevance and collective influence.

(Interesting that Henry Kissinger disparaged both Japan [“little Sony salesmen”] and the EU [“who do you call when you want to talk to Europe”] for their inadequacies as great powers; it seems that they have taken his criticism seriously.)

But those in Europe and Japan who would rush to answer fundamental governance questions to enable the pursuit of power internationally must not be allowed to run roughshod over the rights of their citizens. Power must not be an end in itself; it must be grounded in democratic legitimacy. And so the content of constitution revision (or formation) is less important than the process. Will the voices of peoples be heard?

(I suppose this is a good test for the relevance of realism: if responding to changes in the international distribution of power takes the highest priority, then expect both Japan and the EU to run roughshod over popular opposition and implement constitutional settlements that best enable them to cope with changes in the international environment.)

What a time to be alive, for political scientists anyway.

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