Strengthening Democracy through Power of Words
2017 / 04 / 16
On April 7, 2017, The Genron NPO co-hosted a forum with Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA in Tokyo, Japan, with its thematic focus on a book published by Sasakawa USA titled "U.S.-Japan Approaches to Democracy Promotion."
Dennis Blair, CEO of Sasakawa USA, helped welcome attendees to the forum with a powerful message. "For the long term," he began, "No issue is more important than supporting the common democratic values we share, and to help other countries promote and develop those values."
Blair also explained that their book explores how the U.S. and Japan can work together in unique ways towards our common objective of helping other countries become democracies.
Yasushi Kudo, president of The Genron NPO, added to Blair's comment in his own welcome message, emphasizing that, "Democracy is not something that is free. We have to face the problems that it brings up, and face the solutions that are needed to promote it."
Kudo served as moderator for the first session of the evening, titled "The State of Democracy in the World - What issues we face." Panelists Dennis Blair and Yasushi Akashi, chairman of the International House of Japan, drew on their own rich experiences to discuss a number of issues related to the recent recession of democracy and on how to combat the trend.
Blair responded to Kudo's initial question about the growing worry that the spread of democratic values has slowed, and even receded, in recent years.
"Around the turn of the century," Blair said. "It seemed like democracy was an unstoppable force - that it would automatically spread around the world - but we have learned recently that you can never rest in promoting democratic values."
He pointed to a survey by Freedom House, a U.S. non-governmental organization, that found that overall freedom and democratic values worldwide have actually declined somewhat over the last 11 years.
"There will be always people who aim to reverse democracy's gains," Blair said, and emphasized that democracies therefore must continue to maintain and spread democratic values.
While many countries have instituted elections, judiciary systems and media, some governments maintain control these institutions, effectively "high-jacking the forms of democracy" to build more authoritarian governments. Greater vigilance is needed in regards to the state of democratic development in mature democracies, he believes, as is evidenced by the rise in populism in the United States and in many European countries.
Finally, Blair noted that research shows that stable democracies almost always arise from internal rather than external forces, and that peaceful democratic development is much more long-lasting than is violent democratic development. Outside actors can help but the "decisive factors are always from inside the country".
Yasushi Akashi spoke next, referring back to his own work at the U.N., when he was involved in dealing with the conflict in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
"I was astounded by the force of nationalism," he said, and added that when the former nations of Yugoslavia gained nationhood, they adopted constitutions based on majority rule, and ignored the necessary protections for minority rights.
The situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina served as a particularly clear example of the dangers of such a development, as the new country was wracked by fighting waged between the three largest ethnic/religious populations. Akashi noted that democracy is still having difficulties taking root in the former Yugoslavian countries, and that even in the U.S., a country with more than 200 years of democratic tradition, similar trends are being seen that are cause for alarm.
Akashi believes that we must fight these "undemocratic tendencies" and points to the U.S. as an example of a state with a strong political tradition of checks and balances designed to prevent the emergence of authoritarianism. Human rights are also protected by the U.S. constitution, and Akashi believes that to avoid the emergence a dictatorship, it is essential to safeguard minority rights.
Regarding Asian activity designed to promote democracy, Akashi noted that it is more difficult for Japan to engage in such work on the Korean Peninsula or China, due to public sentiment in those regions regarding the historical incursions and subsequent actions of the Japanese military.
"We try not to interfere too much," he said. "Even if it is for a good democratic cause."
Blair returned to the discussion by pointing out a state in which the efforts of Japan and the U.S. could be very helpful - Myanmar - and maintained that both of their countries should continue to offer their support to Thailand, the Philippines, and Malaysia and other states currently going through democratic difficulties.
Kudo asked the Akashi and Blair a question regarding how to promote democracy in China and in developing nations. Blair responded with a sense of optimism regarding China's future. He pointed out that democracy was considered a "white Anglo-Saxon" phenomenon, but, pointing to "rich democracies" like Spain, and states in both Asia and Africa, it has been proven that a democratic system is much more universally applicable than once thought. The essential requirement of a democracy is the ability to change the government peacefully, but there must also be other institutions that ensure redress when someone is wronged, and checks and balances that keep power out of the hands of the few.
Akashi noted that one danger of sudden change - even when it is democratic and peaceful - is that "reason can be swept aside by passion." He suggested that perhaps nations should reconsider instituting the multi-stage voting system that was once used in the United States of America, as it could help "avoid the influence of naked, raw passion" in the outcome of elections.
Returning to the point of Chinese democracy, Blair stated that the way in which China achieves democracy will be important, but he also dismissed any cultural concerns people might have. He reminded the audience that Taiwan was a dictatorship only 50 years ago, but its people were able to peacefully take power away from the dictatorship and the army.
Regarding this, Akashi stated his belief that China has made great strides in "almost all domains" other than those related to political matters, and that the Chinese people are "intelligent enough to devise the best way to make progress."
Toward the end of the first session, before Kudo opened up the panel to questions from the audience, he asked the two speakers how they would place the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump within the context of the forum's goal of discussing the promotion of democracy.
Both Akashi and Blair agreed that Trump's recent actions have given him "a rapid lesson in democracy", and that he should now understand that he lacks the mandate to overrule the institutions in place to protect democracy in the U.S.
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