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Brexit’s Lesson For Asia’s Democracies

TOKYO – The United Kingdom, in voting to divorce the European Union, is steering the West into uncharted territory. Will the EU now unravel, as other populists and nationalists demand plebiscites on their respective countries’ membership? Will NATO, the grand post-war alliance that has guaranteed Europe’s security for almost seven decades, also begin to disintegrate, as its members turn inward (like Britain) or, worse, against each other?

Many people in Asia will dismiss these questions the way Neville Chamberlain wrote off Central Europe back in 1938: as problems in faraway countries about which they know and care little. But the truth is that the populist surge now rocking the West has its own echoes in Asia.

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Greater disunity here is particularly dangerous, because Asia lacks the West’s connective institutional framework and regional shock absorbers. The recent recall of an agreed statement by ASEAN criticizing China for its actions in the South China Sea is but the latest sad example of the immaturity of Asia’s collective security process.

Across the region, national rivalries remain raw, and historical memories continue to sow divisions. So all Asians must recognize that their countries and region are equally vulnerable to those who would undermine the rule of law and today’s existing structures of peace and prosperity, flimsy as they may be.

Asia must thus take note of the message Brexit sends. The “Leave” camp’s ability to scrape together a simple majority by appealing to voters’ basest instincts shows that many people now take their liberties, security, and prosperity for granted. It shows that too many have lost sight of what made the post-war developed world so affluent, free, and safe to begin with.

For decades, the world’s democracies – in Asia and in the West – have not questioned the foundations of their success. We understood that we needed to stand together, sometimes in formal alliances, sometimes in alliances bound together simply by a shared interest in democracy. We understood that our prosperity was built on the rule of law, the fundamental integrity of our political institutions, and the openness of our societies – to the outside world and to the “outsiders” among us.

This historical wisdom is now being mocked and dismissed, openly by the likes of Donald Trump in America and Marine Le Pen in France, and cryptically, with a nudge and a wink, by Brexit leaders like former London Mayor Boris Johnson and Tory justice secretary Michael Gove. Many voters, eager for confirmation of their biases, believed that a smear bordering on parody – the portrayal by Johnson and Gove of the EU as some sort of latter-day Nazi project – actually described reality.

An honest historical accounting of the EU would recognize that it established for Europeans a zone of peace founded on individual rights, the rule of law, and social justice. This is arguably the central reason that Europe could overcome the economic ravages of World War II, and achieve unprecedented living standards across the continent, while also resolving ancient enmities – such as between France and Germany.

Europe’s unification required great political vision and will, born of collective revulsion at the horrors of WWII, the insecurity unleashed by the Cold War, and the economic dynamism brought forth by the founding of the European Economic Community, the forerunner to the EU. But as the British “Remain” camp just learned, much to its sorrow, economic forces alone do not furnish the sense of cohesion or solidarity needed to sustain the project of unification. To function as a viable and vital polity, Europe now needs a new imperative, a new sense of mission around which to rally. Asia’s democracies need the same thing.

In the West and in Asia today, solidarity – a genuine sense of civic community and self-identity – is more necessary than ever to manage the profound social and political changes brought about by global capitalism. Markets, and the supply and production chains that now link Asia more intimately than ever before, may create the material basis for a people, or peoples, to cooperate. They cannot, however, produce the sense of shared purpose that societies need in order to flourish.

Today, the British people have clearly lost sight of common goals – goals shared with each other and with Europe. They have delivered a body blow to the West that can be counteracted only by reviving the will and spirit that inspired European integration and the creation of NATO in the first place.

And where European unity was once the project of the future, greater unity among Asia’s democracies must become our region’s project for today. Asian democracies have a clear opportunity to begin to forge a sense of solidarity among themselves; but they must do so in a way that our citizens understand. Successive British governments failed to defend their country’s membership in the EU – and most regularly used it as an all-purpose bogeyman to explain away their own policy failures.

Britain and Europe – where many other governments behave in the same manner – are now paying the price. Asia must not make the same mistake.

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A test of Asia’s ability, and willingness, to build a sense of regional solidarity is at hand. In the coming weeks, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague will rule on whether China’s expansive claim on ownership of the South China Sea has any legal basis. If Asia’s democracies stand behind the Court of Arbitration’s ruling, whatever it is, they can begin to demonstrate that, with a shared sense of purpose, they are prepared to defend the rule of law – and each other.

It was such robust solidarity in the face of a common threat that helped impel European unity many decades ago. Now it’s Asia’s turn to try to get it right.