Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2018.08.15

The empires strike back

the japan times on July 2, 2018

Last week Turkey chose Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his coalition as the nation's newly empowered president and the majority block in its weakened parliament. Although his June 24 electoral sweep was a foregone conclusion for many informed pundits worldwide, it may have been a big disappointment for some Western observers.

Such observers, most of whom are presumably American or Western European, found the election results regrettable because Erdogan gained more control over both the executive and legislative branches, while the West-leaning opposition did not win enough votes to counterbalance the already authoritarian president.

Tokyo, traditionally a best friend of Turkey, seems rather critical. The editorials of the Asahi and Nikkei, for example, while correctly acknowledging strong popular support for Erdogan, urge him not to be dictatorial and beware of Turkey's responsibility as a major power in the Middle East, for the stability thereof.

I do not echo such regret or disappointment. My perspective is much more historical or geostrategic. In this context, I draw readers' attention to the political longevity of Russian President Vladimir Putin. He has been the leader of Russia for 18 years, while Erdogan has led Turkey for 15 years.

There are intriguing similarities between the two men. Both have been winning consecutive democratic elections for more than a decade without facing powerful contenders. Despite numerous rumors about corruption or electoral manipulation, both showed Teflon properties in their campaigns.

What is more striking are the historical similarities between the two nations. Both Russia and Turkey were powerful empires through the 19th century. While both are geologically located on the peripheries of Western Europe, the two nations have been culturally and religiously different from the West as well as from each other.

Moreover, both Russia and Turkey have been traditionally yearning for the styles and systems of Western Europe. Peter the Great brought Russia into the European state system and the aristocrats in the Romanov dynasty spoke French until the 1917 Red October revolution, which ended its rule.

Similarly, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey, introduced a radical departure from the Ottoman Empire. For the first time in the history of the Middle East, he separated Islamic law from Western-style secular law, and the former became restricted only to matters of religion.

What is most surprising is that the Russians and the Turks both consider themselves as European, while, unfortunately, ordinary West Europeans do not always think so. I regard this as a result of their inferiority/superiority complex vis-a-vis the West, which both nations have long suffered.

I'll give one example. In 1998 I was director of the First Middle East Division at the Foreign Ministry. My office covered the western half of the Middle East region, including Turkey. One day the Turkish ambassador visited and kindly complained to me that Japan is the only Western nation that categorized Turkey as Middle Eastern.

He said the governments in North America and Europe unanimously treated Turkey as a European nation and Japan should follow suit. Deeply embarrassed, I gently told the Turkish ambassador, "You are right, and I will immediately see to it. In the meantime, however, please join the EU just in case."

Although their self-claimed identity is European, both Russia and Turkey have not been accepted by the European Union as part thereof. I assume this embarrassing reality is felt by Putin and Erdogan. Their longevity must be the result of their ambitious efforts to make their non-European nations as powerful as once they were.

That's why I headlined this article "The empires strike back." Putin and Erdogan are a democratically elected tsar and sultan who rule their modern empires under a free electoral system. They aren't like authoritarian emperors of the 19th century, but rather powerful nationalists who aim to make their motherlands survive threats from the West.

If Russia and Turkey are born-again democratic empires in the modern era, what about Japan? Isn't Japan also a former empire located on the periphery of the West? Will it one day become like Russia or Turkey again and depart from Western-style democracy and its universal values?

My answer is no, for the following reasons:

1. Distance from the West: Although culturally and politically close to the West, Japan is not located on the periphery of Western Europe. When the Western powers colonized parts of East Asia in the 19th century, Japan was luckily too distant to suffer that fate.

2. Less religious elements: Russia is Christian but part of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Turkey is Islamic and its tradition Middle Eastern in nature. Since Japan has neither Christian/Islamic traditions nor a deep-rooted complex vis-a-vis the West, it might have been easier for Japan to modernize itself in a Western European way.

3. Tradition of democracy: Most importantly, compared to Russia and Turkey's Japan's modernization process started earlier in the mid-19th century and was much more systematic and effective. Ironically, the Western systems and values were so alien that it was much easier for Japan to adopt them than for Russia or Turkey to do so.

As a result, fortunately, healthy democracy still exists in Japan. Although the ruling Liberal Democratic Party has been mostly in power for almost 60 years and 23 of 25 LDP presidents served as prime minister, their average tenure has been less than three years. The longest term is Prime Minister Eisaku Sato's 7 1/2 years in office from 1964-1972.

Out of those three former empires located on the peripheries of Western Europe, Russia became communist and then democratized but failed. Turkey was originally Islamic, then became a secular democracy and now is experiencing an atavism. Comparatively, Japan is much better off. Tokyo must thank this golden coincidence.