Reconnecting with the past

PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 August, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 15 August, 2005, 12:00am

As the Asia-Pacific region marks the 60th anniversary of the end of the second world war today, and after what seemed to be a one-way detour following September 11, 2001, the 'End of History' is back on the agenda.

When Francis Fukuyama proclaimed in his controversial 1989 article that the cold war's end had shut down - decisively in favour of liberal democracy - the long and bloody debate over which model was best suited to meet human aspirations, many critics dismissed such universalism as western arrogance. Terrorism reinforced the idea that democracy was not for everyone.

But recent trends in the Middle East are encouraging. Aside from Iraq's elections in January, Egypt's first multi-candidate presidential poll is scheduled for next month, while the Palestinians and Saudis have both conducted municipal elections to varying degrees this year.

After September 11, the End of History theory came under more heavy criticism. Crucially, much of the scepticism was due to the loss of a sense of the past, or a connection with it - and, consequently, the failure to see that the triumph of liberal democracy, which had yet to find concrete form in many countries, is part of a long historical process which continues to unfold. For most of the past 60 years, the second world war served as the pivotal reference for world affairs and intellectual debate. As the basis of the modern order, it signified democracy's triumph over fascism and the start of its confrontation with communism. Professor Fukuyama's theory, as such, involves a long view of the clash of ideas. In other words, it requires an understanding of history.

But the seismic extent of the changes following the fall of the Berlin Wall, the spread of democratic benchmarks, and an unrelenting technological revolution meant that the past was abruptly exorcised from the present. During the 1990s, the past, including the second world war, lost all relevance. Those benchmark events, which showed why democracies work and dictatorships did not, suddenly disappeared as reference points. The 60th anniversary of the end of the second world war serves as an opportunity to recover a more historical view of the present, and to recognise that the entrenchment of democratic values can be time-consuming and requires much effort.

Two other anniversaries should help cement the relevance of Professor Fukuyama's thesis; it is 30 years since the death of Spanish leader Francisco Franco and the end of the Vietnam war.

Since the collapse of 36 years of fascist rule in 1975, Spain has evolved into a modern, democratic European state, while the effect of Vietnam's steadfast commitment to Leninism speaks for itself.

In Asia, a further imperative requires the reclamation of the second world war and a reconnection with the past. China's demand for more apologies from Japan for atrocities committed during its brutal invasion has become - by default and by all appearances - the only historical theme of consequence in Asia.

Consequently, another key subtext has been missed: that post-war, imperialist Japan was transformed into a democracy and a responsible member of the international community, along with other Asian countries.

Shortly after September 11, Professor Fukuyama, writing in The Wall Street Journal, described modernity as 'a very powerful freight train that will not be derailed by recent events, however painful'.

The metaphor might seem blunt, but if, as Marxists like to claim, history is progressive, then recent events would suggest we are heading in the right direction.

Barry Hing is a Sydney-based writer