Can Countries Overcome Distrust by Affirming Rather than Downplaying National Identities?

Eun Bin Chung, University of Utah

A history of distrust and security fears can prevent neighboring countries such as South Korea, Japan, and China from cooperating in mutually useful ways. Considering whether legacies of conflict and distrust can be overcome, many researchers argue that this can only happen only through cultural convergence or a stress on overarching commonalities such as “Asian-ness.” From this perspective, the persistence of strong national identities will lead to a continuation of distrust and conflicts. But is this true? Are salient national identities really an impediment for international trust? My research suggests that international distrust grounded in prior conflicts is indeed difficult to overcome and is unlikely to recede simply when economic ties grow. But trust can be built among nations when each affirms its own distinctive identity.

Overcoming Historical Memories and Distrust in Asia

As shown by South Korea’s relationship to Japan, and Japan’s relationship to China, even growing regional economic interdependencies are not enough to overcome bitter memories grounded in earlier wars, invasions, and periods of colonial domination. Although efforts to ease distrust have been made, few have proven to be successful in Northeast Asia. In previous research scholars anticipated an improvement in relations though thick economic interdependence or increased societal contact. In economic terms, however, Japan and China already trade heavily: Japan has emerged as China’s largest trading partner and China as second largest to Japan. Societal contact is already intense, as millions of Chinese, Koreans and Japanese visit one another’s countries annually as students, tourists and on business trips. But these developments have not alleviated international distrust. National populations and leaders continue to distrust one another’s intentions. Fraught with chronic distrust originating from a troubled past, time and again the countries have experienced disruptions in institutional cooperation and aggravated security fears.

Noticing clashes of strong nationalisms around the world in areas like East Asia, numerous studies have suggested that more peaceful relations are likely only if countries submerge or paper over existing national identities by promoting universalism. But my work suggests that affirmation of strong national identities may be a more feasible and effective way to build international cooperation. If each national population reflects upon its own group values and understands their relationship to those of other nations, trust can increase.

For several reasons, simply downplaying national identities is unlikely to work. First, even with intensifying forces of globalization, most notably in places like East Asia, we have not seen a decline in national identities or nationalist tension. Secondly, national identities change only very slowly, because they are deeply engrained and affect citizens’ everyday lives. People cannot simply abandon identities tied to family and community or freely choose new ones. Finally, prodding people to attempt such shifts in values and identities would risk provoking resistance and intense nationalistic backlash. Mutual group-affirmation is a more viable and efficient way to boost trust among national citizenries.

Research Suggests a New Strategy

Using experimental methods, I have examined whether affirmation of national identity can increase trust among people from South Korea, Japan, and China. I find that people whose group identities are affirmed become more willing to trust foreign competitors in experimental game situations. My findings about individuals in experiments suggest possibilities for reducing regional tensions and improving international relations among South Korea, Japan, and China.

Obviously, in many cases of nationalistic or intrastate ethnic wars, strong group identities highlight boundaries and divide people into an “us” versus “the other.” But in a more peaceful context, it may be possible to use group identities as a way to encourage affirmation and coexistence among interacting peoples. Group identities such as nationalism can become building blocks for multicultural cooperation, where members of different cultures coexist while taking pride in their distinctive cultural traditions and practices.

For states in Northeast Asia, mutual affirmation may be more politically feasible than alternative approaches such as staging public apologies by one nation to another. Although it may seem morally just and satisfying to have leaders of a country make an apology to another country for inflicting harms in the past, national leaders may not want to lose face in front of their own domestic populations. In Northeast Asia, public apologies and demands for apologies have not succeeded in reducing long-standing tensions.

An example of the opposite approach – an affirmation strategy – happened in South Korea, when former South Korean President Kim Dae Jung discussed relations with North Korea. Kim tried to advance friendly relationships with the North, and undertook efforts that led to a first-time Inter-Korean summit meeting in Pyongyang in 2000. At the time, South Koreans opposed to friendly relations with the North were against Kim’s course. Trying to persuade such opposing forces, Kim frequently and openly evoked pride and greatness in Korean pop culture. He even “…predicted that if the North and South were [to be] unified it would be [due to] Korean pop culture.” Probably, Kim did not actually expect Korean pop culture to propel unification. Instead, he used this theme as an affirmation tool, to encourage all Koreans to take pleasure and pride in a shared national identity.

Affirming the national identities of all countries could be a more feasible and appealing approach for national leaders who wish to obtain the benefit of international cooperation with a past adversary but are hesitant to take actions objectionable to their own citizens. National sentiments remain vigorous in South Korea, China, and Japan, so leaders must take them into account as they build new international ties. This is especially true for leaders who must win elections in democracies. Consequently, when elites find economic, strategic, or geopolitical reasons to build new forms of cooperation among nations with histories of distrust, affirmation of national identities offers a better route forward than attempting to downplay longstanding group identities.
September 2016