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Japan, Germany Need Something to Do

<i> Robert E. Hunter is the director of European studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. </i>

A quarter of a century ago, former Secretary of State Dean Acheson said that Britain had “lost an empire but not yet found a role.” Today, the same can be said with more urgency and importance about West Germany and Japan, America’s enemies in World War II and now chief economic rivals. And with both long past empire but lacking direction for the future, the United States bears major responsibility for nurturing new roles in the outside world.

Yet mis-alignment between power and purpose in these two key U.S. allies can be seen in incidents that have marked their relations with the young Bush Administration. With Japan, the United States is mulling whether to transfer advanced technology so that Tokyo can built its own fighter aircraft instead of buying the equally capable F-16 off the shelf from its U.S. manufacturer. American critics of the deal argue that Japan will use the technology and experience to steal U.S. markets in commercial aviation during the 1990s. Thus there are the makings of yet another trade dispute with America’s major ally in the Pacific.

In West Germany, meanwhile, Chancellor Helmut Kohl has said “no thanks” to the U.S. request that he decide by the end of May to accept deployment in the next decade of a replacement for the nuclear-armed Lance missile, 88 of which are now in Western Europe. Politically, the chancellor cannot now make such a commitment, not in the face of the peace diplomacy being waged by Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev or of next year’s West German elections. Thus there are the makings of yet another crisis within the Atlantic Alliance over nuclear weapons.

In both cases, disputes that reflect growing pains in America’s principal alliances also relate to Washington’s efforts to redistribute the burdens of meeting common security responsibilities.

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In the Pacific, these efforts have focused on pressing Japan to increase its defense spending, and Tokyo has responded by breaking the politically significant barrier of 1% of gross national product. But as Japan has cautiously and reluctantly transformed economic strength into military power--with a defense budget now sixth largest in the world--its neighbors have become increasingly uneasy. East Asian states subjected to Japanese aggression two generations ago look askance at any new military role. China, in particular, has been engaging Japan in debate over the historic question of responsibility for starting World War II--a debate that is more about the future than the past.

In recent years, Japan has also increased its commitment to foreign aid, thus contributing to regional security in the broadest sense, and has become the world’s leading donor nation. But much of this aid is tied to purchases in Japan, much is designed for market-promotion, and--along with other economic activities--it is radically increasing Japanese leverage in the global economy. Tokyo is thus extending its reach, but with no long-range political concept to guide it or to reassure its neighbors.

West Germany, meanwhile, is increasingly betwixt and between. Unlike Japan, its future military role is comfortably constrained by the presence of foreign troops and the rigors of East-West confrontation. Not so in politics. Indeed, Bonn is developing its links in two directions that may not prove compatible. As the magic year 1992 approaches, the federal republic is increasingly interwoven economically--and hence politically--with its European Community partners, where it is clearly first among equals.

At the same time, West Germany is also pursuing an updated version of its old Deutschlandpolitik (toward East Germany) and Ostpolitik (toward the rest of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union). West German banks and industry are in the forefront of economic relations with the East, potentially playing a critical role in the local brand of perestroika , especially in Poland and Hungary. Thus while the federal republic can be counted a loyal Western ally, there is no doubt that historical associations with Mittel-europa increasingly exert a strong pull.

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Regarding both Japan and West Germany, actions that promote anxiety elsewhere can be summarized as the need to find something useful to do. For nearly four decades, both have benefited from the special care lavished on defeated Axis powers. Both have indulged in being what Daniel Hamilton of the Aspen Institute calls “export machines.” In West Germany’s case, this practice was made particularly clear when it reacted with surprise to U.S. consternation over its role in developing Libya’s chemical warfare industry.

What is lacking in both cases is a developed sense of responsibility for issues larger than themselves and their immediate domestic concerns. Neither West Germany nor Japan, for example, shares the longstanding American belief in the need to behave responsibly in managing the global economy--a belief honored even when U.S. actions fall short. And neither the German mark nor the Japanese yen yet play formal roles as reserve currencies, which would require greater domestic economic discipline and political leadership than either Bonn or Tokyo has been prepared to assume.

Yet this is an area where they could begin to develop political roles that would assume a global dimension--roles that would also help to diminish the importance of squabbles within the Western alliances. Of course, the United States might not like to share authority for setting the course of common Western policies as well as the responsibility for carrying them out. It will have to become more, not less, deeply engaged with these allies, not least in helping to manage the details of complex East-West relations.

The facts of global economic life provide little option, however. The question is whether U.S. leaders will have the wisdom to complete critical work of the postwar world: bringing West Germany and Japan fully into global politics, sharing responsibilities demanded by their inherent power.

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