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East/West: Analysis From Washington -- The End Of The Post-WW II Era

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 26 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Two events this month -- one in Europe and one in Asia -- mark the end of the post-World War II settlement.

Taken together, they set the stage for a radical transformation of the international security system, one likely to decrease predictability and hence increase instability.

Last week, German Chancellor Gerhard Shroeder declared that Berlin would oppose any use of NATO ground forces in Kosovo and would not allow German soldiers to participate in such a force. And then on Monday, the upper house of the Japanese parliament ratified a new defense agreement with the United States that calls for Tokyo to use its military beyond the home islands in the event of a crisis.

On the one hand, both these developments reflect a reaffirmation of the post-World War II arrangements set up to restrain both Germany and Japan from any repetition of their militaristic pasts and to integrate the two former Axis powers into broader and U.S.-led security arrangements.

Shroeder spoke within the context of NATO rather than against the alliance, and the newly ratified U.S.-Japanese accord calls for expanded cooperation between Tokyo and Washington. But on the other -- and perhaps the more important -- these actions by Berlin and Tokyo represent an implicit repudiation of arrangements designed to restrict their freedom of action.

The immediate consequences of these steps may be small: Germany is likely to continue to cooperate with NATO on Kosovo despite Shroeder's declaration. And Japan is unlikely to use its force outside the home islands except in extraordinary circumstances and in close consultation with the United States.

But over the longer term, these departures from past practice seem likely to have three more serious consequences. First, both Germany and Japan will find it easier to disagree with the United States in the future now that they have taken positions that many in Washington may not welcome. Having staked out more independent positions on small things, at least some in both countries may try to do more.

Second, the new German and Japanese actions are likely to lead other countries in the Western alliance to take a more independent line on various questions. And that in turn will further weaken several alliances already under strain. Indeed, these other countries may even feel compelled to do so to demonstrate their independence and thus national dignity.

And third, both the actions by Germany and Japan and the probability that other countries may follow them appears likely to reduce the influence of the United States as the single surviving super power. And by thus decreasing the predictability of the international system, that development may make it more unstable as well.

As ever more countries act independently of traditional alliances, the ability of those alliances and their leaders to maintain order and to counter challenges will be reduced. Not only will these alliances find it more difficult to maintain cohesion but opponents of any of them will seek to exploit these differences in order to preclude an early or decisive response.

That Germany and Japan should want to play a more assertive and international role is not surprising. After all, the Federal Republic of Germany this week marked its 50th anniversary as a state, and for most of that time, Germany has followed rather than led in international affairs. Now that Germany's capital is again Berlin and that Germany has a post-war leader, it is clearly interested in staking out a larger position.

And many Japanese leaders have suggested that Tokyo too must play a larger role in Asia, sometimes in concert with the U.S. and sometimes on its own. Such attitudes are likely to intensify if the Japanese conclude that China is going to be increasingly assertive and the U.S. is increasingly going to rely on Tokyo for the defense of the Pacific rim.

But even if their new assertiveness is understandable, it will complicate the lives of decision-makers in a variety of other states, including both current allies and future foes.