Germany and Japan have not been known for military forays since 1945. Much of the world has liked it that way. So have many Germans and Japanese. But a new era is upon us. Germany and Japan are venturing out, to a degree. They are rethinking their military postures. After 70 years, this was perhaps inevitable. In any case, it is so.
The Germans are sending a battalion to the Baltic states — specifically, to Lithuania. Japan is sending troops to South Sudan under new rules of engagement: They may use force, not only to defend themselves but to defend others. More broadly, Germany and Japan must think about new or increased threats. They also must think about a new America, which is ready to drop or lighten burdens of long standing.
Not everyone was happy about the reunification of Germany. Prominent among the unhappy was Margaret Thatcher, who said, “We beat the Germans twice, and now they’re back.” Her fellow Briton, General Ismay, had made a famous remark. He was the first secretary-general of NATO. And he described the alliance’s purpose as “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.”
Eventually, many people decided that Germany had been down long enough. Radek Sikorski made a famous statement of his own, when he was foreign minister of Poland. The year was 2011 and he was speaking in Berlin: “I will probably be the first Polish foreign minister in history to say so, but here it is: I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity. You have become Europe’s indispensable nation.”
President Obama has made clear his distaste for “free-riders,” as he calls them: nations that ride freely on the back of the United States, without paying for their own defense. And this was a theme of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. In August, speaking to a rally in Florida, he said, “I don’t want to get rid of NATO — but you always have to be prepared to walk. It’s possible. Okay?”
In recent years, Germany has not been exactly a wallflower on the international scene. They are part of the Afghan coalition, of course: That war is a NATO operation, among other things. The United States invoked Article 5 (which says that an attack on one is an attack on all). Germany was not part of the Iraq coalition, though they trained Iraqis in countries outside Iraq (including in Germany itself). They have been in Africa — in Mali, for example, and they are planning to build an outpost in Niger. This is all with an eye to counterterrorism. And they have been arming and training Kurds in the fight against ISIS.
But it is Russia that has really concentrated the German mind. In 2014, Vladimir Putin’s state annexed the Crimea, and made war in the Donbass region of Ukraine. This was alarming in Berlin and throughout NATO, and it was particularly alarming in the Baltic states, the eastern flank of NATO. The alliance decided to send fresh battalions to those states: Britons to Estonia, Canadians to Latvia, and Germans to Lithuania.
The Lithuanian president, Dalia Grybauskaite, made an exuberant statement. “I think we are at a historic turning-point,” she said. “First, a lot of time has passed, and a breakthrough is occurring in the German mindset: Time for self-doubt, fear, reluctance to take responsibility, and dread of what Putin might think is over.”
Lithuania aside, Germany is embarked on a large expansion of its military. In October, the chancellor, Angela Merkel, explained, “In the 21st century, we won’t be getting as much help as we got in the 20th.” She continued, “We have to spend more for our external security. The conflicts of this world are currently on Europe’s doorstep, massively so.”
In saying this, she was surely thinking of Middle Eastern and African migration, as well as Russia.
Constanze Stelzenmüller is an expert on Germany and Europe at the Brookings Institution. And she notes a dog not barking: a lack of protest within Germany over the government’s new direction. (There is a lack of protest in Europe at large, too.) Yes, there is some dissatisfaction from certain quarters, but mainly there is agreement. This is in amazing contrast, Stelzenmüller says, with the huge protests that took place over the installation of U.S. missiles in the early 1980s. At the time, she was in Bonn, the West German capital, studying law. She could barely get to class for the crowds.
Visiting Lithuania in September, the German defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen, made a declaration: “It’s time to move forward to a European defense union.” She said that such a union would complement and strengthen NATO. Plus, it is “what the Americans expect us to do.” A few months earlier, President Grybauskaite had made a telling statement: “With Britain withdrawing from the European Union, but remaining a NATO member, responsibility for stability in Europe will increasingly fall on the shoulders of Germany — not only for economic stability, but also for security.”
In Germany, the idea of Europe is fundamental. “The Russians are meddling with the European project,” says Stelzenmüller, “which is the foundation of German prosperity, stability, and peace. It is the be-all, end-all of German power.”
I think of Willy Brandt, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1971. He was the West German chancellor, and he won the prize for his rapprochement with countries to his east. Here is a passage from his Nobel lecture, given in Oslo:
I say here what I say in Germany: A good German cannot be a nationalist. A good German knows that he cannot refuse a European calling. Through Europe, Germany returns to itself and to the constructive forces of its history. Our Europe, born of the experience of suffering and failure, is the imperative mission of reason.
Constanze Stelzenmüller says, “There is a general sense that there’s a tsunami heading Europe’s way.” This question of military power — of doing the necessary, militarily — “is about values, interests, and the integrity of Europe. And it’s about Germany and our future, damn it.”
A Japanese politician won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1974. (To be most accurate, he shared it with an Irish politician, Seán MacBride.) That was Eisaku Sato, who had been prime minister from 1964 to 1972. In giving him the prize, the Norwegian committee was essentially honoring the peaceful nature of modern Japan.
Lecturing in Oslo, Sato pointed out that “the philosophy of the Kellogg-Briand Pact” is enshrined in the Japanese constitution. This treaty of 1928 — still in effect, believe it or not — outlaws war as a means of settling disputes. Japan signed in 1928. It was the first to break the pact, in 1931. Needless to say, it would be far from the last.
Japan’s constitution took effect in 1947, imposed on the country by the victorious Americans. The most famous part of the constitution is Article 9. Sato quoted from it in his lecture, and so will I: “Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or the use of force as means of settling international disputes.” Forever is a long time.
Article 9 goes on to say that “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.” Never.
For all this time, the United States has been the guarantor of Japan’s defense. Japan does not lack money: It is the world’s third-largest economy. (Germany is the fourth.) But the Kellogg-Briand philosophy has held sway — and so has the constitution. Japan has participated in American-led wars by donating money: many billions of dollars. Japan actually contributed troops to the Iraq War, but not in combat roles.
In the last 25 years, Japanese have been blue helmets. That is, they have taken part in the peacekeeping operations of the United Nations. The first was in 1992, in Cambodia. Since 2012, the Japanese have been in South Sudan, the world’s newest nation — but not so new that it isn’t rocked by civil war. Indeed, South Sudan is a hell on earth.
Among the victims have been U.N. peacekeepers and foreign-aid workers. They have been raped and murdered. In this context, recent Japanese legislation is interesting.
In 2014, the government approved a “reinterpretation” of the constitution, permitting Japanese forces to come to the aid of allies under attack. In 2015, this reinterpretation was made law, in a couple of wild sessions. The floor of the Japanese parliament, the National Diet, was the scene of mêlées. Legislators confronted one another physically over this departure from tradition. But the government’s view prevailed.
And Japan has now sent troops back to South Sudan under new rules: The troops may defend themselves, fellow peacekeepers, other international personnel, and civilians. What they may not do is engage an army — an official army. This is a problem in that South Sudanese troops have attacked international personnel (among others). What are the Japanese troops supposed to do in such an eventuality?
Troops in South Sudan are of considerable interest to the Japanese public, but South Sudan is small beer compared with threats from neighbors: North Korea and China in particular. Kim Jong-un is shaking his nuclear rattle. And how long can the Japanese depend on their American patron?
Campaigning in March, Donald Trump said, “Japan is better if it protects itself against this maniac of North Korea.” Campaigning in August, he said, “Do you know that if Japan is attacked, we have to get involved probably with World War III, right? If we’re attacked, Japan doesn’t have to do nothing. They can sit home and watch Sony television. Right? It’s true.”
After Trump was elected president, the Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, was very eager to meet with him. In fact, Abe became the first foreign leader to meet with the president-elect. Afterward, he said that the two had had a “very candid discussion.”
Abe has long called for Japan to become a “normal,” or more normal, country — a country that can defend itself, for example. Germany is well on the way to normality. These two countries have been on the sidelines, for understandable reasons. But what did Grybauskaite, the Lithuanian president, say? “A lot of time has passed.” A lot of time has passed between 1945 and today. Historically, it has been the blink of an eye. But to many people, here and now, it’s feeling long enough.