Seventy years ago, Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan were totally defeated nations and under military occupation by the U.S. and its wartime allies. Today, Germany and Japan are among the world's top economic powers, and they exert major political influence in Europe and East Asia.
Americans can be pleased with the results of our major economic assistance to West Germany and Japan after the war and our record in building democratic institutions in both countries. Germany today is a leading member of the European Union and NATO. Japan has strong economic and defense ties with the U.S.
But that's where the similarities end.
Unlike Japan, occupied solely by U.S. troops in 1945, Germany was divided into four zones administered by Soviet, British, French and US forces. When the Cold War began in 1948, the western allies unified their zones and persuaded Germany's leaders to agree on a democratic constitution and to elect a new government. The occupation ended in 1949, but the Bonn government concluded defense agreements that enabled allied forces to remain in West Germany.
Japan received a new constitution, written by American officials, in 1947 but waited for full sovereignty until 1952. War in Korea persuaded Washington that it needed Japan as an ally, not a vassal, and its new leaders agreed to a defense agreement that authorized major U.S. forces to remain.
In foreign policy, Germany and Japan adopted different paths.
Germany and France, which fought three costly wars in seventy years, agreed to a peaceful course after 1945. In 1950 they merged their heavy industries and became leaders in organizing the European Common Market and the current European Union. Bonn's government also made amends with its West European neighbors and accepted responsibility for Nazi war crimes. Bonn also made large reparations payments to Israel for victims of the Holocaust.
Japan, however, did little to make amends for its wartime atrocities in Korea, China, the Philippines, and Vietnam. Those memories inhibit good relations with Tokyo, despite the Japanese leaders' statements of remorse. The contrast with Germany on ties with neighbors remains significant.
It's relations with their aggressive regional powers, Russia and China, that marks a significant divergence in Germany's and Japan's foreign policies.
Although Germany and other EU members imposed tough economic sanctions on Russia in response to Vladimir Putin's annexation of Crimea and subversion of eastern Ukraine, Chancellor Angela Merkel remains cautious about applying stronger measures. She prefers diplomacy and political pressure to persuade Putin to curb his ambitions. She has no plans to expand Germany's defense budget or armed forces.
Japan, however, has expanded its defense budget and adopted a new policy of extending Japan's security zone to counter China's aggressive moves into waters off southern Japan and the South China Sea. This is a strategic international waterway that Peking claims is part of its sovereign territory, an assertion disputed by all neighboring countries.
Last month, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pushed through parliament a constitutional amendment permitting Japan to conduct military operations in support of peace and security in East Asia and the Indian Ocean. It permits Japan to join the US Navy in contesting China's claims over international waterways in the South China Sea.
These developments in Europe and Asia reflect Barack Obama's efforts to refocus America's strategic priorities on East Asia and the Pacific, while relying on the European Union, principally Germany, to pursue policies that block Putin's ambitions in Eastern Europe, especially Ukraine.
Does the shift in U.S. priorities make strategic sense? The answer is yes, if you assume that America no longer has the financial resources to sustain the world-wide peace enforcing role it pursued for sixty years. And no, if you assume that the current U.S. leadership lacks to will to assert America's leadership. This issue should be in the forefront of our coming presidential debates.
File last modified on Thursday, 8-OCT-2015 9:41 PM EST