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The post-Axis powers

January 6, 2013

With veterans and survivors of World War II rapidly fading from positions of national prominence, the effects of its historical memory with it are undergoing retreat and redefinition. Because the material facts and relations of that post-war system re-configuring themselves, it is unsurprising we should see that the former Axis powers, their roles long constrained and restrained by war’s legacy for conditions foreign and domestic, rethinking their place in the international system.

In Japan, the victory of Shinzo Abe and fears of rising nationalism, alongside escalating tensions over maritime rights and territorial sovereignty in the East and South China Seas, portends darkly. While Japan’s pacifism held much greater political sway than Germany’s, so too has its nationalism never been so repressed or deprived of legitimacy. Of course, in Europe, German re-armament was not simply an American gambit to offload security, but part of a broader European project to pacify and unite the continent. While the U.S. mulled reintegrating Japan fully into the Asian security architecture, the revulsion this aroused in its other Asian allies had no counterbalancing vision of continental unity. Indeed, in a continent where World War II caught nationalism as its rise was beginning and in a great many areas accelerated its political consequences, such a vision was not just impolitic but ideologically at odds with the prevailing forces in the region (and it is likely cliche at this point to note how different the EU’s approach to sovereignty and national identity is from ASEAN’s).

Despite potential common concerns about China and North Korea, that South Korea reacts so negatively to Japanese nationalism and increasing military operation is hardly surprising. Nevertheless, it’s notable that South Korea, one of the most rapidly transforming countries on earth, might be so concerned about a country whose economy has gone from a disappointment to disaster metaphorical and literal, so unable to keep pace with regional developments its expanding coast guard consists of retirees manning vessels taken out of mothballs.

Germany, on the other hand, remains on the economic ascent, or at least it is faring vastly better than the rest of its region. But nationalism in Germany has always been a much more controversial and taboo issue domestically. While U.S. rhetoric in Asia still speaks of an increasing U.S. role, demanding that Europe pull more of its military weight is now a bipartisan talking point in U.S. defense and even mainstream political circles. It can be so vocally because there is little danger of dangerous security competition between Western and Central European states. Germany may be exerting itself more militarily, but to what degree Germany’s change in attitude can compensate for strained U.S. forces remains unclear. If the only military context it is politically acceptable and strategically feasible for Germany to operate in is as an auxiliary force to allies with greater expeditionary capabilities, how useful is this model for securing Germany’s national interests, and how much welcome ought the proselytizers of burden sharing in the United States ought to afford it? Germany has of course played a strong role in Afghanistan, but its appetite even for the revived fad of “light footprint” intervention remains questionable. When Germany abstained from voting in favor of UNSCR 1973, it became a matter of extreme controversy when Germans on NATO staffs in Italy simply continued doing their jobs in the context of military operations in Libya. Germany consistently attempts to put the breaks on intervention in Syria.

None of this is a criticism of Germany. It is of course pursuing its own best interests by opposing further collective military intervention in the Mediterranean, but NATO itself and most of the countries in it would similarly benefit from avoiding joining Syria’s civil war. Nevertheless, both German intransigence in the face of regional pressure to step up and Japanese efforts to expand their military role in the face of continued wariness from would-be allies demonstrates some unfortunate realities about efforts to turn two regional powers with ugly pasts into legitimate military players. Of course, this is changing, and we should expect to see it change further as China’s relative power increases.

The much more fundamental issue with transferring more security duties to the Axis powers is that the sources of their historical strength came from taking advantage of the policies the U.S. and other allies crafted to keep them docile. The old Yoshida Doctrine helped give Japan its miraculous economic recovery and channel impulses for national improvement into pacific ends. For all the hand-wringing about Japanese nationalism, at a time when Japan should be focusing on its economy should we really be surprised that nationalist justifications will need to play a stronger role for military expansion?

As for Germany, with any local threats receding, is it surprising that a collective security system that encourages wasteful expenditures and adventures will fail to capture the hearts and minds of the broader German population? Part of the paradox of offloading security to the former Axis powers is that promoting their economic growth and assuaging neighborly fears required creating precisely the kind of stable security environment which would discourage them from taking the kinds of security roles the U.S. now wants them to in the first place.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. January 6, 2013 11:22 pm

    Great post! By the way, congrats on your recent appearence on Blogging Heads.

  2. January 8, 2013 5:04 pm

    Re the conclusion of the post: how does a “stable security environment” in E. Asia discourage Japan from taking on a larger security role?

    • January 8, 2013 11:44 pm

      Sorry, I should be more clear. That was the prerequisite condition, which still disincentivizes Germany. It also used to function in Asia, but, as I noted in the above post, it’s starting to change. The problem is the same forces eroding that system in Asia also make Japan a less useful partner – its economy is weak, its population is aging, and some rising states and rising nationalisms still reject a Japanese role. In other words, the ideal time for Japan to take on a security role was in the past when it had more wealth and its enemies had less relative power – in other words, at a time when Japan had the little cause to undertake such an action.

      • January 9, 2013 2:40 pm

        Thanks, that clarifies it.
        The degree of stability in E. Asia is an interesting question. The security environment does look less stable now as you note in the post (tensions in S. and E. China Seas), but I wonder how much that is a transitory thing that will sort itself out vs. how much reflective of ‘deeper’ potential conflicts. There is the nationaIism factor, of course. Anyway I don’t follow the region or the literature enough (or even Taylor Fravel’s blog) to have something close to a knowledgeable opinion. But I will, time permitting, look at the Atlantic piece you link in the post.

  3. January 8, 2013 10:44 pm

    Great read. I’m with LFC though on the point about Japan. The Japanese seem to be moving in a more proactive direction, but as you point out it is the surrounding countries putting on the breaks. Also, live the point about nationalism in The European context versus the post-colonial context of E and SE Asia.

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