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An Overdue Military Maturation By America's Allies

Two recent policy developments concerning former enemies-turned-allies have prompted ironic reactions among some U.S. politicians and pundits.

On Tuesday, the Associated Press reported that a Japanese government panel headed by a former ambassador to the U.S. is preparing to recommend fundamental alterations of Japan's war-renouncing constitution.

Imposed by the U.S. after World War II, but still supported by a majority of the Japanese people, for whom memories of the war's devastation remain vivid, its constitution requires Japan "forever [to] renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation," and prohibits maintenance of "land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential."

The latter prohibition since has been relaxed. But while today enjoying modern ground, air, and naval forces, Japan's military continues formally to be designated a Self-Defense Force, and legally remains debarred from participation in extraterritorial combat operations. As a result, Japan's contribution to the collective security enterprise has until recently been limited largely to financial support, producing humiliating accusations of "checkbook diplomacy."

What has changed the picture is China's new military assertiveness in the western Pacific, and in particular the East China Sea, where competing Japanese and Chinese claims of sovereignty collide. In response, Japan is seeking to expand its defense ties beyond its alliance with the U.S. to other nations with interests in the region, including Britain and Australia.

But the quid pro quo is Japan's willingness in the future to participate actively in coalition, especially maritime, military operations. Hence the panel's proposal to revise the constitution, initially by creative reinterpretation, but eventually by actual amendment.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, a similar evolution may be in progress. Last Friday, at Germany's widely attended and watched Munich Security Conference, German President Joachim Gauck acknowledged that Germany no longer can use its unhappy military past to evade international security obligations, but instead must act "earlier, more decisively and more substantially." 

"When the ultimate case is discussed deployment of the German military he reportedly declared, "Germany should neither answer 'no' out of principle nor give an automatic 'yes.'" 

His views were echoed by Germany's foreign and defense ministers, and while Chancellor Angela Merkel has yet to weigh in herself, knowledgeable Germany-watchers consider it unlikely that her colleagues would get very far out in front of her.

As is the case with Japan, such a policy change would represent a significant alteration of German views regarding the use of military force, which until now have sharply limited German engagement in out-of-area security operations. And as with Japan, the change would not be universally popular.

Here in the U.S., some hawkish observers bemoan both developments as proof of America's "retreat from global leadership" under the malign influence of Obama administration foreign policies. That Germany and Japan now seem willing to contemplate a level of military engagement that both have resisted for so long testifies, according to this argument, to their diminished confidence in the willingness and/or ability of the U.S. to employ its military power to enforce international civility. 

Syria is the usual case in point, but withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan also comes in for a fair share of blame, even though both commitments long ago outlived any convincing strategic rationale. That in any case, at a time when defense budgets are contracting rather than expanding, both drawdowns were effectively prerequisite to any serious strategic redeployment seems to have escaped even the fiscal conservatives among the administration's critics.

Indeed, in Germany, any strategic disillusion has less to do with America's supposed "retreat" than with what many Germans perceive as American over- zealousness, a perception not improved by Edward Snowden's recent revelations of NSA activities.

 As a recent New York Times article reported, "The idea that Germany's greatest ally would spy on its most eager pupil has shaken the elite into actionÖconvincing Germany that it needs to set its own, more robust foreign policy."

The reality is that, with respect to both Germany and Japan, it's long past time for two nations whose governments have more than sufficiently confirmed their commitment to rule of law to assume security responsibilities consistent with their economic power. 

The irony is that many of the voices that today seem readiest to decry our allies' newfound assertiveness as evidence of U.S. strategic weakness are the same ones that have spent a good part of the past half-century demanding that those allies assume a larger share of the security burden.

The lesson for those burden-sharing drumbeaters, presumably, is to be careful what you wish for. For the rest of us, the lesson is much simpler: It's about time.

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