Japan and Germany: Breaking Out

April 27, 1991

The gulf conflict has given Japan and Germany a chance to break out of their post-World War II inhibitions against even the most remote and indirect involvement of their military forces overseas.

During the U.S.-led arms buildup and attack on Iraq, governments in Bonn and Tokyo were paralyzed, this despite a realization that a more active contribution to the coalition war effort would increase their clout in world affairs. Now that a cease fire prevails in the Persian Gulf, Japan and Germany evidently feel free to set mild interventionist precedents of potential future importance.

Japan is sending a minesweeper flotilla to the gulf. This is the first overseas use of Japanese forces since defeat in 1945 led to a U.S.-imposed constitution restricting the Japanese military to defense of the home islands. Germany, for its part, is sending 300 soldiers to Iran to build a camp for Kurdish refugees. This is the first time German forces have been deployed outside the NATO area since World War II, again because of limitations included in a U.S.-inspired constitution.

For the governments of Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu, these modest and belated steps represent sensitive initiatives. Both face opposition groups fiercely attached to low-profile foreign policies that have enabled their countries to use their resources to become economic superpowers. Both leaders were embarrassed by criticism from allies for their failure after Iraq's seizure of Kuwait to do anything to protect oil supplies vital to their well-being.

Germany, by way of compensation, has been in the forefront of European efforts to help Iran handle a tidal wave of Kurdish refugees fleeing Saddam Hussein. It has thus filled a vacuum caused by Washington's refusal to give any meaningful assistance to the Tehran regime because of animosities lingering from the Khomeini era. Japan's dispatch of a minesweeping flotilla followed by five months Mr. Kaifu's failure to gain parliamentary approval to send non-combatant forces to the gulf. A volunteer medical plan also fizzled.

These moves by the defeated World War II axis partners could set the stage for later bids for international influence. Some German leaders have suggested that veto powers in the U.N. Security Council held by Britain and France should become a prerogative of the European Community, where Germany has the greatest economic weight. It could be only a matter of time before Japan seeks the veto-wielding status China already possesses.

This strikes us as a realistic objective, provided Germany and Japan take on some of the burdens associated with world leadership. So far, they have indulged in very profitable passivity.

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