Worries about the Recent Military Announcements of Germany and Japan

Raffaele Marchetti, Professor of International Relations, LUISS University, Italy, specially for wpfdc.org

In the recent months both Germany and Japan announced the intention to reinvigorate their military performances. Given their past record and their prolonged disengagement from military operations, the announcements were received with apprehensive surprise.

Last December Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe approved a new national security strategy, National Defense Program Guidelines and Mid-Term Defense Program. These documents envisage a rewriting of the government’s long standing pacifist interpretation of the Constitution to lift Japan’s self-imposed ban on exercising the right of collective self-defense. Abe asked “Can Japan accomplish the continued existence of the nation only through the exercise of the right of individual self-defense?” Such a reinterpretation would, among other things, allow Japanese Self Defense Forces to participate in multinational forces within collective self-defense.

More or less in the same vein, German President Joachim Gauck, speaking just few days ago at the Munich Security Conference said that the past was an excuse for ducking international duties and that Germany should step out “earlier, more decisively and more substantially” on the world stage. After him, Germany’s defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen, reinforced the message by stating that “Indifference is not an option for Germany.” Later on, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier added, “Germany is really too big to just comment from the sidelines.”

In both cases, a more active participation to multilateral military operations would entail a profound revision of the post WWII provisions according to which the two countries accepted de facto to renounce to exercise their military power. And more importantly, it would entail lifting the restrictions on the size and capabilities of their armed force: It would pave the way for a full-scale rearmament of the countries.

There is no certainty about the actual implementation and the specific timing of such plans. And yet, the mere fact of suggesting them highlights significant elements to be taken into consideration.

To understand the motivations of such crucial moves for the world order, we need to investigate the reasons underpinning these changes of direction, which have to do with both regional and global considerations.

On the global side, different considerations need to be recalled.

From a global point of view, we need to acknowledge that the international system is anomalous. The third and fourth world economies of the world are militarily insignificant. We are all well aware of the historical reasons that generated such condition, and yet a scenario like that has perhaps never occurred in history.

It is also interesting to note, en passant, that the German announcement has been made exactly in the centennial anniversary of the First World War, which marked to begin of the German challenge to the British hegemony and the bid for international leadership. Such attempt failed dramatically and led to the forced “disarm” of Germany.

Both Germany and Japan are also close allies of the USA. While this positioning in the world chessboard allows them to be relatively unconstrained in their rearming provided it is not intended against the US, it is also evident that their decision to do so has to do with their relation with their big brother. Their degree of trust on the American (big) brother has sharply deteriorated. On the one hand, the US is seen by many as a declining power, hence less and less able to provide a long term security shield to their allies. On the other hand, the US has also been seen as unreliable in terms of reciprocal transparency.

In a multipolarizing world, in the long term we can expect more reliance on military power. Plus, we cannot forget that Japan and Germany repeatedly tried hard to increase their diplomatic status. The last time was in 2005 with their bid for a permanent seat at the UN Security Council. They failed for a number of reasons which are also related to regional rivalry. And today, they are perhaps trying a different, more muscular path to have a public recognition of their status.

Connected to the global reasons, there are also more local motivations that underpin the German and Japanese takes.

In Germany the shock for the NSA scandal and the tapping of Merkel’s communications was acute. But equally important are the Syrian and Ukrainian crises. More generally, German political elites are reconsidering its role with the European space.

In Japan, the increasing tension with China on the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, the continuous and unpredictable threat from North Korea, and more generally the fast regional transformation are often perceived as sources of potentially dangerous instability. Abe’s openly speaks in existential threats about Japan’s survival.

All in all, these changes are indeed very worrying.

From a liberal perspective, these changes contribute to erode the system of collective security, despite the fact that they are presented precisely as an attempt to contribute more positively to international missions. The increased perception of the need of a more robust national military capabilities is in fact proportional to the decreased trust in multilateral avenues to accommodate conflicts.

From a more realist perspective, their re-armament would most likely add to the balancing of power. Japan would balance more China, Germany would balance more USA, France/UK and Russia. It is clear however that any act of balancing might easily generate regional escalation in the form of the well-known security dilemma.

Whatever perspective we adopt, the recent announcements from Germany and Japan generate a sense of uneasiness, a disturbing perception about the wrong direction of history. While many are trying to build a process of disarmament (consider for instance the strenuous attempt to strike a deal with Iran on the nuclear issue), it is frustrating that yet once again the military path is considered so crucial for the future of major countries that were once considered examples of (sic) civilian power [I].

[I] See Maull, H. W. (1990) ‘Germany and Japan. The New Civilian Powers’, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 69, No. 5., pp. 91-106.