Angsty Allies

"We're afraid of losing America to Japan," a German parliamentarian tells me. When pressed, he reveals that this is a common concern, in his opinion, among European foreign policy officials watching Washington's struggle to manage global crises and commitments. Europe and the EU, in this Bundestag member's opinion, lack global influence due to a shrinking capability to play a significant security role abroad. Thus, America increasingly discounts Europe's role and turns to other states that can bear more of the global security burden.

Japan experts are not used to hearing anyone claim that Tokyo is a more significant global actor than, say Britain or even Germany itself, which will soon have 5,000 soldiers in Afghanistan. My interlocutor in Berlin, however, is looking at the long-term effect of declining defense budgets, popular opposition to the war in Afghanistan, and disturbing trends such as the likely end to German conscription, which will make it even more difficult for Berlin to uphold its current security roles.

Perhaps even more intriguing, this parliamentarian is from one of Germany's left parties, but fears his country's global influence shrinking, along with that of the EU, and expects the resulting abandonment by America. Comparing his country further with Japan, he argues that Tokyo is waking up to the threat of North Korea, while Germany refuses to recognize the threat Iran poses.

U.S. allies either remain happy to have Americans carry the global burden or are increasingly unwilling even to recognize the ineffectiveness of multilateral, international approaches to solving security threats and global problems.

Such are the anxieties of American allies in Europe and Asia. Visitors to Tokyo hear almost exactly the same worries for exactly the same reasons. Japan's defense budget has been decreasing for more than a decade, dropping more than $1 billion between 2006 and 2010, to approximately $46.8 billion. Moreover, the expanded global activities Tokyo undertook from 2003 to 2009 by sending Self-Defense Forces to Iraq, Afghanistan and the Indian Ocean have all ended.

In lieu of being seen as one of Washington's most stalwart allies, Tokyo is trying to recover from a lost year of wrangling over the terms of relocating U.S. Marine bases in Japan. Both Europe and Japan are increasingly aging societies, facing future shortfalls of youth eligible for military service. Japan and Germany also share a deep-rooted pacifism deriving from their aggression in World War II, that continue to influence every aspect of security policy.

One feels there is more than just a touch of self-pity in such laments. Germany, as noted above, is set to increase its military contingent in Afghanistan, while Japan continues to spend billions of dollars on ballistic missile-defense technologies and capabilities. Both have also sent naval forces to the Gulf of Aden for anti-piracy missions.

Yet their deeper concerns are warranted, indeed for the same reasons. Neither wants to do much more in the security sphere, no matter how often Washington urges them. At a more problematic level, life is comfortable enough in both societies that their citizens, especially youth, aren't "hungry enough" in the words of my German friend. Neither society has had to sacrifice that much for its own defense, thanks to America's constant presence in both Europe and Asia since the 1940s, and they have done even less internationally, especially in proportion to the size of their economies.

This has left both countries without a real strategic dialogue, and the major questions of each countries' interests have remained unanswered. In a final lament, the German parliamentarian proclaims that Japan and Germany are "twins in existential angst," unsure of their global roles, unwilling to meet their responsibilities, and unable to prepare themselves for the new world in which they live.

Perhaps ironically, both allies fear being left behind by America. This result is due as much from the lack of Japanese and German capabilities as it is a divergence of worldview from America, which in the long run is the harder difference to overcome. Germany and the EU are "entities of values," says my Bundestag friend, and becoming less and less adept in competing with other nations, such as China, around the globe.

The use of hard power and economic incentives is less appealing to post-modern Europe. Such has also been the approach of Japan in recent years, with former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama declaring that "fraternity" was the base of Japanese foreign policy under his administration, and both Mr. Hatoyama and current premier Naoto Kan giving at least lip service (and sometimes more) to vague ideas of an "East Asian Community."

The divergence from America cannot be laid solely at the allies' doorstep, however. Washington's foreign policy of late has sought, with the clear exceptions of Iraq and Afghanistan, to avoid confrontation and to attempt to meliorate global challenges. China's rise has been accompanied by a coarsening of its global positions, yet Washington has consistently sought to convince itself and others of the overriding importance of the Sino-American relationship in solving global problems from Darfur to Iran.

The Bush administration wound up all but accepting the reality of North Korea as a nuclear state, and now the Obama administration seems perilously close to doing the same with Iran. There is no clear sense in Washington of how to respond to threats to the international system, or even full agreement on what those challenges are.

Such lack of clarity from the world's largest power cannot but reverberate among its allies and competitors alike. Challengers to the liberal international order take heart not only from Washington's irresoluteness, but also from the knowledge that they no longer have to worry about facing large-scale, effective coalitions of liberal states that may curb their larger ambitions. Meanwhile, U.S. allies either remain happy to have Americans carry the global burden or are increasingly unwilling even to recognize the ineffectiveness of multilateral, international approaches to solving security threats and global problems.

The freedom from having to make hard choices may well be coming to an end for America's allies. As much as they might decry U.S. leadership, the threats gathering on the horizon may one day make clear to them the cost of a world without a committed underwriter of global security working closely with its smaller, yet crucial, partners. That will make visiting Germany and Japan no less pleasant, but their future will be far more uncertain.

Michael Auslin is a resident scholar at AEI.

Photo credit: Flickr user OiMax/Creative Commons

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About the Author


  • Michael Auslin is a resident scholar and the director of Japan Studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he studies Asian regional security and political issues.

    Before joining AEI, he was an associate professor of history at Yale University. A prolific writer, Auslin is a biweekly columnist for The Wall Street Journal Asia, which is distributed globally on His longer writings include the book “Pacific Cosmopolitans: A Cultural History of U.S.-Japan Relations” (Harvard University Press, 2011) and the study “Security in the Indo-Pacific Commons: Toward a Regional Strategy” (AEI Press, 2010). He was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum, a Marshall Memorial Fellow by the German Marshall Fund, and a Fulbright and Japan Foundation Scholar.

    Auslin has a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, an M.A. from Indiana University at Bloomington, and a B.S.F.S. from Georgetown University.

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