America's Tragic Turn in Germany and Japan

07/15/2014 09:12 am ET | Updated Sep 14, 2014
  • Bruce Ackerman Professor of law and political science, Yale; Author 'We the People:The Civil Rights Revolution'
SAUL LOEB via Getty Images

It's taken a long time for Germany and Japan to recover from the Second World War. After enduring the indignity of military occupation, they regained sovereignty only by guaranteeing against future threats to peace. Germany's new constitution only authorized military force in self-defense or in collaboration with collective security agreements. Japan's Article Nine went further, "forever renounc[ing] ... the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes."

This post-war settlement is unraveling before our eyes. Germans and Japanese who lived through the 1940s are passing away. Rising generations are defining their fundamental interests in new ways; and, after 1989, they can't count on the United States to fight on their behalf. Indeed, American military interventions may be profoundly damaging to their national interests, as the Iraqi tragedy suggests.

The stage has been set for an escalating cycle of estrangement. Without creative statecraft, particular problems will provoke deeper doubts about long-established understandings. Within a decade or two, post-war partners may well be viewing one another with deep suspicion. Yet, precisely because the American partnerships with Germany and Japan have been fixtures of the modern world, the Obama Administration implicitly supposes that they will continue to remain stable in the future -- allowing the Pentagon and CIA to dominate key decisions without rethinking political fundamentals.

The last week's news demonstrates the danger of proceeding on auto-pilot. Begin with Germany. During the Cold War, it made sense for the CIA to counter the on-going Communist effort to infiltrate the West German government. But we should trust modern Germany to handle the far lesser threats posed by Putin's espionage operations. Yet the CIA continues with business-as-usual, without rethinking basic premises.

Worse yet, when Angela Merkel responded by demanding the departure of the CIA's chief of mission, the administration was dismissive -- expressing annoyance that Merkel had publicly denounced a practice that the "intelligence community" views as standard-operating-procedure. Obama should instead view Merkel's gesture as an occasion to take dramatic steps to reassure a country in which only 27% of the public views the United States as trustworthy, and 46% consider it an aggressive power.

The national security mindset is having yet more damaging effects in Japan. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is an unreconstructed nationalist, who is leading his Liberal Democratic Party on a campaign to discredit Japan's post-war Constitution as an illegitimate imposition of the MacCarthur occupation. His first target is the Peace Article, which he initially sought to repudiate by calling a referendum as provided under the Constitution. When this initiative generated broad popular and parliamentary resistance, he switched gears and is now trying to achieve the same end by unconstitutional means.

On July 1, Abe announced that his government would "reinterpret" Article Nine to allow the "the threat or use of force" that the Constitution renounced "forever," repudiating two generations of contrary legal understanding.

This move has precipitated the largest protest demonstrations since the 1960s, as well as dramatic shows of public disapproval in opinion polls. In response, the government has revised its plan to push through implementing legislation in September, and has now promised a more deliberate debate.

If Abe is allowed to succeed, his radical reinterpretation will serve as a precedent for the Liberal Democratic Party's announced plans to break free of Japan's constitutional commitments to fundamental political and civil rights. With the stakes so high, the coming months will see one of the most important debates in modern Japanese history.

Yet this is just the moment that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has chosen to intervene -- and on the wrong side. At a Pentagon news conference last Friday, he announced the administration's "strong support" for the "bold, historic, landmark decision" of the Abe government, without mentioning the grave constitutional issues involved.

This announcement represents a landmark for the United States no less than Japan -- repudiating a constitutional order that America has helped promote for two generations. Given the epochal significance of Abe's constitutional coup, it should not have been left to Hagel to announce America's position at a Pentagon press conference. The president himself should have addressed the matter at the White House, after consulting with his Secretary of State on its devastating impact on the future of liberal democracy in Asia.

But Kerry and Obama are too busy fighting fires in the Middle East and elsewhere to focus on large questions of grand strategy. As in the case of the German spy scandal, they are allowing the national security establishment to proceed without rethinking the terms of the post-war partnership.

Last week's news was a wake-up call. The administration must learn to distinguish the urgent from the truly fundamental. Unless it rethinks our traditional post-war partnerships, it risks an authoritarian Japan and a profoundly alienated Germany -- destroying one of the greatest legacies of the twentieth century.

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Bruce Ackerman is Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science at Yale, and the author of The Decline and Fall of the American Republic.

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