Over the past six days, President Biden has attended two key international gatherings — the G-7 meeting of the advanced industrial democracies and a NATO summit — both in Europe. The importance of these meetings is magnified by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and growing Chinese territorial ambitions in Asia. The world is increasingly coalescing into two blocs: one constituting authoritarian regimes in Moscow and Beijing and the other comprising a coalition of the world’s principal democracies.
The G-7 and NATO meetings included Germany and Japan, two very different countries that have had remarkably similar histories over the better part of a century. Germany’s presence at the G-7 and NATO is a given since it is a founding member of both groupings. Japan has been a part of the G-7 since its founding, but its attendance at the NATO summit is something new. Therein lies a story.
The parallel tracks of German and Japanese history begin in the 1930s when both countries made the fraught decision to militarize under authoritarian leaders with visions of imperial glory. Germany built Europe’s most capable industrial economy and Japan created the only advanced economy in Asia. Both dedicated their industrial capacity to building modern military machines designed for conquest. The result, of course, was World War II in Europe and the Pacific and ultimate destruction and defeat.
Whereas Berlin and Tokyo had been joined in the Axis Alliance, now they were linked by the shared experience of military occupation by victorious Allied, primarily American, forces. Both countries were rebuilt and reshaped by U.S. occupation authorities. The combined effect of occupation and the introduction of U.S.-inspired political institutions and values cannot be overstated. Germany and Japan emerge out of the totality of these experiences as profoundly different than the countries that ignited World War II. Both became democracies — not just in form, but in substance. In both countries, a broadly pacifist mindset took hold in the population that has remained unshakeable to the present day.
In both countries, remarkably capable postwar leaders emerged: Konrad Adenauer in Germany and Shigeru Yoshida in Japan. Both faced the same strategic dilemma. How do you build a modern secure country in a difficult and potentially dangerous neighborhood with a population that wants nothing to do with military power, i.e., national defense? They both solved the problem by focusing national energies on economic reconstruction while effectively subcontracting national defense to the U.S. In Germany’s case, this meant joining the new NATO alliance. For Japan, no such regional option was available, so Tokyo signed a bilateral defense treaty with Washington. For both Adenauer and Yoshida, national defense was a deadly serious business. Germany was partly occupied by a Soviet Union led by Stalin, who was looking for a chance to extend Moscow’s control farther west. Yoshida faced a new militant communist regime in China that supported an attack by North Korean communists southward, triggering full-scale war on the Korean Peninsula. For both Germany and Japan, the price of security was heavy reliance on U.S. protection that brought with it a large, seemingly permanent, U.S. military presence on the ground.
This arrangement of deep strategic dependence has lasted for 70 years and counting — far longer than most experts would have predicted in the 1950s. This has been due in large part to the enduring success of Adenauer’s and Yoshida’s strategy of focusing on economic growth. Germany and Japan have long been among the world’s most advanced, wealthiest economies. Also key is broad societal satisfaction with the security reliance on the U.S. American security guarantees are broadly viewed as credible and successful and the burden of the U.S. military presence as tolerable — even welcome. Two quite different countries linked by shared ties to America.
The meetings in Europe take on special significance because they occur at a historical moment when the Adenauer/Yoshida strategic era is finally coming to an end. In both Berlin and Tokyo, there is a growing, if unwelcome, realization that a new strategic paradigm is required. In both countries, the perception of external threat is becoming acute. For Germany, the Russian invasion of nearby Ukraine has come as a profound shock. It is an event that almost every German thought was impossible. Germany’s new chancellor, Olaf Scholz, is in the classic mold of a German politician — deeply uneasy with military matters and focused on economic and social programs. But faced with Russia’s unrelenting brutality, Scholz declared the arrival of a Zeitenwande (“new era”) and announced a large increase in Germany’s defense budget as well as shipments of selected heavy weapons to aid Ukraine’s armed forces.
Japan’s prime minister, Fumio Kishida, has been even more forward-leaning when it comes to security strategy. A few weeks ago, he hosted a meeting of the Quad, a security partnership between Japan, Australia, India and the U.S. He will attend the NATO summit, the first Japanese prime minister to do so. This is not a one-off; it marks a growing consensus in NATO capitals, as well as Tokyo, that the strategic challenges in Europe (Ukraine) and Asia are linked. Kishida is blunt, “Ukraine today may be Asia tomorrow.” This will require a coordinated response — which means Japan will look and act increasingly like a de facto member of NATO. Like Scholz, Kishida has announced significant increases in Japanese defense spending while aligning Tokyo with Washington’s efforts to protect the South China Sea against Chinese naval encroachment. There are even hints that Japan might come to the assistance of a threatened Taiwan.
The Zeitenwende may be a real thing.
Marvin Ott is a professor at Johns Hopkins University and senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center of the Smithsonian Institution. He is a summer resident of Cranberry Isles.