Shifting balances of power

by Hugh Cortazzi

The hope was that the League of Nations before World War II and the United Nations, its postwar successor, would provide a more effective way of ensuring world peace than the “Balance of Power” that Britain, in particular, had tried to maintain in Europe for centuries. This hope has not been fulfilled.

Although both organizations have contributed to keeping the peace in various ways, both have suffered from organizational weaknesses. The U.N. Security Council has often been powerless because of the veto that its five permanent members have used to prevent action that they dislike.

In practice, world peace still depends on old-fashioned balance-of-power politics, but the balance is constantly changing and political leaders need to be aware of these changes. This will be particularly true for the new Japanese government.

The United States remains the world’s only superpower, but as events in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown, there are real limits to what the only superpower can achieve. Modern wars against terrorists are totally different from World War I and II when battles were fought over territories which were won or lost.

Guerrilla warfare is not a new phenomenon, but in the past most guerrilla fighters were reluctant to use suicide tactics. The forces needed to deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan are far greater than the number of terrorists the Taliban deploys. The distinction between soldier and civilian has become ever more blurred.

The surge in forces employed in Iraq may well have altered the balance in favor of the Americans and the Iraqi government, but it remains to be seen whether the numbers of soldiers and the resources that the Americans and their NATO allies are willing and able to deploy in Afghanistan can suppress the terrorist threat in Afghanistan and prevent Pakistan from becoming a failed state.

There are many other threats to American interests and to world peace in the Middle East (the Arab-Israeli conflict, the possible development of nuclear weapons by Iran). These cannot be solved by America alone. This is equally true of threats to U.S. interests in Europe from Vladimir Putin’s Russia, in Latin America where Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela is more than a nuisance, and in the Far East where China and North Korea pose different problems.

While China does not constitute a direct military threat to Japan, the American nuclear umbrella is irreplaceable, at least in the foreseeable future. American power has been weakened by the economic crisis, but we would be foolish to underestimate the American ability to rebound. The maintenance of good and close relations with the U.S. must surely remain a top priority for Prime Minister-to-be Yukio Hatoyama.

China is not yet a superpower able to challenge the U.S., but it is now the second most important power in the world. The Chinese economy has not yet overtaken Japan and is unbalanced.

As recent disturbances in Central Asia have shown, China also has real political weaknesses while its huge population is unbalanced in terms of age and sex distribution. But China, in its search for supplies of raw materials and energy, has become a significant power in areas such as Africa and South America, far from its hinterland in Southeast Asia.

It won’t be easy for the next Japanese government to establish a relationship of equality and trust with the present Chinese regime, especially when historical revisionists in Japan, like Holocaust deniers, refuse to accept the facts of what happened in the past.

Russia under Putin is no longer a superpower. Its economic development is unbalanced and the equipment of its armed forces is rusting. But Russian reserves of oil and gas give it disproportionate influence in Europe.

It seems unlikely that Prime Minister Putin will be any more willing to reach an acceptable agreement with the new Japanese government over the disputed Northern Territories or that any significant improvement in relations with Russia can be achieved in the foreseeable future.

Good relations with South Korea must remain a priority. As in the past, this is a sensitive matter. The biggest problem will inevitably be over North Korea. The Japanese government must continue to deal with North Korea. Along with the U.S., China and South Korea, India has become an increasingly important world power. Its economic growth has been huge and its population, if not yet as great as China’s, makes it essential that the new Japanese government gives due attention to relations with India.

Although in recent years the Japanese government has paid increasing attention to India, the country was for too long neglected by Japanese who were repelled by aspects of Indian life.

Southeast Asia will also deserve close attention. It used to be said that Indonesia was a country with huge potential but which never fulfilled its promise. Signs now are much better for the Indonesian economy and for democratic institutions in that country.

The population of Australia is relatively small, but the country is rich in natural resources and its economy despite weaknesses is vibrant. In balance-of-power terms, Australia cannot be neglected by Japan.

While Europe remains distant and its economies have been weakened by the financial crisis, the countries in the European Union remain important to Japan, not only as advanced trading partners but for political and cultural reasons.

Britain and France remain permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and still have international influence greater than their economic weight might suggest.

At the U.N., Japanese leaders will want to continue to work for permanent membership on the U.N. Security Council. This will not be easily achieved and will entail careful diplomacy with countries such as India and Brazil and European powers such as Germany and Italy.

The new Japanese government will be able to enhance Japan’s world interests only by ensuring that Japan is represented effectively abroad. This requires the appointment of ambassadors willing and able to join in international debates on equal terms with others. It also means that Japan should try hard to find more articulate and able English-speaking officials to serve in international organizations.

Japan can no longer afford to be represented solely by old-fashioned bureaucrats who never put a foot wrong. But Japan’s diplomats must be given the necessary resources to do their job effectively.

Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.