LONDON — Comparisons are often made between Japan’s relations with the United States and Europe’s trans-Atlantic relationship. In practice, though, the two links are quite different and seem to be getting more so.
The blunt truth is that, for most Americans, Europe is no longer on the front line in the battle for global freedom and stability. The threat from Russia has evaporated, and while ethnic and tribal troubles continue to bubble in the Balkans, these are not matters for which Americans are prepared to put their lives on the line.
A change of U.S. president in the near future, should that happen, will not alter this basic perception about Europe. John Kerry might be more tactful than George W. Bush and his team — who go out of their way to insist that America can “go it alone” and that Europe is of little interest — but the heyday of U.S. commitment to Europe is over.
By contrast, Japan is seen as being right on America’s front line nowadays. Its big neighbor is the oil-thirsty, weapons-supplying, expansionist antidemocratic China, and its smaller neighbor is the dangerous and completely unpredictable North Korea, which seems to be limbering up to attack something.
Despite talk of American troop withdrawals from Japan (and South Korea), the reality is that Japan and America are now closer together than ever. This is reflected in the warm links between Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Bush (in stark contrast to Europe’s distaste for Bush) and the increasing integration of Japanese and American military forces, both land and sea.
Back in Europe things do not look this way at all. Defense “separatism” from America is clearly developing, and Britain, hitherto the closest European power to the U.S., is being steadily sucked into the new European defense system.
All this raises in turn an even more fundamental question: Is Europe still under the American nuclear umbrella? The North Atlantic Treaty Organization alliance is meant to provide a cast-iron guarantee that any member state threatened with nuclear weapons will have American nuclear might behind it. An attack on one is an attack on all.
The British “independent” deterrent, which is in fact heavily dependent on American technology and shortly due for renewal, is also included in this guarantee. The position of the aging French nuclear-weapons system remains ambiguous, although what this system now targets is obscure. Surely it cannot be cities or sites in Russia, which is supposed to be the West’s ally and friend.
The likelihood of such an attack may indeed be remote, but it would certainly amaze the citizens of, say, Ohio or Arizona nowadays to know that if, say, Poland, Slovakia or Estonia were threatened, the U.S. would instantly be pulled onto the front line of a nuclear war.
Whereas 20 years ago it seemed natural that America would risk all to defend European soil against the Soviets, today it is probably more acceptable to think of the U.S. doing so in defense of Japan or Taiwan rather than distant and unimportant (and not very friendly) Europe. So while Japan can safely consider itself under American protection, the European position is now much more ambiguous.
The whole position is complicated by American plans for expanded antimissile missile systems, allegedly to supplement traditional nuclear deterrence. With whom are the Americans going to share this additional and supplementary “umbrella”? Japan seems both willing and in favor to be the one (as well as being the closest to possessing the complementary technical knowhow).
Britain has also been considered a favored partner in a future U.S. antimissile “cover” because the American system needs advanced warning stations somewhere on European soil to alert its own devices. Britain can offer those. But this sounds a little strange because it implies that incoming enemy missiles would come from somewhere east of mainland Europe. Again, one wonders, just who that enemy is supposed to be.
Meanwhile, the Europeans seem to be taking no chances and going ahead anyway with their own satellite navigation system, called Galileo, which will be completely independent from the American GPS system.
And who will have full access to this new satellite system, with the means to guide and track missiles and view launch sites that it offers? Why, none other than China and Russia!
So if either of these giants is still held to be the potential enemy, then Europe has reached the extraordinary position of simultaneously being under American-missile protection in case of nuclear attack while increasing its alliance in space with those who could conceivably be the attackers.
This makes no sense at all. And of course if the attackers of the future are not even states but instead shadowy terrorist organizations that have somehow got their hands on nuclear missiles, the whole question of nuclear umbrellas and just who is protecting whom against what becomes even more nonsensical.
But perhaps we have reached the stage where these questions should not even be asked. We have, after all, moved into a totally new phase in matters of global security. The only realistic and safe assumption to make now is that an attack from anywhere on any part of the global network in which we live is an attack on all of us.
So perhaps, after all, there are no great differences between America’s Pacific connections and its European ones. We are all deeply into this dangerous new world together.
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