NAGOYA/LONDON — The UK-Japan 21st Century Group, set up two decades ago by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, has been mulling over the foreign-policy dilemmas of the two countries at their annual get-together.

At first sight, these appear to have considerable symmetry. The two nations both now appear to face a giant strategic quandary about which way to go. In the British case, the choice is said to be between Europe and America; in the Japanese case, between China and America.

Deeper reflection suggests that things are not so simple, and that this is not really the choice at all. The antithesis in both cases is false.

Consider the realities of the global situation that now have to be faced. Let us call them the Big Facts:

Big Fact No. 1: The United States is by far the biggest and most powerful military power the world has ever seen as well as the dominant, most successful and dynamic economy on the planet. (So much for all the fashionable and now discredited talk of a few years back about America in decline and so on). It is not a conquering imperial power, as some suggest, but it certainly sees itself as the guardian and promoter worldwide of democracy and freedom.

Big Fact No. 2: For all its size and power, America cannot manage affairs alone and without friends. Big is also vulnerable, especially when the enemy is not so much a state as a state of mind, a dedication to terror and killing that can strike anywhere.

Big Fact No. 3: These friends, if they are true ones, need to be not just compliant but restraining and constructively critical at times. Power always corrupts and more than ever today America needs a friendly peer group to keep it on track.

Big Fact No. 4: The European Union cannot fulfill this role. It is basically anti-American. Washington may make polite noises about partnership with Europe, but why should it listen to folk it knows to be fundamentally hostile? Even if European views were united on the main global issues, which they are not, the EU would not, and does not, carry any real weight with American policymakers.

Big Fact No. 5: China cannot fulfill this role either. China wants to rival America and be the dominant power in Asia. It is showing its teeth by building up its military weaponry and getting increasingly aggressive over Taiwan. Even though the Americans and Chinese currently need each other economically, and possibly in resolving such issues as North Korea, the two giants can never be friends.

Big Fact No. 6: Japan and Britain are indeed America’s best friends today, along with Australia, New Zealand and one or two other countries in Central Europe. They should work together, stick together and address mighty America in a friendly but frank way.

Critics of this approach might say that surely Britain must work primarily with its EU regional partners and surely Japan must get together somehow with its big Asian neighbor, China. They would be right in economic and commercial terms but wrong in geopolitical and security terms.

Of course it makes sense to aim for prosperous regional commerce, healthy investment flows, low tariffs and fair-trade rules. And, of course, it makes sense to have neighborhood policing and close collaboration with neighbors on issues like environment, crime and immigration. Both the EU and the embryonic East Asian Community can partially fulfill these regional roles.

But it makes even more sense to recognize the undeniable fact of America’s dominant power and to seek to influence the wielding of that colossal power in a friendly and constructive way.

This is something China will never do and the leading EU states have shown they cannot do. France has played almost no role at all in assisting American-led policy in Iraq and the Middle East (except recently over Lebanon). German leaders have fought a whole election on an anti-American ticket.

So, rather than facing a choice, both Japan and Britain face an obvious way forward. As America’s real best friends, they should form a cohesive and intimate grouping — a permanent, reliable and sturdy coalition of the willing. If some of mighty America’s attitudes and policies worry them they should say so, and they will be listened to. They will have more influence than any other blocs, institutions or alliances.

That is now much the best way toward global stability and balance in this dangerously unstable 21st century.

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