BRUSSELS — On Sunday the world watched as the French electorate voted on whether to approve the new European constitution, and it will watch once again Wednesday when Holland holds a similar referendum. Both results will help determine the future direction and role of the European Union in the world.

Within two years the people of Japan will make a similar choice. For the first time since World War II, they will vote in a referendum on whether to amend their Constitution. Indeed, Japan has a team of senior politicians led by the chair of the Constitutional Affairs Committee, Taro Nakayama, observing the EU process.

Together the Japanese and EU referendums promise to affect the whole nature of global politics. New constitutions will transform the international roles of both Japan and Europe from being merely economic superpowers and global cash cows (currently the two largest donors of international aid) into global political players posing a real challenge to American domination and unilateralism.

Europe’s new constitution contains a number of elements. First, it is aimed at managing the EU’s recent enlargement from 15 to 25 member states, making it easier for decisions to be made by reducing the degree of unanimity required in a range of areas. Second, it brings together and rationalizes existing European treaties. Third, it incorporates a series of fundamental rights from the right to work to the right to liberty. Finally, and most importantly, it gives the EU a clear foreign and security policy voice for the first time. The United States will no longer be able to say that it doesn’t know who to call in Europe on global political issues.

However, in the absence of clear political leadership by mainstream politicians, the battle for the Yes vote is being compromised by parties of extremes on the left and right who are using the referendum as a stick to beat government over unpopular domestic politics. Voters are collaborating with them, threatening to use the opportunity to protest over anything and everything.

In France, the No campaign unites Stalinists, Trotskyists and neofascists with self-seeking minority factions of the Socialist Party. The same is true in Holland. Yet these self-same voters would with few exceptions support an EU that was more capable of standing up for its own interests vis-a-vis the U.S.

Of course, the battle for the EU constitution will be hard fought. Each of the 25 member states must ratify it. The latest figures are eight down and 17 to go. But even a narrow victory for the No side might not be the end of the issue. As we have seen before — in Denmark and in Ireland — hesitant No votes have been transformed into Yes votes the second time around.

In the case of Japan, the referendum will be an opportunity for the country to free itself from the last vestiges of the consequences of its defeat in the Pacific War, which included the imposition by U.S. occupation forces of an American-drafted constitution that has hamstrung Japan’s ability to function as a “normal” country.

While it may be argued that constitutional amendments are necessary to incorporate human rights concerns barely thought of half a century ago, it is impossible to escape the reality that, in Japan, the central issue is whether Article 9, which prohibits Japan from maintaining military forces for the purpose of waging war, is to be transformed.

Currently Japan — despite Article 9 — has one of the world’s top military budgets but balks at deploying men and materials overseas in peacekeeping actions, leading to the farce in Iraq where Japanese soldiers have to be guarded by Dutch, British and Australian forces who would be better deployed policing the security of the Iraqi population.

Nobody wants Japan to go on the rampage as it in the 1930s. It still has bridges to build and apologies to make to some of its Asian neighbors for the errors of Nanjing and Harbin. After all, Japan’s gaining a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council depends on rapprochement with China. Despite the Holocaust, nobody believes that the use of German troops today in European and NATO peacekeeping forces in Kosovo and Afghanistan are a prelude to the emergence of a Fifth Reich. Today’s Japan is a far cry from the military authoritarianism of the 1930s and 1940s.

If American unilateralism, arrogance and self-interest are to be challenged, the world desperately needs countervailing forces willing and able to make their voices heard. The job of the peace movement in Japan is best served not by protecting an outdated and alien Constitution designed and imposed to serve U.S. postwar interests but to argue for a new constitution that places center stage a future role for Japan working with the United Nations and others to safeguard peace, democracy and human rights in its corner of the world and further afield.

Altruism and assistance flows from strength rather than weakness. New constitutions in Europe and Japan can free both from the tutelage and pupilage of the U.S. to the world’s overall benefit.

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