The international scene looks more unstable than it has since the fall of the Berlin Wall. No single country is strong enough to act as the world’s policeman. The United Nations lacks the resources to deal effectively even with small conflicts and is, in any case, constrained by its charter, which allows Russia and China to exercise a veto on police actions.

In the Far East, North Korea, which recently carried out an underground nuclear test, continues to behave irrationally and irresponsibly. Its Chinese ally deplores this development but seems unable or unwilling to restrain Pyongyang.

China is in the midst of a major change in its leadership. The new leaders face huge challenges at home. Corruption seems endemic at all levels in society. Improved living standards appear to have increased jealousies and greed. The gap between rich and poor, and city and country has widened and continues to exacerbate grievances. China faces a demographic time bomb as the effects of the inhumane one-child policy become more and more apparent.

A major priority of Chinese foreign policy is to secure the resources and energy needed for economic growth. China has many ethnic groups that seek autonomy, which China is unwilling to grant.

When states face difficult internal problems the temptation is to focus public anger on foreign targets and to demonstrate national power. There is always a danger that demonstrations against foreign countries may get out of hand and conflict may be caused almost accidentally.

In Southeast Asia there are latent threats to stability in Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and the Philippines. Islamic extremism does not pose the same threat that it does in other regions, but it cannot be ignored.

The biggest threat in South Asia derives from the dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. It is made more dangerous by the fact that both are nuclear powers. India is a secular democratic state with a fast-growing economy and a huge population, of whom around one quarter are Muslims. Pakistan, where democratic institutions have not yet become fixed, is threatened by Islamic extremism and by the continuing conflict in Afghanistan.

The Middle East is the most unstable part of the world today. American and NATO forces are withdrawing from Afghanistan without having secured victory or the establishment of a stable government.

Iran, which remains a theocracy, continues to reject limitations on its nuclear activities despite Western sanctions that have exacerbated living standards. The forthcoming presidential elections are likely to be divisive and destabilizing.

Ten years after the start of the Iraq war, that country is still subject to daily acts of terrorism and life for most Iraqis continues to be unsafe and difficult.

The Arab Spring led to the downfall of the despotic regimes in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, but life in all three countries is at best uncomfortable for most of the population. Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, with his Muslim Brotherhood supporters and dictatorial tendencies, has angered and disappointed all who hoped that the revolution would bring a secular democratic regime to Egypt.

No progress has been made in solving the Palestinian-Israeli dispute and there seems little prospect of meaningful negotiations.

The civil war in Syria has caused countless casualties (dead and wounded) and made many destitute and refugees within their own country. The Russians and the Iranians stick to their ally and ignore the suffering while Islamic extremists take advantage of the chaos.

Some African countries have managed to grow their economies, but much of the continent is unstable. The civil war in Mali may have been contained by French intervention, but Islamic extremism remains a threat in northern Nigeria and in Algeria.

In comparison Europe looks superficially like a haven of peace. But European economies are stagnant, unemployment especially in southern Europe is very high and living standards are failing, while opposition to the unavoidable austerity policies continues to grow. The recent Italian election result, which showed popular support for two “clowns,” Silvio Berlusconi and Beppo Grilli, suggests that Italy may be ungovernable.

In Russia, President Vladimir Putin, with his secret police background, ruthlessly pursues anyone whom he sees as a threat while his party rakes in the spoils of corruption. He resents the fact that Russia, despite its arsenal of nuclear weapons, is no longer the power that it was, so he blusters and threatens America and his European neighbors.

In a world as unsafe as it is today, when a world policeman is needed, America seems neither to have the will nor the resources to play the role. The American experience in Iraq and Afghanistan has not been a happy one and there is an understandable reluctance to get sucked into other conflicts that might be equally unwinnable. The banking crisis and economic downturn made some defense cuts inevitable, but the cuts have been exacerbated by the shenanigans in Congress with the Republican refusal to compromise on tax measures, thus forcing “sequestration” (i.e., mandatory budget cuts including further cuts in defense expenditure) from March 1.

If the Chinese and Russian regimes were to underestimate, in the way Japan did in 1941, the American ability and will to respond to extreme provocation, they would make a serious error, but the threat today is not of massive armed attacks on other counties but of spreading instability and civil war.

In present circumstances, when Japan has to rely so much on the commitment of the U.S. to defend Japan, the Japanese need to be able to respond more readily to threats to world peace. This means enabling the Self-Defense Forces to play an active and if necessary combat role with other powers in support of U.N. resolutions.

If, despite the terms of Article 9 of the Constitution, Japan was able to establish the Self-Defense Forces, it should surely be possible to enact legislation permitting deployment in support of the U.N. without having to go through all the complicated procedures needed to amend the Constitution. But Japan will also need to avoid provocative acts and statements.

Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980-1984.