AS the world commemorates the half century since the end of World War II, it is well to remember, also, the security structures built on the ashes of that war. Two remain important: the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the US-Japan Security Treaty. The continued strength of both will depend on meaningful participation by the United States.
Part of the genius of those who guided the postwar policies of the victorious nations was to incorporate, over a few years, Japan and Germany as full partners in alliance relationships. The US-Japan treaty was signed in 1951; Germany entered NATO in 1955. Despite the end of the cold war, these arrangements remain vital for world peace today. In Asia, the alliance with Japan is seen as reducing the temptation for Japan once again to become a major military power. Similarly, NATO brings Germany, the economic powerhouse of Europe, into a strong transatlantic relationship.
The US role in these relationships is indispensable. It is the sole nation seen by Japan's neighbors as a guarantor against a revival of aggressive policies in Tokyo. NATO is bolstered by a US commitment and a US presence in Europe. The nuclear umbrella provided to both Japan and Germany by the US lessens the justification for separate nuclear programs in either nation.
Until now, at least, the alliances have had strong support in both countries. Japanese governments have been able to pursue economic interests throughout Asia, unencumbered by military issues. Germany has welcomed NATO as an indication of its incorporation into Europe. In each country, however, nationalist groups are nostalgic for a more militant past. Solid support for the postwar arrangements cannot be taken for granted. In the US, two tendencies could conceivably pose threats to these arrangements: trade disputes with Japan and questions about the future of NATO.
The Clinton administration is pressing for trade concessions from Tokyo, risking a serious confrontation with Japan. Although anti-American sentiments can be heard, there is no indication yet that trade disputes will have an effect on Japanese attitudes toward the security treaty. But will that last?
Similarly, the valuable consultations and cooperation across the Atlantic at the heart of NATO risk being taken for granted. Moreover, questions are raised about the alliance's future. Why does the US need it after the collapse of the Soviet Union? What good is NATO when its members cannot stop the bloodshed in Bosnia? Understandably, many Americans wonder why their country still needs to think in strategic terms reminiscent of another era. Is whether Japan dominates Asia still of concern to us? Does it matter if Germany once more becomes the dominant power in Europe?
Those who raise such questions have little recollection of history. The world was thrown into the worst calamity of any century by the ambitions of militarily powerful nations. Events in Bosnia demonstrate how vulnerable to demagoguery populations can be and how that demagoguery can lead to conflict. It is, perhaps, unthinkable today that Japan and China or the nations of the European Union would ever again engage in combat with each other. Yet a withdrawal of the balancing presence of the US could lead to reevaluations of policies in both continents, with unpredictable results.
The structures, including the treaty relationships as well as United Nations, assembled at the end of the war have given the world a half century of peace. The US has been at the heart of those structures. A contentious relationship with Japan or a withdrawal from the obligations of NATO could reverse the gains of that half century.