The US has endorsed Japan's bid for permanent membership of the United Nation's Security Council, but Gerhard Schröder, the German chancellor, failed to win US support for a seat when he met President George W. Bush last month.
The granting of permanent Security Council seats to either of the two nations, still identified in the UN Charter as “enemy states”, should be determined by three questions. Have they fully overcome the legacy of their responsibility for the second world war? Are they willing and able to undertake the responsibilities of permanent membership? Are future governments in Tokyo and Berlin likely to work co-operatively with Washington?
There is no doubt that both Japan and Germany pass the first two tests. Both have acknowledged their war guilt. Germany has done so more frequently and unequivocally. Both have sought to settle remaining differences and overcome historic antagonisms with their neighbours. Germany has done so more successfully, settling all outstanding territorial disputes and becoming fully reconciled with the victims of its aggression. Japan, in contrast, is still regarded with considerable hostility and suspicion not just by its cold war adversaries, Russia and China, but also by allies such as South Korea and the Philippines.
Japan and Germany are both bigger than Britain or France, and both are more economically powerful than any member of the Security Council except the US. There is, therefore, no doubt as to their capability to sustain the responsibilities of permanent membership. On the other hand, both nations have developed a strong pacifist strain in their foreign and defence policies in reaction to their earlier militarism. Again, both states have moved in recent years to overcome these inhibitions so as to be able to share more fully in the growing burden of international peacekeeping. Germany has moved further than Japan. Tens of thousands of German combat troops have served in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan. So far Japan's military deployments have been limited to smaller numbers of humanitarian personnel, and the troops needed for their immediate protection.
As regards the third test, support for American policy, both states score positively here too. Once more, Iraq excepted, Germany leads. In the aftermath of the September 11 2001 attacks, Germany invoked article five of the NATO charter and dispatched combat forces to Afghanistan in support of the US. There has never been an offer by Japan to send troops to fight alongside American soldiers anywhere. Japan has provided generous economic aid to crisis regions in Asia and beyond, but still lags behind in its willingness to share the risks of military action.
In announcing American opposition to German permanent membership, the State department maintained that Europe was already over-represented on the Security Council. While true, this hardly suffices to explain American policy. Effectively, the State department is arguing that it is unfair for the US to have too many allies on the Security Council, and improbably suggesting that Washington would prefer to see greater representation for its critics from the non-aligned nations of Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East.
Clearly the State department has had recourse to this bit of diplomatic smoke in order to obscure its true rationale. Japan is being rewarded and Germany is being punished for their stances on Iraq.
The question is whether Washington's current stance is designed simply to deny Mr Schröder a foreign policy victory before Germany's national elections this autumn, or whether the US will persist in this attitude thereafter.
Even assuming the intent is purely tactical, Washington's ploy is likely to be costly. Mr Schröder is not going to be the only German to take Washington's rebuff personally. Nevertheless, if Washington reverses course after the upcoming German elections, its current opposition may be seen as a tough-minded example of diplomatic hardball. Mr Bush's equivocal statement after his meeting with Mr Schröder leaves the door open to such a possibility.
But if the US persists in this attitude to the point where Japan gains a permanent seat and Germany does not, then the Bush administration will have turned a temporary rift into an enduring grievance, one which will be remembered by America's largest European ally long after current differences over Iraq have been forgotten.
The writer, a former assistant secretary of state for Europe, is director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation.
This commentary originally appeared in Financial Times on July 12, 2005.