Japan’s prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, is busy trying to strengthen the American alliance. In recent months, members of his government have announced new joint military arrangements with the U.S. and announced to the South Koreans that, unlike Japan, they are not to be trusted with sensitive American intelligence.
Meanwhile, French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder have been doing just the opposite. They proudly talk up an all-European military force to vie with NATO and insist their stagnant economies will not resort to the American model.
Of course, we saw these markedly different approaches to relations with the U.S. most starkly over the war in Iraq. Japan sent troops immediately, while Germany and France actively opposed American efforts to topple Saddam Hussein.
Japan, however, hasn’t always been so warm nor Europe so cool to the U.S., and current global strategic realities largely explain their quite different attitudes to America.
Like the trans-Atlantic relationship, the Japanese-American partnership arose from the ashes of World War II, and in the 1970s and 1980s Japan was every bit as prone to fits of anti-Americanism. Japanese leftists once pushed for withdrawal of American troops. The Japanese right used to lecture us about the superiority of Japan Inc. and brag of a new defiant generation “that could just say no” to U.S. fair trade nagging.
Fury over our bases in Okinawa always seemed to exceed the European inconvenience about U.S. troops in Germany. Japan had far less cultural resonance with the U.S. than did Europe.
Why, then, is Japan suddenly warm while Europe is so cool? Is the Bush administration clumsy in Berlin and adept in Tokyo?
No. Rather, the answer is the rise of China and the collapse of the Soviet Union. For the Japanese government, China and its nuclear protege, North Korea, are not abstract threats. Indeed, they are within tactical missile range.
If Europeans dream Chinese break-neck capitalism means only lucrative business, the Japanese fear such dynamism will more likely lead to a new bully in their own backyard.
If Japan once had bouts of anti-Americanism when its neighbor China was asleep, Europe was relatively friendly to us when we kept 300 Soviet divisions from its borders.
The moral? Trashing the United States can be a sport for some when one nearby communist enemy disappears but not so for others when another such enemy ascends close by.
Of course, domestic politics, trade issues and clumsy American diplomacy also help fashion the U.S. image abroad. Still, a government’s anti-American rhetoric is often predicated on its perceived self-interest.
For all the furor over George Bush’s “smoke ‘em-out” rhetoric, there are a variety of historical and geographical factors beyond our control that determine the relative popularity of the U.S. abroad.
The small countries Denmark and the Netherlands were invaded twice in the last century by the German Reich. Eastern Europe was swallowed up and nearly ruined by the Russians. These places will thus always be more receptive to the U.S. than a larger and more secure post-Cold War France and Germany.
New Zealand, meanwhile, tucked safely behind a shielding Australia tends to embrace anti-Americanism. If a naked New Zealand faced Communist China, Islamic Indonesia and Malaysia and nuclear North Korea, it might be more receptive to the visits of U.S. warships.
In calmer times, South Korea heralded its “Sunshine” policy of engaging the North. Predictable anti-Americanism followed.
But after a failed appeasement policy, the shocking disclosure of North Korean nuclear capability and some scary rhetoric by Kim Jong-il, trashing the U.S. fell out of fashion in Seoul. That South Korean about-face was understandable when the U.S. announced it was sending some American soldiers off the Demilitarized Zone and down to Pusan — or home.
Perceptions of the U.S. are also in constant flux. Greece, for example, was once the most anti-American state in Europe, nursing understandable wounds over past U.S. support for creepy dictators in Athens.
But the European Union is no longer a cash cow and still without military muscle — and thus of dubious value in a scrape. At the same time Greece’s age-old rival, Turkey, shows disturbing signs of Islamic fundamentalism, conducts provocative flights in the Aegean, and talks tough on Cyprus. Suddenly for the Greeks, the conciliatory and militarily powerful U.S. and its 6th Fleet don’t seem so hegemonic after all.
Through all of this vacillating, the American superpower’s behavior remains about the same. And despite all the shouting and angry editorials, a nation that is strong, democratic and willing to help does not look too bad.
After Iraq, we think the loud hostility of Germany, France and the Arab autocracies represents a global consensus. It doesn’t.
The world changes as we speak. With new economic powerhouses like China and India, universal concerns about terrorism and Muslim fundamentalism and recognition of how weak both the EU and the United Nations are in a real pinch, expect easy, fashionable anti-Americanism to recede.
Indeed, it had already has. Just ask a warm Japan — and look soon for the same change of mood in a once cool but now increasingly vulnerable and worried Europe.
Victor Davis Hanson a classicist and historian at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, is a nationally syndicated columnist.
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