Germany and Japan ' once firm pillars of the US-led post Cold War world order ' are both developing regional initiatives that bypass US interests
There's no doubt about it, Junichiro Koizumi is back from the political dead, and suddenly looks like something more than the snake-oil salesman many took him to be when he came to office last year.
The Japanese prime minister has claimed a leading role in easing tensions on the Korean peninsula and has set a new cabinet to work on economic and banking problems.
Koizumi's newly assertive stance is even more interesting when you put him next to Gerhard SchrÃ¶der and a Europe that is finding its feet. The German chancellor has his back to the wall on the economy, just as Koizumi does, but he's also made surprising gestures recently, notably his strong opposition to US military action against Iraq and an an election campaign that had an unambiguously anti-US message.
Fundamental questions are raised. What's happening to Washington's longstanding alliances across the Pacific and Atlantic? For the US, Germany and Japan were cornerstones of the postwar order. Are we now witnessing a shift away from global arrangements shaped during the Cold War?
More saliently still, will American supremacy prove to be interim rather than the basis of an enduring global order? Are Europe and Asia developing as alternative poles of power? The evidence supports a 'yes'. A multipolar world is gradually unfolding, and the sooner Americans accept this the easier the transition will be. Recent displays of independent thinking in Tokyo and Berlin are surprising enough. Consider nations such as China, and the message is not so much surprising as imposing.
If this means we are witnessing the beginning of the end of the pax Americana, we may also be watching something more than a cyclical bear market ' one any number of Federal Reserve interest rate cuts cannot reverse. Among other things, the world's tolerance of huge US financial imbalances and its acceptance of the dollar as the sole reserve currency may have to be rethought.
'The landscape is subtly but surely changing beneath our feet,' says Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, DC, and a professor at Georgetown University. 'The major players, after a respite of a decade, are moving in the direction of resisting rather than getting behind American power.'
Kupchan, who directed European affairs at the National Security Council during the Clinton administration, has published a book in which the argument is applied across both oceans. The End of the American Era: US Foreign Policy and the Geopolitics of the Twenty-First Century is a sober read.
In Japan and Germany this argument is now unexpectedly becoming a reality. When Koizumi visited North Korea in September, he became the unlikeliest of Asian leaders to assert control over a regional issue the US has more or less owned for the past half-century.
Japan, which has been a follower in foreign policy almost without exception for the whole postwar era, is suddenly shaping a policy of its own. Strip away the pretence, and Washington is just as suddenly fumbling to follow the direction that Japan, in collaboration with South Korea, has chosen in almost open defiance of the obsequiousness the US expects of it.
As to SchrÃ¶der's re-election in late September, it was a dramatic moment for Europeans in search of an independent voice. 'Who would've imagined a German chancellor would run on an anti-American platform ' and win?' Kupchan asks. 'This alone says how much the world we live in is changing.'
For both nations, expressions of independence must be viewed in the context of emerging regional alliances ' not to the exclusion of the US, as any Japanese or German official will tell you, so much as independently of it. Japan has a lot of work to do in its relations with China, just as Germany does in relations with France. But as economic and political ties strengthen in both Asia and Europe, is there any question regional interests are coalescing?
It's striking that both Koizumi and Schroeder have found their political feet by countering US policy even as their economies teeter. Growth in both nations is unpromising, the banks are in trouble to one degree or another, and domestic demand is weak.
It's just as notable, however, that neither nation is reaching for US-style cures, as they would have been expected to do only a few years ago. It's plain enough now that Tokyo is seeking solutions to its banking and economic problems that are of its own devising. Instructions from the US are no longer heeded ' and, if you haven't noticed, not even much given.
As to SchrÃ¶der's strategy, there are a variety of complex forces weighing upon it. But there is little question that the chancellor's constituency, while prepared to accept needed economic reforms, want him to salvage all he can of the nation's 'social market' system.
As it is in diplomacy, so it is in economics, then. We may call our era 'global' but the rise of national and regional powers is unmistakably going to be part of it.
'Unipolarity is preferable if the standard of judgement is stability,' Kupchan tells me. 'Multipolarity is preferable if the standard of judgement is voice and a more egalitarian international system.'
Well enough said, but I would take things a step further. In the end there is no contradiction between stability and multipolarity. A more egalitarian global order will prove to be one that is more stable. That seems to be what Koizumi and SchrÃ¶der are saying, too.
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