The alliance in an Atlantic mirror

I went to Carnegie Hall last night for a panel discussion on US-German relations held as part of the current Berlin in Lights festival underway in New York City. Moderated by Richard Holbrooke, the discussion featured Henry Kissinger, Josef Joffe, John Kornblum (a former US ambassador to Germany), and Karl-Theodor Freiherr zu Guttenberg, a member of the Bundestag from the Christian Social Union (CSU).

In light of recent difficulties in the US-Japan relationship, I was fascinated, if not surprised, by how easy it would be to subsitute “Japan” for “Germany” in the discussion without skipping a beat. Indeed, Japan was mentioned one way or another by every speaker, including Dr. Kissinger, who as readers of Kenneth Pyle’s Japan Rising will know has not exactly been appreciative of Japan. In fact, Dr. Kissinger made a point of saying that Japan is a country to watch, as he thinks it is quietly and slowly making itself a substantial player in international security. If by slow he means glacial, perhaps, but Japan’s “normalization” is far from linear and is only impressive when compared to what Japan once was, not when it is compared with other countries.

Nevertheless, the discussion had a pessimistic edge to it, and all of the speakers made clear that the reasons for doubt about the relationship are structural and have little to do with George W. Bush. The problem is interests. Just as in the US-Japan relationship, there is a growing gap in how each country perceives its national interests. At the heart of the problem are the differences between global and regional powers. As a global power the US increasingly views the world holistically; few problems are too distant for the US, and thanks to the reach of its military, the US government is capable of considering action (military or otherwise) in response to a range of situations around the world. Germany (and Japan), on the other hand, are firmly rooted in their regions and near abroads. Their publics have a hard time understanding why campaigns in benighted corners of the world have anything to do with them. Indeed, as Karl-Theodor Freiherr zu Guttenberg argued, Germans have a hard time thinking in terms of national interests. (I would say the same thing about the Japanese people and their representatives in the Diet.) But even if they were better able to articulate their interests, the gap with the US would remain.

The US, as Dr. Kissinger argued, will have to change the way it interacts with its allies as a result. It will have to stop issuing orders to allies and start presenting them with problems in the hope of finding solutions. It will actually have to seek out the opinions of its allies, even if those opinions are different from Washington’s. Because that is the other side of the “coalitions of the willing” coin. Just as the US is free to choose its partners for campaigns, so its allies are free to say no to the US (without Washington’s throwing a tantrum).

The future of America’s alliances it seems is one of standing organizations that facilitate cooperation between militaries, intelligence agencies, and other security organizations, but lack the political cooperation they had in the face of the Soviet threat. They will have some value as vehicles for defining international agendas, dealing with terrorism and other nonstate actors, and providing basic security in the form of nuclear deterrence, but it would be a mistake to expect (as the Bush administration seems to do) that they will continue to serve as vehicles for waging protracted wars in distant lands.

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