Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Resignations and History

When did World War II end?

Of course, the history books tell us that May 8, 1945, was Victory in Europe (VE) Day. However, the war in Asia was still going on, and the end of the fighting can be dated from either August 15 of that year, when the Japanese announced their intent to surrender, or September 2, when the formal surrender ceremony was held.

Some would argue that the War didn't really end until German reunification, in 1990. I suppose, by the same token, an argument can be made that the true end of the War awaits a similar reunification on the Korean Peninsula. But, most would say that, by now, the War has been over for many years.

The War is a thing of the past, but its effects are still being felt in world politics. Two resignations of national leaders this week are both tied to World War II-related issues.

On Monday, the German head of state, President Horst Koehler, announced his immediate resignation. He had been strongly criticized for saying that:

A country of our size, with its focus on exports and thus reliance on foreign trade, must be aware that military deployments are necessary in an emergency to protect our interests, for example, when it comes to trade routes, for example, when it comes to preventing regional instabilities that could negatively influence our trade, jobs and incomes.

Everyone knows that protecting a country's economic interests is one of the primary reasons for maintaining armed forces. Politicians will softpedal that to some degree, preferring to emphasize, for example, the protection of human rights, as in the Kosovo War of 1999.

But, in most countries, it wouldn't be considered a scandal, if the head of state were to acknowledge the economic motive. Germany, however, is not most countries. Memories of German aggression in World War II make its own people, and those of other countries, sensitive about any hint of a renewal of an aggressive German foreign policy.

The Federal Republic of Germany (then West Germany, but now governing the entire country) became a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1955. Under NATO's aegis, Germany has fought in places such as Kosovo and Afghanistan. Those wars have been clearly defensive in nature, and therefore are not seen to violate the taboo about Germany using military force to further its national interests.

It was in the context of the war in Afghanistan that Koehler made his remarks. Because that statement edged too close to taboo territory, he had to go.

The following day, in Japan, that country's head of government, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, announced his resignation, to be effective when his Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) has chosen a successor.

The main issue in Hatoyama's case is also an outgrowth of World War II. The U.S. retained control of some Japanese islands, including Okinawa, long after Japan's main islands again became self-governing. Finally, in 1972, those islands were returned to Japanese control. However, the U.S. has continued to maintain military bases on Japanese territory. Over the years, that American presence has become increasingly controversial with the Okinawan population.

As I described in this and other posts, the DPJ's victory in last year's general election was seen at the time as a major turning point in Japanese politics. The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which had maintained an almost-continuous hold on power for more than half a century, was finally booted out. Hatoyama and his party were to be the wave of the future. And one of their main policy changes was to be a recalibration of Japan's military alliance with the U.S.

Hatoyama recently reneged on a campaign promise to end the American military presence on Okinawa. Strategic concerns regarding China and North Korea militated against a weakening of the American alliance at this time. But, for residents of that island, the most important consideration was that it be "Not In My Back Yard" (NIMBY). In all parts of the world, NIMBY syndrome puts personal considerations ahead of national and international interests. As was the case with Germany's Koehler, Hatoyama mishandled a post-World War II issue, so he, too, had to go.

An episode of the 1970s British TV series Fawlty Towers involved innkeeper Basil Fawlty (played by John Cleese) playing host to a group of German tourists. The catch-phrase of that show was "don't mention the War." Even when German and Japanese leaders don't specifically mention the War, they still need to be careful what they say and do, regarding the consequences of World War II.

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