When Japanese Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki left Washington the other day his hosts waved goodbye with a comfortable feeling that the visit had been a success. And so it was -- until Prime Minister Suzuki got home. It was a disaster for the very reason the White House had thought it had been a success.
They thought it successful because the visitors from Japan had signed a paper which used the word "alliance" and because it talked about an "appropriate division of roles between Japan and the United States."
But back in Japan the word "alliance" did not have the same comfortable overtones it seemed to have in Washington. What sounded friendly in Washington and implied greater closeness than ever between old friends sounded in Japanese ears like an ominous association with militarism. Japanese politicians looking for an excuse to strike at the prime minister claimed he had committed their country to a new and higher level of military effort. The Washington communique revived memories of a lost war which the Japanese got themselves into by signing an "alliance" with Hitler's Germany.
Results: Foreign Minister Masayoshi Ito resigned. His successor immediately complained of US callousness toward Japanese interests, citing the accidental sinking of a Japanese freighter by a US submarine and a more recent incident involving damage to Japanese fishing gear. The prime minister's political standing was weakened.How seriously weakened is not yet clear. It is possible that his good-will visit to Washington will cost him his job.
Let us hope that the visit of West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt will have a happier afterglow. There is the best will in the world behind the visit, both on Herr Schmidt's part and on the part of the Reagan administration. West Germany is the most important ally the US has on the western flank of the Soviet Union. It is the front line of NATO. It is the bastion behind which the rest of Western Europe shelters. It has the strongest army in Western Europe. Without West Germany in the allies' order of battle there wouldn't be a defendable Western Europe.
But what Washington most wants out of the Schmidt visit is less popular among West Germans than it is among Americans. Washington wants the West Germans to spend more money on weapons, recruit more men into their armed forces, and carry through with the standing NATO plan to deploy modern intermediate-range nuclear weapons on West German soil.
Chancellor Schmidt probably agrees largely if not entirely that all these things would be good for the alliance and good for the mutual protection of all its members. But there is one problem touching on his ability to go along in these matters which parallels the Japanese problem. The thinking of peoples is conditioned by their past.At the beginning of World War II Japan and Germany were the most heavily armed countries in the world. They were defeated.
Among Americans, arms are associated with victory, with the triumph of good over evil. It is mentally easier for Americans to welcome new and better and more weapons than it is for Japanese and Germans. The Reagan administration's plans for expanding American military power are relatively popular in the US, but to many a German or Japanese ear it sounds like a dangerously wrong answer to the problems of the day. Detente is politically more popular among West Germans and Japanese than are guns.
Alliances are always difficult to build, and to nourish. The marvel of NATO is that it still exists and still is regarded among its members as the backbone of their security systems. It is in difficulty for many reasons. Among these is a difference of world perspective. When the alliance was formed two of its European members -- Britain and France --were imperial powers with a world range of interests. Today, the US and the Soviet Union are the only countries with a world range of interests. France is still interested in Africa. Britain has a few nominal colonies. But West Germany, France, and Britain are today primarily and essentially European powers with interests largely limited to Europe.
The Suzuki and Schmidt visits to Washington are exercises in trying to adjust the interests and needs of one world power, the US, with regional powers, Japan and West Germany. It requires a degree of understanding about the problems of the regional powers which people newly come to Washington do not always have at their finger tips.
The Carter administration had trouble learning about the problems of keeping an alliance together. It is to be hoped that the Reagan administration will be a faster learner in th ese matters.