Having failed to establish itself as a great power militarily in the 1940s, Japan succeeded in doing so economically two decades later. But its success is not fully satisfying to its national aspirations. Is it enough to be the best businessmen and industrialists in Asia? Does national greatness impose special international demands on a people?
Japan is accepting the Reagan administration's suggestion that it should respond to such demands by taking on a larger share of the military burden of keeping the world stable enough for nations to go about their business. But there may be a better way, though Japan's leaders have not yet seriously considered it. Rather than follow the United States to balanced-powerdom, or even superpowerdom, it might be better to take up the burden the US laid down a decade or so ago of devoting a major share of its national resources to international development.
Japan's foreign aid program never reached even the average level among OECD members, in amount or quality, to say nothing of playing a leadership role. More than a dozen ministries and agencies have a hand in administering it, so its focus is blurred and its domestic visibility as a symbol of the national presence in world affairs is limited. Japan's potential as a self-made modern state is not captured in its outreach to Africa or Latin America, or even to its Asian neighbors, which receive 60 percent of the aid it does give.
The official reports on Japanese foreign aid assign more words to the function of protecting access to raw materials than to that of promoting development or relieving poverty or extending technological resources imaginatively enough to do for the farms and slums of the third world what Japan did for the highways of America and Europe.
If Japan were to be the first nation to achieve the United Nations goal of devoting .7 percent of its GNP to official development and aid by 1986, the total aggregated cost over the five-year period would be $39.6 billion, a not inconsiderable sum but only half the cost of increasing its military expenditures over the same period at the rate of 71/2 percent, the figure President Reagan has suggested as an appropriate share of the defense burden.
By way of comparison, Japan's expenditures in the target year of 1986 would be $15.8 billion for arms (1.15 percent of its anticipated GNP), vs. $9.4 billion for foreign aid (.7 percent of its anticipated GNP).
Which course would pay Japan the greater dividends? The military route would please the US and Europe, but disturb Asia and possibly the Middle East (since it would presumably release American resources for deployment there). The foreign aid option would serve many needs and interests in the third world without alienating the US or Europe.
The military route would have only marginal benefits for Japanese security, since it would alarm the Soviet Union and perhaps tempt its own leaders to risky foreign adventures. The foreign aid option would respond to the idealism and career ambitions of Japan's jaded youth and open up new opportunities to Japanese industry technology transfer via commercial investments.
It is hard to imagine Japan's present leaders exerting themselves much on behalf of foreign aid in the present economic climate, especially as they observe American statesmen allowing US efforts to decline. But, as a gesture in place of the much costlier and riskier proposal to share America's military burden in Asia, it has much to recommend it.
Not often can a nation demonstrate greatness without investing heavily in arms, but Japan at this moment can. The burden it could share by making the half-price choice would serve mankind and not just itself. No nation has yet encountered such a cost-effective means of establishing itself as a leader in world diplomacy.