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The United States is looking for a few good friends to help it police the world. This week, Japan took a quiet leap away from its pacifist past and moved closer to an American request to assist it - in a noncombat way - during a conflict. For eight years, ever since it sat out the Gulf War, Japan has wrung its hands over how to beef up its military role without reviving militarism. The key was an alliance between two conservative parties. In the Mideast, the US is also finalizing a "strategic" military alliance with Israel. And it's trying to win over European allies to expand NATO's role beyond Europe before a summit in April. For the US to win over new allies - such as the giant, former Soviet state of Kazakstan - it may not want to demand full democracy. But is the US also helping American oil companies in that potentially rich country? That's the charge coming from democracy watchers. From Canada comes a tale of old-fashioned company loyalty to employees. A mining executive swapped places with a worker who was abducted in Colombia. The fact that a hefty ransom was paid to guerrillas was little noticed among Canadians who gave the executive a hero's welcome. - Clayton Jones World editor MILESTONES RANKING OF MILITARY POTENCY: America remains the world's leading warrior nation, according to a security index by the Royal United Services Institute in Britain. The index, as reported in the Guardian newspaper, is based on a nation's military spending, "government and popular commitment to defense," "a proclivity to go to war," and its ability to use its forces to influence events beyond its borders. The United States was followed by China, Russia, Britain, France, and North Korea. Britain overtook France last year because of a fall in French conscription and Britain's superior rapid-deployment capability. Trends show that the positions of richer countries in the index are falling while poorer nations are rising. CULTURAL INSIGHTS.. DRIVING MISS YAMANI: Economic downturns are no fun for Saudi Arabian hard-liners either. Al Quds al-Arabi newspaper in London reports that a fall in oil prices might mean women will at last be able to drive in the conservative kingdom. Falling standards of living mean many middle- class families have had to dispense with the services of a chauffeur, and men are reluctant to take time off work to drive their children to school or their wives to the shops. The paper reports that the law may be changed to allow married women over 35 years old to drive between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. Let us hear from you. Mail to: One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115 via e-mail:

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