In an essay I wrote in 2011, I argued that Germany should no longer be thought of as a “civilian power” but rather as a “geo-economic power”. I argued that the weakening of the Federal Republic’s commitment to multilateralism during the previous decade and its increasing economic assertiveness, particularly within the eurozone, undermined its claim to be a “civilian power” – that is, one that used multilateral institutions and economic co-operation rather than military power to achieve its foreign policy goals. The concept of “civilian power” was originally used by François Duchêne to describe the European Union and was applied to the Federal Republic by Hanns W. Maull, who, in one of his first essays on the subject in the early 1990s, described Germany and Japan as “new civilian powers” – “prototypes” of “a new type of international power”. So if Germany is no longer a “civilian power”, what about Japan?
On a recent study trip to Tokyo (about which I’ve also written elsewhere), I was struck by how Japan was going through a debate about the use of military force that is remarkably similar to the one that took place in Germany in the 1990s. Japan is now debating changing its constitution, which renounces the use of military force, in order to make a greater contribution to “collective self-defence” – for example by coming to the aid of allies that are under attack. However, as in Germany in the 1990s, there is visceral opposition to change from much of the public, which since World War II has rejected militarism and developed strong pacifist tendencies. Because of this opposition, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had already been forced to abandon a plan to revise Article 9 of the constitution. But on the day I left Tokyo, a man set himself on fire near where I was staying in protest at Abe’s plan to instead “re-interpret” the constitution, which was announced a few days later.
There are some significant differences between the two cases. In the case of Germany, the shift on military force was largely driven by pressure from allies and in particular the United States, which wanted Germany to make a greater contribution to solving post-Cold War conflicts. In the case of Japan, on the other hand, it is driven above all by the rise – and increasing assertiveness – of China (although Japan’s allies also support the shift). Moreover, even given this real security threat, the steps Japan is taking are small even in comparison to the ones Germany took in the 1990s. Japan’s Self-Defense Forces are still much more constrained, for example in peackeeping operations, than the Bundeswehr. Japan’s military expenditure as a proportion of GDP remains under 1 percent – less than Germany, which, as a NATO member, is often criticised for spending under 2 percent of GDP on defence. Some in the United States complain that, even as it steps up its own commitment, Japan is still not contributing enough to its security.
Nevertheless, on the surface, the parallel with Germany in the 1990s might suggest that Japan’s “civilian power” identity is also weakening. Some even see a danger of a revival of Japanese militarism and point to Abe’s visit in December 2013 to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, where 14 Class A war criminals are enshrined (Abe’s grandfather, Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, was arrested as a suspected war criminal after World War II, although was never charged). Thus Abe, born in 1954, is seen as representing a new generation of revisionists who seek to draw a line under the wartime past – somewhat like the way that in Germany in the 1990s some seemed to seek to draw a Schlußstrich, or final line, under the Nazi past. As in Germany at that time, proponents of the idea of loosening restrictions on the use of military force to make a greater contribution to security also use the language of “normality”.
However, as Maull made clear in his retirement lecture in 2013, such a reduction of “civilian power” to opposition to the use of military force is based on a kind of pacifist misreading his version of the concept, which centres on the idea of “civilising” international relations rather than a simple dichotomy of “civilian” and “military” power. In fact, according to Maull, even an ideal-typical “civilian power” can and should in some cases use military force to keep the peace or restore order. Thus in the 1990s, even as Germany reconciled itself to the use of military force – culminating in its participation in the NATO military intervention in Kosovo in 1999 – it could still claim to be a “civilian power”. Germany’s claim to be a “civilian power” was undermined not so much in the first decade after reunification as in the second, during which opposition to the use of military force in Germany actually seemed to harden.
More significant in terms of the question of whether Japan can claim still to be a “civilian power” is the way that, even as it loosens restrictions on the use of military force in response to the rise and assertiveness of China, it emphases the international rule of law. In Maull’s version of the concept, the ultimate foreign-policy objective of a “civilian power” is to seek to create a multilateral monopoly on the use of force analogous to the state’s monopoly on the use of force in a domestic context. In its disputes with China over the Senkaku Islands (which the Chinese call the Diaoyu), Japan continually makes the case for the rule of law and in particular the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (see for example Abe’s speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in May). China’s claims to the Senkaku and most of the South China Sea, on the other hand, are based not on international law but on history.
One might also argue that Japan’s policy on arms exports strengthens its claim still to be a “civilian power”. Throughout the post-war period, the Federal Republic exported weapons – a kind of blind spot in its “civilian power” identity. In the case of Japan, on the other hand, the reunciation of the use of military force also extended to arms sales: since 1967, the government has in effect banned itself from selling weapons. Admittedly, Japan is now changing this policy so it can take part in joint development military technology projects with its allies as part of its commitment to “collective self-defence”. But it is hard to imagine that Japan will ever export weapons on the scale of Germany – which according to the most recent set of SIPRI figures, is now the world’s third largest exporter of major arms after the US and Russia. In short, unlike Germany, Japan can still claim to be a “civilian power”.