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Japan and Germany must unite to protect the Western order

As the US retreats from the international stage, others must take the lead

TOKYO -- The world is no longer surprised when U.S. President Donald Trump issues flurries of self-righteous tweets. Trump's particular kind of bombast may work well when preaching to his base, but the rest of the world is increasingly averting its gaze from such a simple-minded man, and indeed, emerging trends indicate that we are now witnessing a shift away from an American-led order. 

The Pew Research Center conducted a study in 37 countries between February and May and found that only 22% of the people surveyed think that Trump will properly handle international affairs, down from 64% for Barack Obama in the closing years of his presidency. 

Confidence in the U.S. under the Obama and Trump presidencies has plunged from 49% to 5% in Mexico and from 86% to 11% in Germany, but rose from 11% to 53% in Russia, among other survey findings.

Trump has yet to put into action his avowed plans for sanctions to reduce U.S. trade deficits, cut taxes and prime the pump with fiscal spending. Nevertheless, signs of an international breakaway from the U.S. are increasing in most countries around the world. 

The question is: Who will fill the gap?

Enter the void 

The upcoming summit meeting of the Group of 20 major economies in Hamburg, Germany, on July 7 and 8 will reflect the flux in powerful relationships that has been occurring since the advent of the Trump administration. 

In conversations I had with German government officials, I got the feeling that Germany, as chair of the meeting, is expecting Japan to join hands with it and help prop up the international order. 

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe are both 62 years old. At the meeting of leaders from the Group of Seven leading economies in Sicily, Italy, in May, which marked their 12th and sixth G-7 summit attendance, respectively, Merkel and Abe were pushed around by Trump over the assessment of anti-protectionism and the Paris Agreement, a new framework for fighting global warming.

After that summit, Merkel declared: "The times in which we could fully rely on others are, to a certain extent, over. We Europeans must really take our destiny into our own hands." 

While Merkel's statements were widely reported as being a proclamation of detachment from the U.S., they presuppose that Germany will maintain friendly relations with the U.S. and Britain. After all, the U.S. is still the world's biggest economy and strongest military power. Complete disengagement is not possible. 

Nations around the world are attempting to capitalize on the disarray among developed nations in a bid to expand their influence. China is claiming itself as the guardian of free trade, while Russia is suspected to have staged cyberattacks to affect U.S. and European elections. 

"Much will rest on the shoulders" of Abe and Merkel "if the liberal international order is to survive," John Ikenberry, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University, said in his contribution to Foreign Affairs magazine.

Japan and Germany have three ties that can bind them in the realignment. 

First, both have been accused by the Trump administration of having overly large trade surpluses with the U.S., which is threatening to adopt unilateral measures to amend those imbalances. Japan and Germany can join together and check the U.S. in order to maintain multilateral free trade. 

Second, Germany and Japan can work together on medium- to long-term challenges facing the world, such as the fight against global warming -- centered on the Paris Agreement -- as well as tackling the twin issues of dwindling birthrates and aging populations that face many developed nations. 

Thirdly, the two countries can cooperate on technological innovation in such fields as information technology, focused on the fourth industrial revolution, and energy. 

An economic partnership agreement between Japan and the European Union, which is nearing the finish line after years of negotiations, is a litmus test for the Japan-Germany alliance. 

Answering my question at a news conference in May 2011, Merkel voiced support for the launch of talks on the EPA, saying that the EU should conclude an agreement with Japan that is similar to the EU-South Korean EPA.

Six years have passed since then, and Abe is eager to ink the deal. 

Pole positions

Meanwhile, Britain is moving forward with its exit from the EU. British Prime Minister Theresa May, who now leads a minority government, is unlikely to have many opportunities to exercise leadership in the international arena as she must focus on the Brexit negotiations.

"In three to four years' time, the world may enter a period of stagnation with an unforeseeable future as a result of Anglo-Saxon countries' unwise choices," said Hiroshi Watanabe, president of the Institute for International Monetary Affairs.

Concrete steps are needed to prevent the world from falling apart. One encouraging sign can be seen in France, where President Emmanuel Macron has started joint efforts with Merkel to realize a "strong EU."

Germany will improve the economic order in the EU and its neighboring areas in cooperation with France and other countries, while Japan will solidify the free trade system in Asia through the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement and other measures. One by one, the accumulation of achievements will create a mechanism to softly enfold U.S. and British isolationism. 

Many pundits question whether Japan and Germany can really join hands. The two countries have different philosophies on fiscal and monetary policies and also differ in their attitudes toward China and Russia. But these differences may actually complement each other.

Cooperation that goes beyond conventional wisdom is indispensable for a "poleless world," Yorizumi Watanabe, a professor at Keio University, said. "Japan and Europe have no other choice but to be united under four values, namely democracy, rule of law, human rights and the market economy."

Both Merkel and Abe could stay in office until 2021 if her Christian Democratic Union wins the Bundestag, or lower house, election in September and if Abe is reelected president of his ruling Liberal Democratic Party in the autumn of 2018. Making good use of the next four years is indispensable. 

The world economy needs comprehensive growth that promotes free trade and protects disadvantaged members of society. It is up to Japan and Germany to preserve the Western order while leaving room for the U.S. to eventually return to the fold. 

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