Germany and Japan are beefing up their militaries. No cause for concern — right?

Germany and Japan are rearming. The defeated World War II aggressors have lost their timidity. Japan will soon deploy cruise missiles that can hit nearby countries. Germany is speeding up weapons production, has based an army brigade in Lithuania, and may reintroduce conscription. Are you scared yet?

To a generation now fading away, the reemergence of Germany and Japan as major military powers would be chilling. Ruling cliques in both countries went berserk with fanatic militarism and killed millions. It’s only natural that their renewed claim to martial power would stir old fears.

Are those fears reasonable? Germany and Japan are far from the dictatorships they were 80 years ago. Both became wards of the United States after their defeat in 1945. They emerged from years of tutelage as pro-American democracies with stable societies and booming economies. Today both are military allies of the United States. Successive German and Japanese leaders have cherished these alliances as guarantors of peace.

With both countries now embarking on robust efforts to rebuild their military power, however, their regional rivals are reacting. Russia, which defeated Hitler’s invasion at unimaginable cost, naturally feels chills at the specter of strengthened German legions. A Russian official said German military support for Ukraine proves that Germany refuses “to recognize its historical responsibility to our people for the terrible, timeless crimes of Nazism.”

China, which was devastated by a Japanese rampage of slaughter in the 1930s and ‘40s, has reacted to Japan’s rearmament with comparable defiance. A Chinese spokesperson accused Japan of “hyping up the ‘China threat’ to find an excuse for its military buildup.” This is the classic security dilemma: Steps that one country takes to defend itself seem threatening to others.

Japan has announced that its next military budget will be 15 percent higher than the previous year’s. This is the second year of a five-year spurt that is to produce a 60 percent increase in defense spending by 2027. Japan will build two state-of-the-art warships at a cost of $2.6 billion and buy offensive weaponry from the United States, starting with Tomahawk cruise missiles and F-35 fighter jets. The government has also relaxed export restrictions to allow its weapons industry to grow. These steps, the German news agency Deutsche Welle reported, were “a major break from Japan’s postwar principles of limiting the country’s use of force to self-defense.”

In its 1947 constitution, Japan pledged that it would “forever renounce war” and that “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.” Yet today Japan fears not only China but also North Korea. When Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced Japan’s ambitious military plans last month, he said that East Asia’s “severe environment” requires his country to develop a “counterstrike capability.” He quickly added that there was “no change to our principle as a pacifist nation,” but that was hard to swallow. If Japan completes its planned five-year buildup, it will have the world’s third-largest defense budget.

Germany’s air force also wants a squadron of F-35 fighters. Its army has gained experience in long-distance deployment by joining US-led operations in Kosovo and Afghanistan. Today Germany not only fears war in the abstract but sees one raging in Ukraine, less than 1,000 miles from its eastern border.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz was given a rare standing ovation in Parliament when he proclaimed in 2022 that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine marked a “turning point” that required Germany to pour billions more into defense. Leaders of all major parties, including the once-pacifist Greens, strongly support the drive to rearm. Some fear that if Russia overruns Ukraine, it could push further and threaten Germany itself. The defense minister has called for a “change in mentality” and raised the possibility of conscription. There is even talk of reinforcing highways so they will be strong enough to support tanks.

Two thirds of Germans, according to a recent poll, reject the idea that their country should be a “leading power.” Their hesitation has been bolstered by several scandals in which far-right cells were discovered within the German military. Yet simply looking at a map shows that Germany is destined to be a major power regardless of what its people want. When Otto von Bismarck knitted Germany together from a patchwork of principalities and dukedoms in 1871, he created a behemoth. Twice over the next 70 years, its expansionist ambitions wreaked havoc in Europe. Today’s Germany has no such ambitions. Given geography and history, though, it’s hard to be sure about tomorrow’s Germany.

The same is true of Japan. Encouraged by President Theodore Roosevelt, who believed it was “the only nation in Asia that understands the principles and methods of Western civilization,” Japan seized Korea in 1910. It then launched a bloody campaign to subdue Asia, symbolized by its attack on Pearl Harbor. Japan’s rearmament today, like Germany’s, is not unilateral or threatening but defensive and in support of global coalitions. So there’s nothing to fear — right?

In a bygone era, many people around the world considered Germany and Japan the apotheosis of murderous aggression. Both countries have changed enormously since then. Nonetheless, the specter of their growing military power raises memories that history forces us to confront.

Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.

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