WASHINGTON -- The first stop on Condoleezza Rice's post-detonation, nuclear reassurance tour was Tokyo. There, she dutifully unfurled the American nuclear umbrella, pledging in person that the U.S. would meet any North Korean attack on Japan with massive American retaliation, nuclear if necessary.
An important message, to be sure, for the short run, lest Kim Jong Il imbibe a little too much cognac and be teased by one of his ``pleasure squad'' lovelies into launching a missile or two into Japan.
But Secretary Rice's declaration had another and obvious longer-run intent: to quell any thought Japan might have of going nuclear to counter and deter North Korea's bomb.
The Japanese understood this purpose well. Thus, at a joint news conference with Secretary Rice, Foreign Minister Taro Aso offered the boilerplate denial of even thinking of going nuclear: ``The government of Japan has no position at all to consider going nuclear.''
The impeccably polite Japanese were not about to contradict the secretary of state in her presence. Nonetheless, the very same Foreign Minister Aso had earlier the very same day told a parliamentary committee that Japan should begin debating the issue: ``The reality is that it is only Japan that has not discussed possessing nuclear weapons, and all other countries have been discussing it.''
Just three days earlier, another high-ranking member of the ruling party had transgressed the same taboo and called for open debate about Japan acquiring nuclear weapons.
The American reaction to such talk is knee-jerk opposition. Like those imperial Japanese soldiers discovered holed up on some godforsaken Pacific island decades after World War II, we continue to act as if we too never received news of the Japanese surrender. We applaud the Japanese for continuing their adherence to the MacArthur constitution that forever denies Japan the status of Great Power replete with commensurate military force.
Of course, Japan has in recent decades skirted that proscription, building a small but serious conventional military. Nuclear weapons, however, have remained off the table.
As the only country ever to suffer nuclear attack, Japan obviously has its own reasons to resist the very thought. But now that the lunatic regime next door, which has already overflown Japan with its missiles, has now officially gone nuclear, some rethinking is warranted.
Japan is a true anomaly. All the other Great Powers went nuclear decades ago -- even the once-and-no-longer great, like France; the wannabe great, like India; and the never-will-be great, like North Korea. There are nukes in the hands of Pakistan, which overnight could turn into an al-Qaeda state, and North Korea, a country so cosmically deranged that it reports that the ``Dear Leader'' shot five holes-in-one in his first time playing golf and also wrote six operas. Yet we are plagued by doubts about Japan joining this club.
Japan is not just a model international citizen -- dynamic economy, stable democracy, self-effacing foreign policy -- it is also the most important and reliable U.S. ally after only Britain. One of the quieter success stories of recent American foreign policy has been the intensification of the U.S.-Japanese alliance. Tokyo has joined with the U.S. in the development and deployment of missile defenses, and aligned itself with the U.S. on the neuralgic issue of Taiwan, pledging solidarity should there ever be a confrontation.
The immediate effect of Japan considering going nuclear would be to concentrate China's mind on de-nuclearizing North Korea. China currently calculates that North Korea is a convenient buffer between it and a dynamic, capitalist South Korea bolstered by American troops. China is quite content with a client regime that is a thorn in our side, keeping us tied down while it pursues its ambitions in the rest of Asia. Pyongyang's nukes, after all, are pointed not west but east.
Japan threatening to go nuclear would alter that calculation. It might even convince China to squeeze Kim Jong Il as a way to prevent Japan from going nuclear. The Japan card remains the only one that carries even the remote possibility of reversing North Korea's nuclear program.
Japan's response to the North Korean threat has been very strong and very insistent on serious sanctions. This is, of course, out of self-interest, not altruism. But that is the point. Japan's natural interests parallel America's in the Pacific Rim -- maintaining military and political stability, peacefully containing an inexorably expanding China, opposing the gangster regime in Pyongyang, and spreading the liberal democratic model throughout Asia. Why are we so intent on denying this stable, reliable, democratic ally the means to help us shoulder the burden in a world where so many other allies -- the inveterately appeasing South Koreans most notoriously -- insist on the free ride?