TOKYO — Cold War frontiers have been among the most stable in history, drawn by a dominant power around the borders of dependent nations. If and when Kabul falls to Afghan rebels, it will be the first time a communist capital has been captured, even temporarily, by anti-communist forces since the North Koreans surrendered Pyongyang to America and its United Nations allies in fall, 1950.
A line was established that year that in effect divided the whole world outside the nascent neutralist camp into two blocs. Every direct East-West conflict during the past four decades has involved an effort to alter that line. Hungary's 1956 attempt to leave the Warsaw Pact provoked the bloodiest conflict in postwar European history. Within months of Cuba's defection from West to East, Moscow and Washington were on the road to the most dangerous military confrontation in the history of the planet. The line was not meant to be altered.
Caught in the frozen embrace of one alliance or the other, a dependent nation soon learns that the dominant power has little or no awareness of the price paid for membership in such a bloc. For Canada, Britain, Mexico or Japan to be an ally of the United States means a state of fundamental dependence that is at once military, diplomatic, economic and even psychological.
Dependence is inevitably constricting and uncomfortable; no nation would choose such a condition. This is not to equate being an American ally with being a Soviet satellite, but only a very brash American might think he could win friends by reminding an unsmiling Briton or Japanese that his country is somehow "lucky" not to be Czechoslovakia or Outer Mongolia.
This does not mean allies are ungrateful for our support. British success in the Falkland Islands War was greatly aided by the Pentagon; informed Britons know it. But to be a junior partner in the Western Alliance is to risk having one's relative weakness exposed at any moment.
Witness the humiliation of British Prime Minister Anthony Eden by Dwight D. Eisenhower over Suez. Richard M. Nixon's trade and China policies helped bring down Eisaku Sato, Japan's longest-serving prime minister; what Japanese call the "Nixon shocks" still rankle.
No country likes such treatment, but the realities of world politics, be they the Soviet threat or American economic will, mean that most of the time allies have no option but to suffer in silence.
The most recent example of Washington high-handedness toward allies was the invasion of Grenada. U.S. troops were sent in without so much as a courtesy call to that country's head of state, Queen Elizabeth II. Such little slaps, but they do come to mind when powerful U.S. senators come calling with loud talk about "free rides" inside the Western Alliance.
In such countries, year after year the voting public must be educated in this lack of option. The same questions must be answered again and again. Why does our country always follow the American lead at the United Nations? Why are American troops here? Why is so much of our news devoted to the minutiae of American politics?
Such questions produce a constant tension, between a public that cannot understand its country's dependence on the United States, and an elite that understands all too well. That tension constitutes a central dynamic for foreign-policy making in West Germany, Britain, Japan and other nations.
It also means that our allies are almost embarrassingly well-informed about us. The average Japanese could probably name our five largest cities and maybe 10 of our states. A major survey of Japanese public opinion published this summer suggested that 80% of all Japanese adults could name the current occupant of the White House (a similar sampling of U.S. opinion revealed one American adult in 2,000 could identity Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita). Such figures have been roughly constant for 40 years.
A complacent American might argue: "Why should I know? It's our alliance, and we're on top." Curiously, most Japanese would accept this argument. In fact, they believe that in this equation of American ignorance of Japan and Japanese knowledge of America a distinct logic--the logic of hierarchy--is at work.
The Japanese feel a sense of deference because of the fact of American power. The disciplined Japanese surrender in 1945 was a matter of internal obedience, but the occupation of the country between 1945 and 1952 represented a profound education in the reality of American might. Wartime rivalry colored Japanese feelings into the late 1940s, but in the next decade, official deference to Washington became habitual. This made perfect sense: the Pacific was an American lake.
Such a condition was unlikely to last. Even more than China or the Soviet Union, Japan is the other natural power in the Pacific. But the postwar settlement left her disarmed and ideologically adrift. Only economic competition was open.
For 40 years Japan concentrated on the only path military defeat left available. Just as the United States won the military struggle of the 1940s, the Japanese have won the economic struggle of the 1960s, '70s and '80s. This is a fact, but few Japanese suggest that a new battleship Yamato be sailed into Long Beach harbor for a replay of the Missouri surrender ceremony.
This is because the Japanese are a cautious people, aware of their continuing diplomatic and military dependence on Washington. But the anatomy of dependence is changing. On the economic front, it is reversed. To the hierarchic Japanese mind, it is now we who owe some deference.