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Diplomacy, which is all about weighing, combining and manipulating power, is usually indifferent, sometimes antithetical and in some cases downright hostile to the very notion of morality. Still, some foreign policies are driven by a moral urge, like that which inspired postwar Japan and Germany, and post-apartheid South Africa, all of which are self-styled moral powers.
For Japan, the Bomb became the epitome of human evil, the ominous monument to the grave mistake that nation made in embracing fascism. After a nuclear test in the Bikini Islands in 1954 - which killed one Japanese fisherman - a petition calling for a universal ban on nuclear tests was signed by some 30 million Japanese citizens, thus unwittingly making Japan the world's leading anti-nuclear preacher.
In 1995, when France detonated a bomb in French Polynesia, the French ambassador was summoned to the Foreign Ministry in Tokyo for a lengthy reprimand, while the mayor of Hiroshima accused France of "betraying the international community" and the finance minister - fresh from an anti-nuclear march in Tahiti the previous week - reminded the French that "this is not the era of Napoleon." The West Germans emerged from the war with a different attitude.
In the very days when thousands of Japanese were petitioning against nuclear tests, Chancellor Konrad Adenauer actually sought the Bomb, as part of his view of the Soviet Union as an intrinsic threat to the country he was rebuilding. In March 1958, following a four-day debate, the Bundestag resolved that the Bundeswehr would be equipped "with the most modern weapons" unless there was a universal disarmament deal. As Adenauer's biographer Charles Williams wrote, "Everybody understood that 'the most modern weapons' meant 'nuclear.'"
The West Germans did not demonize nuclear arms not only because they were not nuked but because they realized that to be moral, they had to focus on the crimes that only they committed, and that had to mean helping to rehabilitate the Jewish people. That is why Adenauer crafted the reparations agreement that gave billions of deutschmarks to Holocaust survivors and to the Jewish state, and that is why he and his successors encouraged the restoration of Jewish life in Germany.
The South African moral situation is simpler, because it is free of guilt.
Post-apartheid South Africa speaks not as a former villain, but as a moral victor, the country that managed to defeat history's biggest racists since Hitler. That is why its moral diplomacy is essentially optimistic. As Nelson Mandela put it ("South Africa's Future Foreign Policy," Foreign Affairs, November-December 1993), "The pillars upon which our foreign policy will rest" should include "the promotion of democracy worldwide" as the only way to lastingly solve international problems, the enshrinement of justice and international law as the guides of relations between nations, and the acceptance of peace as "the goal for which all nations should strive."
NOW, THE Iranian crisis is challenging the three moral powers.
Theoretically at least, Japan can't accept any mixture of nukes and aggression; Germany can't accept a nuclear bomb that targets Jews; and South Africa can't accept the post-apartheid era's most racist regime.
Now some will say: How is Iran racist if all it asks is that the Jews of Israel relocate? Well, that's actually what the Nazis initially told the Jews of Europe. In fact, other than linking inferiority and biology, the closest one can get to racism is wishing another's country "erased off the map."
In addition to its nuclear, anti-Semitic and racist aspects, the Iranian crisis should alarm Japan, Germany and South Africa because it is happening in a classically fascistic context, one that combines domestic oppression with regional bullying, diplomatic conniving and imperial hallucinations.
Yet curiously enough, rather than form a stiff moral axis, the moral powers have responded to the Iranian crisis in three different ways.
Japan last year said it would join UN sanctions, but has otherwise kept a low profile. Berlin has been actively admonishing Teheran and prodding Moscow and Beijing to join a prospective boycott of Teheran, but stopped short of delivering an exclusively German threat to Teheran. And Pretoria has been opposing UN sanctions and trying to play the honest broker - only last month a broadly smiling Thabo Mbeki hosted Iranian nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani - an attitude that it wants us to believe is unrelated to South Africa's massive oil imports from Iran.
Of the three, Pretoria's is obviously the most pathetic stance, one that shames Mandela's legacy and makes a laughingstock of South Africa's habitual pontifications to Israel for resorting to this or that tactic in defending itself. Iran's quest to eliminate another country is at least as criminal as apartheid South Africa's discrimination against its blacks was in its time.
Japan's response, considering its distance from the Middle East and Iran's sizable share (10 percent) in Tokyo's oil imports, has been admirable, but also passive. To be consistent with its anti-nuclear convictions, Japan must proceed to the front row of the international effort to isolate Teheran and publicly tell Iran that it is "betraying the international community" and that ours is "not the era of Napoleon," as its leaders so eloquently told France last decade under much less belligerent circumstances.
Yet the most crucial role in this specter has to be Berlin's.
The Germans must change the subject from Iran's nuclear program to its rejection of Israel's right to exist. To be effective, not to mention moral, Germany should tell Iran: "We must sever our diplomatic ties with you until you restore yours with Israel."
Chances of any of this happening may be low, but if and when the world wakes up one day rattled by yet another unexpected Jewish response to yet another unwarranted attack on the Jews - it should already know now whose moral weakness helped make it happen.
Last in a three-part series.
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