In March 2011, Mr. Katsunobu Sakurai, the mayor of Minamisoma in Japan was widely quoted by numerous international media agencies as saying ‘they’re leaving us to die’. This was in reaction to the failure of the Japanese Government to swiftly and adequately respond and assist millions of its citizens affected by the strongest earthquake ever to hit the island State. The 9.0 magnitude earthquake triggered tsunami waves of up to 10 meters high (33ft) and inflicted extensive and devastating damage to Japan’s infrastructure, including airports, roads, ports, dams, and nuclear facilities and killed over 16,447 people, more than 4,787 are still missing; over 5,888 were injured. At least 336,521 people were displaced from their homes, over 111,944 buildings were totally destroyed, over 139,870 buildings partially destroyed, 517,050 buildings slightly damaged!
Japan, the world’s third-largest economy by nominal GDP and by purchasing power parity, the world’s fourth largest exporter and fifth largest importer, the Asian regional leader and a thriving democracy almost crumbled and was brought to its knees by the brutality of the untamed mother nature. Millions of people were stranded and abandoned. For a long time, they were left without electricity, food, water and shelter. They were homeless and desperate in freezing weather conditions as temperatures in most of the affected areas plunged to below -10C!
According to scientists, the earthquake moved Honshu, the largest island in Japan 2.4 m (7.9 ft) east and shifted the Earth on its axis by almost 10 cm (3.9 in). Honshu has a population of about 103 million and it is in this region that popular cities including Tokyo, Yokohama, Kawasaki, Osaka, Nagoya, Kobe, and Hiroshima are located. The Prime Minister of Japan Naoto Kan said that “in the 65 years after the end of World War II, this is the toughest and the most difficult crisis for Japan”. Mr. Kan was later forced to resign from office because of his Government’s inadequate response to the disaster.
The earthquake and tsunami also resulted in the nuclear disaster which led to several equipment failures and releases of radioactive materials at the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Station. The accident is the second biggest nuclear accident after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, but more complex as all six reactors of the station were significantly affected.
Estimates have placed insured losses from the earthquake alone at US$14.5 to $34.6 billion. Numerous countries gave warnings to their citizens against travel to Japan because of unguaranteed safety and security reasons and as a result, thousands of foreigners left Japan. The country was, for the first time, in need of emergency aid including food, tents etc, reconstruction and security aid, all of which for a long time have always been strongly associated with failed states in Africa and Asia.
The effects of the earthquake and tsunami have exposed the weaknesses of the Japanese state and brought to the surface unanswered questions regarding Japan and Chinese potential capacity to either join or challenge the United States of America for the global leadership status which has since the end of the cold war never been seriously challenged.
In general terms, a superpower is a state with a dominant position in the international system and has the ability to influence events and its own interests and project power on a worldwide scale to protect those interests. It is generally accepted that a superpower must have certain distinguishing features including the following: a political community that occupies a continental-sized landmass, a sizable population (relative at least to other major powers); a superordinate economic capacity (relative to others), including sufficient indigenous supplies of food and natural resources; a high degree of non-dependence on international intercourse; and, most importantly, a well-developed nuclear capacity (second-strike capability).
Interestingly, the few countries like china, Germany which previously have been associated with a lot of potential to rise to the top are now folding and in the wake of the Japan earthquake, have announced plans to suspend their nuclear facilities. Even before the Japan nuclear accident, there was apparent strong opposition to the militarisation of nuclear technology in these countries.
In the past, the United States’ superpower status has been challenged and affected by several incidents and disasters. However, instead of being weakened, it has emerged stronger and victorious from these events. These events include the following:
- The Cold war – this was very costly in monetary terms.
- The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington – claimed over 2000 people in one day, completely destroyed the twin towers housing the World Trade Centre and partly damaged the Pentagon, the headquarters of the United States Department of Defense.
- The USA has survived several deadly hurricanes. The most recent being the 2005 Hurricane Katrina. This was the costliest natural disaster, as well as one of the five deadliest hurricanes, in the history of the United States. At least 1,836 people died in the actual hurricane and in the subsequent floods, making it the deadliest U.S. hurricane since the 1928 Okeechobee hurricane; the total property damage was estimated at $81 billion.
- The USA has survived several wars including Vietnam, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan. In Vietnam and Somalia, rather than being defeated, the USA invoked domestic demands and pulled out of these countries. In the latter two, the enemy has either been defeated or neutralized and the USA and its allies are taking steps to build and strengthen the capacities of those states so that they take charge of their own affairs.
- The USA has also been able to recover from the recent economic crisis and the Deep-water Horizon Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the largest accidental marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry. The spill caused extensive damage to marine and wildlife habitats as well as the Gulf’s fishing and tourism industries.
It is important to note that at the height of these major US tribulations, there is no single state that was ever ready to rise up and take responsibility of the global leader. According to Prof. Kim Richard Nossal, the current USA’s global hegemonic status seems undisputed and it is well positioned to continue its dominance of the global political, economic, military, technological, and cultural spheres for a long time to come.
Edward Tujunirwe is the Assistant Executive Secretary and Head of Corporate and International Affairs at Uganda National Council for Science and Technology.
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