[GLOBAL EYE]Public opinion’s role in diplomacyThe question of a troop deployment to Iraq is likely to be a diplomatic nuisance for at least a month. The president has said that public opinion would be considered in making a decision, but it will not be easy to reach a conclusion by aggregating public sentiment, which is divided. Under these circumstances people have begun to say that the president needs to make a strong political decision. Indeed, the troop deployment needs a good cause. At the same time, we need to consider our national interest. If there is gap between the cause and national interest, it should be filled by the demonstration of political leadership.
Diplomacy has turned into an extension of domestic politics. When foreign affairs influence the daily lives of average citizens, diplomacy cannot be monopolized by a handful of specialists. Given the free movement of information across international borders, the president can no longer make important policy decisions by sitting around a table with his advisers. The domestic burden at stake is too large to be handled by a small group.
The view that U.S. President George W. Bush’s foreign policies are based on calculations for next year’s election is banal. The situation is similar in Korea. With the general election ahead in April, we are not so naive as to imagine that President Roh Moo-hyun would make a decision on the troop deployment without considering votes. That is why the majority opposition party’s leader was asked to endorse the troop deployment during his recent U.S. visit. Washington is focusing on persuading politicians, but that strategy would only have limited influence. For average Koreans, America’s presence has been fading. Americans must not expect that Koreans would gladly embrace the United States, whose worldwide popularity has nosedived. Washington might be uncomfortable with Korea calculating its national interest and being emotional and unprofessional, but Koreans are not so enthusiastic about an ally that has been acting rather unilaterally and selfishly.
Much of the justification for the troop deployment should come from the U.S. side. The Korean government needs to persuade its citizens based on actual interests. If political leaders merely drift with public opinion instead of calming and guiding public sentiment, we would only end up with a damaged national interest and public sentiment. After all, it is problematic to shift all responsibility to the president.
The U.S. government has long been aware of the weight of public opinion in the foreign policy decision-making process, and added “public diplomacy” to the list of key tasks. Former government officials and specialists established the Council on Foreign Relations to promote public understanding of international affairs. The organization has helped to educate the public on diplomacy. Congress operates bipartisan committees to consider divergent opinions on important issues and have the public actively participate in the decision-making process.
When the superpower is so sensitive about public opinion, Korea needs to pay more attention to increasing the public’s understanding of foreign affairs. The international climate can make or break the future of the country. Six-nation talks were held to try to resolve North Korea’s nuclear threat and the basic frame of the Korea-U.S. alliance is about to shatter. At this juncture, it is still doubtful how rational our perspective on the world is, and how clearly we understand our own national interest. Normally loquacious experts become strangely reticent when it comes to sensitive issues where they cannot predict which way the wind is blowing.
The government is more interested in reading public opinion than letting citizens know the importance of an issue and providing the bigger picture. We cannot expect mature discussion from politicians who spend days and nights involved in political strife.
Serious diplomatic puzzles such as the nuclear issue, the troop deployment and the realignment of U.S. forces in Korea demand strategic thinking from even the average citizen. We cannot just expect the president to come up with a magic solution.
It is time for the government, civilian experts and institutions, and the media to begin a much-belated collaboration to improve the public’s understanding of international affairs.
* The writer is an editorial writer and director of the Unification Research Institute of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kil Jeong-woo