[OUTLOOK]One of the costs of democracy

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[OUTLOOK]One of the costs of democracy

Just a few weeks ago, South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun joined former U.S. President Bill Clinton as an elected head of state who had been impeached by the national legislative body (this happened to Clinton in 1997, and he was acquitted). As far as I know, these are the only two elected, sitting presidents of democratic nations to have been impeached during the past one hundred years. Moreover, in both cases, the charges upon which the impeachments were based seemed to be relatively minor. But whether President Roh will, like Clinton, be acquitted is yet to be seen.
Both impeachments have underscored deep divisions in the national populations in the United States and South Korea, divisions that appear to be deepening over time. Moreover, for both nations, rapid changes in the international environment have exacerbated the divisions. In particular, the United States is faced with both international terrorism, which struck the U.S. homeland for the first time in a massive way on September 11, 2001, and with a rapidly evolving world economy that, in the eyes of many Americans, is causing jobs to be “outsourced,” thereby creating domestic unemployment. South Korea’s problems are in some cases the exact opposite of those of the United States. For example, as the result of its “war on terrorism,” the United States might become a nation that South Korea no longer can trust. There is even concern in South Korea that, in the extreme case, the Korean Peninsula could be subject to unilateral U.S. military actions similar to those undertaken in Iraq. Underlying this issue is of course the parallel issue of how South Korea should relate to the North, one on which South Koreans themselves are quite divided but also one on which current South Korean policy is very different than U.S. policy. But South Korea faces as well divisive issues parallel to those of the United States, especially on the economic side: In particular, a slow domestic economy that, in combination with a rising China, threatens to take jobs away from Koreans.
A problem common to both nations is that a divided population makes it difficult for the political process to operate efficiently. This is because, of course, consensus within the population is hard to achieve. Thus, in the United States, there has grown to be a large constituency that positively hates President Bush but, four years ago, there was an equally large constituency that hated President Clinton. Each side tries to block that which is done by the other side. One result could be that, after just four years, the Republicans could lose the White House to the Democrats, likely resulting in significant changes in U.S. policy over issues ranging from Iraq to the domestic tax cuts passed under Mr. Bush. If so, the one thing that can be guaranteed is that, within a quite short time, there will be a large number of Americans who hate President Kerry. Likewise, if the impeachment of President Roh results in his leaving office, so that a more conservative government takes power in South Korea, there will be changes in Korean policies. But, again, the one certain outcome is that millions of South Koreans will hate this new government, just as the impeachment makes clear that millions of South Koreans hate the present government.
Is there anything positive to say about any of this? There indeed is, and it is that the people of both South Korea and the United States should be glad that they live in democracies. In dictatorial states, divisions as deep as those now present in both countries would lead either to the opposition being brutally suppressed or, worse, to resolution of the differences via civil war. The good news is that neither outcome is at all likely in either South Korea or the United States.
But the bad news is that democracy combined with lack of a national consensus on major issues leads to further divisiveness. The end result often is quite inefficient public governance and inconsistent policy. One key difference between South Korea and the United States, however, is that the United States has a long history of divisiveness, whereas South Korea has not. Divisions were worse in earlier periods of U.S. history; for example, in the period prior to the U.S. Civil War of the 1860s (when the divisiveness indeed could not be contained) or even in the era of the Vietnam War one century later (which coincided with the domestic civil rights movement, itself divisive). By comparison, the current situation in the United States is rather calm. South Korea, by contrast, not long ago was subject to non-democratic but very efficient governance, most especially during the Park Chung Hee and Chun Doo Hwan eras.
As an American, I think that I can give South Koreans some reassurance: Such periods of public divisiveness and instability as we now face seem to be one cost of democracy. Democratic nations can survive such periods without lasting harm (the one major exception being the U.S. Civil War, which was fortunately a long time ago and did not, in the end, destroy American democracy). It is better to undergo such periods of stress while remaining democratic, even if inefficiency sets in, than to be tempted into a non-democratic but more efficient form of governance. To Americans, this is self-evident; one hopes that it is self-evident to Koreans as well.

* The writer is a senior fellow at the Institute for International Economics in Washington.


by Edward M. Graham
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