[SERI COLUMN]Korea should get more globally aggressiveRussia is re-emerging as a superpower, thanks largely to its status as an important energy supplier, increasingly an alternative to the ever-more volatile Middle East.
Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, played host to the G-8 summit on July 15 in St. Petersburg, showing off his nation’s ascendancy as a force to be reckoned with. Just 14 months ago, he presided over the 60th anniversary of Victory Europe Day in the presence of more than 50 world leaders including those from the United States, Europe, Japan and Korea.
This time around, as well as in the past, the world’s mass media are scrambling to report on the event, with obligatory comments on the nation’s “backsliding” toward authoritarianism and the West’s response to these worrisome developments.
Incidentally, Russia’s state-owned oil giant Rosneft floated a combined $15 billion IPO both in Moscow and London a few days after the G-8 meeting, adding luster to the Russian leader while also deepening concerns among observers that the country is indeed going in the direction of a state-controlled economy.
That’s because Rosneft, the favorite of the Kremlin, bought most of Russia’s once-biggest oil company Yukos’ assets through a dubious auction at the end of 2004.
Backsliding or not, it is obvious Russia is getting increasingly assertive in foreign affairs, often using its newly earned oil-and-gas prowess as leverage to punish pro-West Ukraine and Georgia, and in some cases, to “blackmail” Europe. It is also meddling in Middle-Eastern diplomacy by making deals with Iran to keep supplying it nuclear technologies against the wishes of the West. Meanwhile, it is reaching out to China, another up-and-coming superpower that could pose a tremendous threat to the present world order.
Judging from the moves Russia has made, it is clear the former Soviet empire is trying hard to regain its past glory, or at least let the world know it is no longer a weak nation hobbled by breakaway regions and economic stagnation.
In order to keep its territorial integrity and maintain influence in the former Soviet republics, Moscow exerts enormous effort to rein in irredentist movements in the Caucasus and elsewhere, often resorting to ruthless force in suppressing ethnic insurgencies. The striking examples can be seen in the ruins of Grozny in Chechnya and in the bloody ending of the 2004 Beslan, North Ossetia school hostage incident. Russia is also busy defending its Central Asian “near abroad” from encroachments by the United States and China.
No wonder Russian leaders, including Mr. Putin himself, see world affairs in geopolitical terms, meaning they make every political move with the countermoves of a competing superpowers in mind. Russia is not alone, however, in viewing everything in strategic terms.
As I underscored in my July 17 column, “China’s Great Game Plan in Central Asia” on this page, rising China is bent on gaining supremacy in the central part of Eurasia.
How is Japan doing? It is determined to become a “normal country” by being allowed to initiate pre-emptive strikes against a country it deems to be threatening. Under these circumstances, no one in his right mind can dare to say nationalism and great-power politics are passe. They are still alive and kicking, partly because of what has happened to the world since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.
Particularly for a country like Korea, wedged between great powers, praising a borderless world while ignoring the fact that this world is still in large part inhabited by those obsessed with 19th-century land-grab games is dangerous and naive.
I am not, however, advocating that Korea should pursue notions of becoming a great power itself. It can never be one because of its small land area, just about equivalent to the U.S. state of Indiana or China’s Jiangsu province, and its population of 48 million, only one-27th of China’s. Instead, I am saying Korea should be more mindful of changes around the world and become more aggressive in participating in global affairs.
But I don’t see it happening. The nation’s media focus mostly on foreign news that they consider matters to Korea in one way or another. International conflicts such as the latest Israel-Hezbollah flare-up are important only in so far as they affect oil prices. Those events are viewed narrowly (and passively) in terms of how they have an impact on Korea’s survival.
That’s not a good mindset for a nation to become a “leadership country,” or at least a “middle-manager country” in the future. It’s just like whiners and wailers in business organizations: Those always playing the victim can never advance to managerial position. On the other hand, only those constantly looking out for the welfare of their organization can one day become leaders.
The world is changing, and Eurasia’s geopolitical landscape is also undergoing a tectonic shift. With it, the perspective from which we see the world should be changed to mirror this revival toward nation-centric power struggles.
* The writer is managing editor of SERIWorld, Samsung Economic Research Institute’s English-language Web site. The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not represent those of the publication that carries it.
by Sangho Chung