[Overseas view]Clean slates

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[Overseas view]Clean slates

New leadership is soon to come to power across Asia and the Pacific. Incoming prime ministers and presidents are of interest not only to the people they represent, but also to their neighbors, who are concerned with how the policies of the new leaders will affect them. In all likelihood, the foreign policies of the next administrations in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the United States will not be drastically different from today.
What will be different ― at least until the shine wears off ― is the clean slate effect: the optimism that new leaders will learn from the past and become agents of positive change. Governments benefit from this “honeymoon period,” when new leaders are given time to settle into office before facing the inevitable criticism from all corners.
Nearly all governments look to build political momentum in the honeymoon period. Astute leaders take advantage of the clean slate to make progress in key areas where predecessors were constrained by political baggage. An example is how Prime Minister Shinzo Abe improved relations with China and South Korea, holding summits within his first month in office. Abe was able to improve Japan’s regional relations because of his clean slate, having not visited the Yasukuni shrine while in office, in contrast to his predecessor’s regular visits.
Unfortunately for Abe, his clean slate was quickly replaced with a list of political liabilities. The next Japanese prime minister will likely come to office without Abe’s nationalist image, and with less guilt by association to the scandals that tarnished Abe’s year in office. The new Japanese leader can use his clean slate to reach a compromise with the opposition Democratic Party to extend the Anti-terrorism Special Measures Law providing for Japanese refueling operations in the Indian Ocean to aid international efforts in Afghanistan. He should also continue trust-building efforts with Beijing and Seoul, while avoiding gaffes on historical matters. Free from Abe’s hard line on the abduction issue, the next Japanese leader also can coordinate with partners in the six-party talks to demand North Korea’s denuclearization.
South Korea will elect a new president on December 19 who will come to office without President Roh Moo-hyun’s uneven record on foreign affairs and the economy. The next South Korean president can use his clean slate to re-anchor security policy with a strong U.S.-ROK alliance and closer relations with Japan. He should demand greater respect and reciprocity from North Korea, engaging Pyongyang out of strength rather than political desperation. Essential for South Korea’s economic relations, the next president can continue a commitment to implementing free trade agreements.
Taiwan will hold its presidential election on March 22, 2008. President Chen Shui-bian has earned a reputation of disrupting relations with China, even though it is the mainland that militarily threatens democratic Taiwan. Free from Chen’s political baggage, the next Taiwan president should forge a compromise with the Legislature to better fund Taiwan’s defense. He could also look to project “soft power” by highlighting Taiwan’s responsible international contributions rather than politicizing an ill-fated bid to join the United Nations. Finally, the next president should credibly engage China on economic links and security guarantees, putting the political ball in Beijing’s court ahead of the 2008 Olympics.
The United States will hold its presidential election on November 4, 2008. The outgoing Bush administration has the reputation (in some ways deservedly, in others unfairly) of being hawkish and unilateralist. The new U.S. president can shed this image, or at least avoid it long enough to make progress on a multilateral agenda. Rather than simply promoting the war on terror, the next U.S. president might speak more about trade, development and transnational issues such as the environment. This is not to say that the next U.S. administration should deemphasize security policy, but it could also productively focus on a successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. Such early multilateral achievements could garner greater international contributions for counterterrorism and help dispel misperceptions of U.S. disengagement.
While the foreign policy initiatives above would offer positive and lasting implications, the staying power of leaders usually comes down to how well they promote the economic livelihood of their citizens. Leaders that neglect bread and butter issues for the sake of foreign policy or ideology do so at their own peril. However, navigating the vested interests of domestic groups to push forward socio-economic reforms usually requires leaders to gain forward momentum, which can be provided at least in part by early accomplishments in foreign policy.
Successes and failures in international relations are too often attributed solely to top decision makers, producing exaggerated expectations of new leaders. Incoming administrations cannot remake the world in their first 100 days, but can use the clean slate effect to score foreign policy victories that their tarnished predecessors could not. Succeeding in this requires political preparation, a keen sense of priorities and determination to follow through. One of the benefits of democracy is how it regularly provides a fresh start.
Let’s hope that the region’s new leaders make the best of the opportunity.

*The writer is a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard University’s Department of Government, a member of the Pacific Forum CSIS Young Leaders program and a visiting scholar at UCLA.

by Leif-Eric Easley
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