[Overseas view]Anticipating change in WashingtonIt now appears that the U.S. presidential primary fight between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton will last into next month, at least, while Senator John McCain has locked up the Republican nomination.
At this stage of the campaign, none of the candidates are spending a lot of time talking about Asia or foreign policy beyond the immediate and intense debate over Iraq, and even that topic has slipped in the public’s mind behind other issues such as personal character and the economy.
Clinton and Obama are busy trying to score points against each other, and McCain is using this period to consolidate his conservative base and help the Democrats beat each other up whenever he can.
Nevertheless, it may not be too soon to begin reading the tea leaves and anticipating some of the instincts and strategies that might guide a McCain, Obama or Clinton administration after January 2009 with respect to Korea. In three areas ― North Korea diplomacy, human rights and trade ― we are already seeing some hints.
Barack Obama put the North Korea strategy in the headlines several months back when he promised that unlike President George W. Bush, he would be ready to meet with our enemies at any time without preconditions. He was obviously talking about Kim Jong-il, among others, and he clearly meant that he, as president of the United States, would conduct the meeting.
Hillary Clinton immediately attacked him for being naive and for risking the power and prestige of the presidency. Republicans pounced on Obama, as well. He has subsequently argued that when he said “no conditions,” he did not mean “no preparation,” which certainly looks like a retreat from his original proposal. At some level Obama probably regrets making that promise, and he will no doubt be under constant criticism for it and will find it difficult to retreat much further during the election, lest he look like a double-talker.
But the premise of his statement is clear ― he would put much greater faith in talks than the other two candidates. This point is all the more striking because Obama has never talked about sticks or pressure when referring to North Korea. In fact, he has attacked Clinton for supporting financial sanctions on Iran.
For her part, Clinton also criticizes the Bush administration for not doing more diplomacy with the North, but unlike Obama, she has acknowledged the need for both carrots and sticks. For Clinton, it appears the sticks would come after the carrots have failed. Several senior advisers to the Clinton campaign were involved in the so-called Perry process with North Korea in the late 1990s, in which the North Koreans were essentially told there would be talks, but if the talks failed the United States would take tougher measures.
McCain, like most Republican senators, has been far more skeptical than the Democrats about the prospects of North Korea abandoning its nuclear weapons, but most observers expect he would continue with some form of multilateral diplomacy. Most likely, he would apply more pressure throughout the process to back up the diplomacy and contain any threat of proliferation.
Democracy and human rights would be another category where differences among the candidates are emerging that would affect approaches to North Korea. McCain has been an outspoken critic of human rights abuses around the world and the most vocal advocate of democracy promotion in Asia.
The Bush administration has toned down its criticism of North Korean human rights over the past year and that would likely not be characteristic of a Republican administration if one takes office again in January 2009.
Obama has been outspoken on genocide in Darfur and both Obama and Clinton have joined McCain in drawing attention to the crackdown in Burma. However, the Democrats have been much more muted in their criticism of human rights in North Korea and on the question more generally of democracy promotion.
Opinion polls show a majority of Republicans think democracy is important in foreign policy and a majority of Democrats do not. This probably reflects a post-Iraq and anti-Bush sentiment among Democrats, who traditionally have had a more energetic attitude on democracy and human rights. Moreover, there is an intense debate within the Democratic camp, where some advisers want to go back to the traditional liberal emphasis on these issues, while others say it is more important to avoid criticizing regimes like North Korea so engagement can be possible.
A third area that is clearly different is trade. McCain is strongly for free trade and both Clinton and Obama have opposed the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement and said they would seek to renegotiate the North American FTA.
Internationalists on the Democratic side argue ― hopefully ― that their candidates only sound protectionist during the primary races when they need the labor union votes, but ultimately will support free trade. When one of Barack Obama’s senior advisers told this to a Canadian diplomat and it leaked to the press, the episode contributed to Obama’s defeat in Ohio, where the manufacturing sector is losing jobs.
Observers tend to think Obama is pretending and would be less protectionist as president, though what he would actually do on the Korea-U.S. FTA is still something of a mystery. Biographers of Clinton like Carl Bernstein argue that she really was opposed to Nafta when she was first lady and that her arguments against free trade agreements are more sincere. And while McCain is definitely in favor of free trade agreements for economic and strategic reasons, he would still have to deal with a Congress that will likely be more Democratic and more protectionist after January 2009.
The good news for U.S.-Korea relations is that all three candidates want to strengthen relations with South Korea. There are numerous studies on these relations underway now by scholars and advisers associated with all three candidates. The next administration will be eager to work with President Lee Myung-bak. Moreover, the candidates’ positions will evolve as they debate each other and as developments in the six-party talks become clearer. If presidents Lee and Bush can pass the Korea-U.S. FTA this year, then Democratic candidates might be off the hook. Thus the situation remains fluid.
Still, it is not too early for Koreans to look for hints about the American candidates’ positions on the peninsula, nor for Korean scholars and diplomats to encourage all three campaigns keep positive vision on the bilateral relationship.
*The writer is a former senior director for Asian affairs at the U.S. National Security Council.
by Michael Green