Building relations

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Building relations

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In 1993, United States President Bill Clinton named English-born socialite Pamela Harriman as Washington’s ambassador to France. Political conservatives and the press were highly critical of Clinton’s choice of the 73-year-old political activist who was notorious for her scandalous affairs. From her first marriage to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s son, she had numerous escapades with men of prominence and wealth. After her third marriage, to railroad tycoon and Democratic Party power Averell Harriman, her social focus moved to Washington D.C.

This woman of style and social skills soon had Washington’s influential men in her palm and she doggedly and eagerly carried out her role as a political power broker, becoming one of the Democratic Party’s biggest fund-raisers to help topple the Republican Party and get Clinton elected. U.S.-France relations bloomed under her spell and when she died in 1997 both American and European political circles grieved the loss of a bridge to their bilateral relations.

Having the right connections is universally important. It is natural to look after one another when some similarities in background are shared.

The brain trust at Goldman Sachs is noted for its ability to advance to public posts. Robert Rubin, at the recommendation of his friend from Goldman Sachs and Ex-Im Bank Chairman Kenneth Brody, became Clinton’s Treasury secretary. Joshua Bolten, White House chief of staff for George W. Bush, who also spent five years at Goldman Sachs, brought in Goldman Sachs CEO Henry Paulson and board director Steven Friedman to serve as Treasury secretary and chairman of the National Economic Council, respectively, for the Bush administration.

But when it comes to power connections, Washington is no match for Seoul, where not only blood, birthplace and school links, but also the church one attends, matters. In a society where the possible is somehow made impossible, connections can sometimes be the only engine that can make things work. One had mockingly observed that there has been no South Korean Nobel Prize laureate because Koreans are too busy “building relations” with dinner and drinks after dark.

Books on wisdom and the secrets of success naturally sell fast here. These books frequently advise that it’s important to make people indebted to you because there is no such thing as a free lunch.

Taekwang Industrial CEO Park Yeon-cha, who is at the center of the current bribery scandal that has expanded to former President Roh Moo-hyun and his family, is the embodiment of a self-serving networker. In relationships, depth is more important than breadth. Park’s money, which he has scattered everywhere to make him known broadly, finally brought about his collapse.

None seems to heed Lao Tzu of China who said, “A leader is best when people barely know he exists.”

The writer is a deputy economic news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Lee Na-ree [windy@joongang.co.kr]

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