[Viewpoint] Allies don’t tell allies ‘So what?’

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[Viewpoint] Allies don’t tell allies ‘So what?’

An article appearing on the Web site of Foreign Policy magazine on Oct. 5 examines the decline of America’s global image.

Entitled “Think Again: America’s Image,” it points to many causes for America’s decreased reputation. One reason it cites is America’s unilateral decision to go it alone and invade Iraq in 2003.

Going against the wishes of the UN Security Council, the U.S. sent forces to that Middle Eastern country, and six years hence has achieved mixed results. Even with a new president in Washington, that decision still hurts America’s image in the eyes of Europeans, who believe that international actions should be multilateral.

A similar situation has been developing here in Korea over the last couple of weeks. It began with a speech South Korean President Lee Myung-bak gave in New York on Sept. 23.

In it, President Lee said he was offering North Korea a “grand bargain.” If North Korea scaled back its nuclear program, Lee would offer North Korea financial incentives. After North Korea’s economy improved, there would be a drive for unification.

The problem was President Lee did not inform other nations that he would be making such a speech. The Americans were left in the dark about it.

Even though the content of the speech agreed in substance with what the U.S. and President Lee had discussed earlier, its form was a diplomatic blunder. It suggested South Korea wanted to skip a six-nation agreement altogether and act unilaterally in solving the North Korean problem.

On the other hand, the Americans know for a deal to work in East Asia, all six nations must agree and act multilaterally. Kurt Campbell, U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, says that although North Korea wants to deal with the U.S. directly, America wants to hold all talks with the six parties.

But President Lee Myung-bak, instead of bringing the countries concerned together, is alienating them. During a Sept. 30 media event, he responded to criticism that America, Japan, Russia and China didn’t know of the “grand bargain” in advance.

This was his response: “Some said a U.S. official had not been aware of the [grand bargain] proposal. So what if a U.S. official does not know? We must make our voices heard. When we have a good plan, we also need to persuade other members of the six-nation talks.”

Whether the “grand bargain” is a good plan or not remains to be seen. South Korea has not convinced any of the other six-party talks nations to go along with it. China and the U.S. do admit that in general the idea does match their designs, but they have not endorsed it.

On the other hand, North Korea has dismissed it outright, insisting it gets in the way of their negotiations with the Americans.

President Lee may be right that good ideas should be heard, but when it comes to negotiating with the most mysterious regime in the world, much of it should be done behind closed doors so none of the other partners are surprised by unexpected public declarations. What really matters about that statement is that President Lee spoke unilaterally and dismissed the concerns of an ally with a phrase like “so what.”

What if China had said “so what” to South Korea’s concerns about defective and dangerous imports? What if the U.S. had said “so what” to South Korea’s security concerns? And what if Japan, the U.S. and China had gotten together and said “so what” to President Lee’s proposal because, as a popular Korean proverb goes, his country is only a shrimp caught between the whales of the U.S., China, and Japan? I’m sure President Lee and the rest of South Korea would be angry. And their anger would be justified.

Those countries do not say “so what” because they understand that successful diplomacy depends on not shaming your partner. The U.S. has gone out of its way to support President Lee’s plan without endorsing it. James Steinberg, assistant secretary of state, did not approve of Lee’s plan but said there is “no conceptual difference” between South Korea’s plan and America’s vision for negotiating with North Korea. That’s diplomacy.

That article in Foreign Policy talks about international standing being dependent on merit and esteem. Merit is earned from a country’s perceived ability to get things done; esteem comes from the affection of other countries.

President Lee’s saying “so what” to American concerns doesn’t help South Korea’s international standing. It hurts.

*The writer is a full-time lecturer at the Hansung Institute of Language and Research, Hansung University.

by Brett Conway
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