[Viewpoint] Be wary of extreme realism

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[Viewpoint] Be wary of extreme realism

Former Polish President Lech Walesa and former Czech President Vaclav Havel, who had successfully led the democratization movements in Poland and Czechoslovakia, wrote an open letter to U.S. President Barack Obama three months ago along with 20 other leaders and intellectuals of Central and Eastern Europe, regions that used to be satellites of the former Soviet Union. The letter was about the Obama administration’s new policy toward Russia. President Obama shifted direction from the Bush administration’s blockade of Russia’s expansionism to one known as “reset.”

The letter listed serious concerns. The Eastern and Central European leaders wrote, “Russia is back as a revisionist power pursuing a 19th-century agenda with 21st-century tactics and methods.” They claimed that the region “suffered when the United States succumbed to ‘realism’” but “benefited from your support for liberal democracy and liberal values in the past.”

In short, they urged the United States to return to favoring the European side. They called the Bush administration’s missile-defense installations plan in Eastern Europe “a symbol of America’s credibility and commitment to the region.” They insisted that “abandoning the program entirely or involving Russia too deeply in it without consulting Poland or the Czech Republic can undermine the credibility of the United States across the whole region.” The program was the origin of the new tension between the United States and Russia.

On Sept. 17, two months after the letter, President Obama abandoned the missile defense plan. The original plan was to base interceptor missiles in Poland and radar in the Czech Republic. The stated justification was to defend NATO and the United States from the long-range missiles fired from Iran.

President Obama’s reasoning in abandoning the program was simple: Iran has not yet developed a long-range missile with which to attack Europe and the continental United States. Instead, the United States will deploy short- and intermediate-range interceptor missiles on the Aegis ships near Iran and will consider establishing the missile defense system in Europe later. Polish and Czech newspaper headlines reflect how shocked the two Eastern European nations felt. Polish daily Fakt wrote, “Treason! Russia, the U.S. sold us,” and Czech newspaper Mlada fronta DNES declared, “No radar, Russia won.” The timing of the announcement upset Eastern Europe even more since the news came on the 70th anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Poland.

The issue of the Eastern European missile defense system is what sets President Obama’s foreign policy apart from Bush’s. It is a contest of realism versus idealism. To President Bush, Eastern Europe meant a new Europe. The Eastern European countries were partners in the war against terrorism and fledgling democratic nations.

Among them, Poland deployed 2,500 troops to Iraq and led security-maintenance activities by forming multi-national Eastern European units in central and southern Iraq. The United States had requested Korea to deploy a division similar to that of Poland. Poland developed pro-American activities as a tactic to survive among the European powers and overcome its tragic history of invasions.

The Eastern European missile defense system can be seen as a gift from the Bush administration in recognition for those countries’ contributions in the war against terrorism. What Poland and the Czech Republic wanted were the anti-missile equipment and permanent stationing of U.S. forces. The presence of U.S. forces means a trip wire for automatic involvement of the United States in case of an emergency, and that strategy was boosted by President Bush’s conviction to defend democracy. Two years ago, President Bush agreed on the system in his third visit to Poland. He called Poland a great supporter of democracy and said that liberal communities do not go to war with each other. There were political intentions behind President Bush’s missile defense.

President Obama, however, looks at the issue from the perspective of security and economy. The abandonment of the plan was determined based on the realistic missile capacity of Iran and the cost of the program. He also took into account his vision of the world without nuclear weapons and the indispensability of Russia’s cooperation on Iran’s nuclear issue. President Obama’s realism is strictly based on calculation.

The world has changed with the appearance of President Obama. The United States has shifted it’s foreign policy direction. The weight has moved from ideology to pragmatism, from unilateralism to international cooperation. President Obama is reaching out to Islam and negotiating with the “axis of evil,” and Washington is actively participating in international issues such as global warming. The new direction might be an inevitable outcome of the waning of “Pax Americana.” However, when the United States is moving farther away from idealism in liberalism, democracy and human rights, a shadow is cast over Eastern Europe.

Let’s now look at Northeast Asia. The future of the Korean Peninsula is hard to predict, with variables like North Korean nuclear tension and the health of Kim Jong-il. China is rapidly emerging, and Japan is relatively declining. The trend is a G-2 of the United States and China. Without the cooperation of China, the United States cannot promote its foreign policies. Is there any possibility that the United States decides the future of the Korean Peninsula by negotiating with China? Could there be a diplomatic shock like President Richard Nixon’s visit to China during the Cold War? Can the denuclearization talk of North Korea affect the status of the U.S. forces stationed in Korea?

The joint vision of the Korea-U.S. alliance, which contains the principle of peaceful unification based on liberal democracy and a market economy, cannot witness a repetition of the U.S.-Eastern European missile defense agreement. We should be wary of the extreme realism of President Obama.


*The writer is a deputy director of the Unification Culture Research Institute of the JoongAng Ilbo. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.



by Oh Yeong-hwan
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