[Viewpoint] Remembering the value of goodwill

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[Viewpoint] Remembering the value of goodwill

Arthur I. Cyr
The trip through East Asia by President Barack Obama of the United States has been worthwhile for both bilateral and regional relations, even though no concrete accomplishments have yet resulted. Goodwill is a tangible asset in diplomacy and politics, and Obama certainly generated that sentiment among both leaders and the public.

South Korea will benefit from the Obama trip as much, and perhaps even more, than other nations in Asia. This is not always apparent given the propensity of major media on both sides of the Pacific to concentrate on larger nations, in particular China and Japan.

The bilateral alliance between Seoul and Washington is particularly strongly established. Because understanding is deeply rooted in history, contemporary focus on immediate headlines and news developments tends to mask that reality, to the detriment of truly sound analysis.

The Pacific region is now strongly committed to the kind of formal cooperative institutions long established in Europe but not nearly so rooted in Asia. Wisely, President Obama’s itinerary included the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum summit in Singapore. The gathering strengthened the role of this regional organization as a principal partner of the G-20 in the ongoing struggle to promote international financial stability and create a more viable framework for economic governance.

In contrast to the European Union and NATO, which can trace their institutional origins back to the early 1950s and late 1940s respectively, APEC was established during the administration of U.S. President George H.W. Bush. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations was established earlier, in 1967, but is much less comprehensive geographically, at least in terms of formal membership.

The Republic of Korea is very well positioned to play a leadership role in APEC in the future. Since the early 1960s, the nation has vaulted from a status as one of the poorest economies in the world to become one of the richest. President Lee Myung-bak gives very high priority to further increasing the country’s relative global economic standing.

Korea is also very well represented in international organizations, most notably in the current service of Ban Ki-moon as secretary general of the United Nations. Ban straddles the divide between advanced industrial and developing nations. He is the first secretary general to come neither from a poor nation of the Third World or a formally neutral Western nation.

China and Japan have much larger economies, but are inherently less close to the United States. The U.S. fought Japan in World War II and China in the Korean War. By contrast, the Korean War defined the very close relationship between South Korea and the United States. President Truman demonstrated great courage in immediately supporting the UN resolution to defend the South from invasion by the North. After the 1953 armistice, President Eisenhower moved quickly to implement comprehensive redevelopment of the devastated South. Military cooperation remains close.

The administration of Bush the younger achieved a historic free trade agreement with Seoul, but Congressional ratification has been stymied by opposition from U.S. automakers and unions. Future bilateral talks would include Seoul’s special Kaesong industrial area in North Korea. President Obama, to his credit, gives public priority to getting the agreement approved, while President Lee states Seoul is willing to review elements that are antagonizing the U.S. auto industry.

President Obama in Asia generated goodwill. At some point, he must achieve concrete progress as well. Renewing momentum for the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement could be a start.

*The writer is the Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College

by Arthur I. Cyr
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