[Viewpoint] What Lee should tell Capitol Hill

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[Viewpoint] What Lee should tell Capitol Hill

President Lee Myung-bak will travel to Washington Oct.13-14, and there is much anticipation that, in addition to a bilateral summit with President Barack Obama, he will also give a speech to a joint session of the U.S. Congress. Right now, the possibility and timing of a speech is being discussed with the office of Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner, but it is a safe bet that the Blue House is already sketching out what Lee might say.

I would humbly submit the following ideas for their consideration. First, begin by telling the story of Korea and the Korea-U.S. alliance through Lee’s personal journey. While Lee’s approval ratings in Korea have sagged somewhat, he is still quite popular and respected in Washington.

Participants in the first Obama-Lee summit said that Lee won Obama’s admiration and support by telling the story of his own journey from poverty to success — and doing so in a way that expressed humility about his own accomplishments, pride in Korea’s accomplishments and gratitude for America’s 60 years of unwavering support for his nation.

Second, express confidence in the greatness of the United States. Earlier this year, I sat in the speaker’s box for the last speech to a joint session of Congress by an Asian ally, Prime Minister Julia Gillard of Australia. The Blue House should study her speech because it was well constructed. Gillard expressed her awe at American power as a child growing up in Australia and her confidence in America’s undiminished capacity for renewal and leadership in the future.

At a time when many Americans are expressing anxiety about economic challenges and the capacity of their political leaders, it is inspiring to hear a close ally say “Yes, you can.” This encouragement also telegraphs to the rest of the world that Korea (and Australia) are not moving away from the liberal and open world order they helped to build with the United States. The worst thing to do would be to give a speech urging Congress to fix America’s fiscal problems. That sentiment is for political commentators, not statesmen.

Third, hail Korea’s commitment to democracy. Former Prime Minister Han Seung-soo gave a speech a few years back in Seoul in which he noted that Korea demonstrates that it is possible to be a nation proud of its Asian heritage while also being committed to the universal values of democracy, human rights and rule of law. The speech was an unassailable rebuttal of the arguments in some quarters that Asia has different values from the West or that Asian societies prefer authoritarian regimes.

Fourth, introduce America to the global Korea. Many in Congress may not realize that Korea today stands as a global leader in areas ranging from the Group of 20 to Hallyu. Lee should be certain that Congress appreciates Korea’s expanded participation in overseas development assistance and peacekeeping.

Fifth, hail the signing of the Korea- U.S. Free Trade Agreement. If Congress passes the Korus FTA, then Lee should obviously express thanks and reiterate Korea’s commitment to moving forward with further trade liberalization in the Asia-Pacific region with the United States.

Of course, the Korus FTA is the remaining question mark hanging over the entire speech. Will it be ratified in time for Lee’s visit? There is momentum in the Senate with bipartisan agreement on social assistance programs needed to pacify labor opponents of the FTA.

However, the House is still searching for a formula that would ensure an entire package of FTAs (including agreements with Panama and Columbia) to pass together. The House leadership worries that Obama will only push for the Korus FTA and let the other two languish, since they are less popular with Democrats.

If Lee tries to speak to the Congress with that issue still unresolved, then Republicans will feel that the White House is using Lee as a hammer to force them to pass the Korus FTA quickly, without waiting for the Columbia and Panama agreements.

My sense is that House Republicans will not bend. They will continue to insist Obama push for passage of all three FTAs (and that means push, not just introduce them to the Congress and then sit back). There is some danger that Lee will be stuck in an embarrassing standoff between Republicans and Democrats that has nothing to do with Korea or himself. The speech to a joint session may seem less wise to all parties if that happens.

I personally suspect that the White House will work to ensure that all three FTAs pass so that House Republicans will then breathe a sigh of relief and warmly welcome Lee.

Obama himself has too much riding on the Korus FTA as he prepares to go to Asia for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting and the East Asian Summit in November. If he goes to Asia for eight days with no trade accomplishments, then the media and Republican presidential candidates will beat him up the whole time he is away.

And the White House knows by now that the House will not back down on its demands for all three FTAs, even if that means disappointing Lee in mid-October.

So, the smart money says that there will be a win-win deal on the FTA before Lee’s arrival and therefore an opportunity for a warmly received speech to a joint session of Congress.

Democracies make for the strongest and most enduring alliances of all because of shared values. But sometimes our politics are really painful for our friends.

*The writer is the Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

By Michael Green
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