[Viewpoint] Old diplomacy versus new

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[Viewpoint] Old diplomacy versus new

Mutual trust and a sense of rapport are crucial elements in summit diplomacy. The United States marked President Lee Myung-bak’s state visit by ratifying a long-delayed free trade deal and pushing the alliance between the countries to a new level. The New York Times commented, “The carpet does not get any redder” and called the special bond between Lee and President Barack Obama a “presidential man-crush.”

U.S. Ambassador Alexander Vershbow, who served in Seoul when President Roh Moo-hyun was in power, cited a lack of trust between the two sides as the reason for chilly bilateral ties. Trust cannot be built over a couple of meetings. It is established when leaders understand one another and work together to solve problems they have in common.

Obama has been very conscious of South Korea. He singled out South Korea during his New Year’s Address. He did not talk about Japan, even though then-Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan was stressing that the Japan-U.S. alliance was the foundation of Japan’s diplomacy and its security.

Japan looks with awe at the Korea-U.S. relationship, which has never been closer. Obama described our bilateral ties as a “linchpin” of Asia-Pacific security during the Group of 20 summit in Toronto.

Few expected Obama would become so enamored with Lee and his government. The two administrations have little in common. They differ in their ideological mindsets. Lee’s government is conservative and Obama’s liberal. Their approaches to North Korea naturally differ. Obama’s priority is to reopen dialogue with North Korea to solve the nuclear conundrum. The security alliance with South Korea comes second.

But South Korea has become the U.S.’ most reliable partner. Obama may have come to see South Korea in a different light during his first Asian tour in November 2009. His Asian tour had been rocky. He had to wrangle with the new, liberal Japanese prime minister, who wanted more independence in the relationship with the U.S. In China, he waged a war of nerves with President Hu Jintao over foreign exchange policy and global commitment to combat climate change.

In Seoul, everything was peaches and cream by comparison. Lee promised coordinated efforts to combat the global financial crisis spurred by the Wall Street meltdown and troop support for the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan. Obama reciprocated the red-carpet treatment when Lee arrived in Washington.

The Korea-U.S. alliance will remain the foundation for Korea’s policies on the foreign front. The challenge now is how to position the reinforced Korea-U.S. alliance in the global geopolitical order, which is becoming more and more complicated. The Asia -Pacific Economic Cooperation forum and an East Asia Summit are scheduled for November. We expect Lee to demonstrate a new direction in Korean foreign policy within an international context and to take a step away from the diplomacy of the past, which was focused on the superpowers.

Diplomacy directed by a certain ideology is an outdated relic of the cold war. Even the U.S. and China, the G-2 on the global stage, have to join hands at times, even if their ties are fundamentally strained as rivals. In such a complicated global equation, it is dangerous to rely too heavily on one particular state.

South Korea, if it sets its mind to it, can wisely juggle the alliance with the U.S. and strategic ties with China. Placing too much emphasis on one of the nations will only lessen our leverage. We must banish the old notion of positioning ourselves against North Korea, China and Russia.

A Chinese scholar, during a conference last Monday, advised South Korea to be shrewd like Singapore and Pakistan. Both countries maintain partnerships with the U.S. Pakistan mediates between the U.S. and China. Singapore acts as a middle ground between China and Western countries, and China and Taiwan.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once said that, apart from Great Britain, every other country was an enemy, and therefore it had to maintain good relations with all. We must outgrow the antiquated foreign policy based on ideologies and endeavor to build rapport with a wide range of countries. As Lee has shown with Obama, personal bonds with other leaders make all the difference at a summit.

*The writer is a professor of political science at Seoul National University.

By Chang Dal-joong
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