[Viewpoint] Lee’s Washington triumph

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[Viewpoint] Lee’s Washington triumph

On Oct. 14, President Lee Myung-bak hosted a group of ten senior foreign policy experts for breakfast at the historic Blair House on Pennsylvania Avenue. The participants were veterans of every U.S. administration from Nixon to Obama (including your humble scribe). As we sat waiting for Lee, the Americans began comparing his visit to the many other state visits we had all experienced. Before too long, a general consensus emerged: Lee’s visit to Washington was one of the most consequential for American relations in Asia that any of us had experienced.

At the breakfast, John Hamre, president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, handed the Korean president a genuine “Louisville Slugger” baseball bat with his name on it. “Mr. President,” he said, “this is for you because this week you hit a real home run!” Republicans and Democrats around the table applauded and nodded to each other. It was true. The first thing that has to be noted is the amount of time President Barack Obama set aside for his visitor from Seoul. Obama is not a man who is known for having many close friends. George Herbert Walker Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were all outgoing politicians who drew their energy from others and had a collection of their best buddies. Obama has a reputation for being cooler, more cerebral and not much of a back-slapping politician with close pals around the world - except perhaps, for Lee Myung-bak. The president gave Lee three days out of his schedule at a time when Republicans are clobbering him on domestic issues like jobs. They ate together at Woo Lae Oak, the best Korean restaurant in Washington. They were pictured in the newspapers beaming as they met in their tuxedos for the state dinner. In many ways, the two could not be more different: One rose to prominence as a conservative businessman and the other as a liberal community organizer and local politician. Yet the rapport between the two has become an important feature of the international relations of East Asia to the benefit of both the U.S. and Korea.

The passage of the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement in time for Lee’s visit is also historically significant. The Blue House must have been very nervous, but in the end Republicans and Democrats came together just in time to ratify the bill so Lee could give a triumphant speech to a joint session of Congress. I was at the speech as a guest of the Republican Speaker of the House, and there was genuine enthusiasm in the hall, punctuated by much applause and many standing ovations whenever Lee mentioned Korea’s success, the importance of our shared democratic values and the contributions of American veterans of the Korean War (of whom three stood for extended applause when pointed out by Lee). The Korus FTA, of course, means more than a successful visit for the Korean President. The trade agreement’s passage now unlocks negotiations in the Trans-Pacific Partnership and allows the Obama administration to build momentum in Congress and leverage with the other negotiating parties to keep pushing for a high -quality FTA that - together with the Korus FTA - will form the backbone of an open and inclusive trans-Pacific trade architecture.

Failure to get the Korus FTA ratified would not only have been embarrassing for Lee on this visit and for Obama during his November travels to Asia. It would have deflated U.S. efforts to retain a leading role in trade liberalization in the region.

Lee’s visit also struck two other important chords. One was to highlight the contributions and growing political clout of Korean-Americans in American society, politics and business. The guest list for the state dinner featured prominent Korean-Americans and Lee received energetic applause when he thanked the members of Congress for embracing the idea of Korean-Americans being part of the fabric of the United States. These members of Congress know exactly how politically important their Korean-American constituents have become. For an immigrant nation like the U.S., our ethnic and cultural ties play a major role in reinforcing strategic linkages with friends abroad. The other chord struck by Lee, to great effect, was to spotlight Korea as a lighthouse for universal democratic values on a continent where authoritarian regimes still prevail.

There are still plenty of problems that could crop up to challenge the U.S.-Korea alliance. China’s growing economic clout will tempt some to argue that Seoul should not put too many eggs in the American basket. Presidential elections at the end of 2012 will create dangers of demagogues and populists who might challenge the FTA or modernization of the U.S.-Korea alliance. America’s budget debates could raise tough choices about the future of the U.S. military presence on the Peninsula.

Yet in the middle of October 2011, Lee put the U.S.-Korea alliance on a very strong footing to go into the next decade. His efforts were built on initiatives like the Korus FTA that were started by George W. Bush and Roh Moo-hyun. We now have had a conservative American president and a liberal American president endorse the same direction for relations with Korea and the same thing has happened in Seoul, where a progressive Korean president and then a conservative Korean president together locked in a more secure future for the bilateral relationship. In this era of hyperpartisanship in Seoul and Washington, it is useful to consider what an important bipartisan accomplishment we have achieved.

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

By Michael Green
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