[Viewpoint] Idealism versus realpolitik

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[Viewpoint] Idealism versus realpolitik

On Jan. 25, 1974, when the authoritarian rule of Korean strongman Park Chung Hee was causing much resentment and resistance at home, U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger called an emergency meeting at his office. At the meeting, U.S. Ambassador to Korea Philip Habib drew attention to the heightened risk of North Korea seizing on the frayed ties between the U.S. and South Korea by carrying out some military provocation. Habib suggested Washington might consider intervening in Korea’s domestic affairs by moving to have Park ousted, but Kissinger held a different view of things.

While Washington would refrain from taking sides with the oppressive government, he was not in favor of sanctioning a coup d’etat. He said it was time to reform Washington’s foreign policy of meddling in its allies’ domestic affairs and that America’s national interests were more important than persuading Korea to embrace its view of democracy. He ordered the State Department to apply no pressure on Seoul either privately and publicly.

This brief debate between Habib and Kissinger symbolized a clash of ideas: between the kind of idealism espoused by former U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, who championed the proliferation of democracy and human rights, and the realpolitik of prioritizing America’s national interests. While Washington has often used Wilsonian rhetoric to package its foreign policy objectives, in practice, its policies always put its national interests first.

Whenever Washington excessively obsesses over “values,” its national interests have suffered. Such neoconservative moral absolutism has repeatedly had catastrophic results, be it the human rights diplomacy practiced by President Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s, or the unilateral foreign policy of the Bush Administration in recent years.

And this is why the view of Korea-U.S. ties held by the current administration is so ominous. President Lee Myung-bak sees the relationship as a “comprehensive strategic alliance based on mutual values and trust,” and Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Kim Sung-hwan repeatedly highlighted the importance of these shared values at the World Affairs Council meeting in Los Angeles on June 15. “Instead of an alliance strictly based on interests, an alliance based on shared values will be more beneficial and permanent,” he said.

The prime purpose of the partnership is to respond to the threat posed by a common enemy. In other words, it is just a tool to help realize both sides’ national interests and survival. As such, alliances change according to what those national interests are. And as friends and enemies can swap roles depending on the times, shared values cannot set an alliance in stone forever. There is also the danger that, when the alliance becomes the end rather than the means, countries can fall into the trap of recreating mutual enemies and threats in order to save it.

Furthermore, people and countries hold different values. For example, most Koreans would argue that a market economy and liberal democracy are universal values, but other countries may well disagree. Does this automatically position China, North Korea and Islamic nations as our enemies?

The idea of resolving global problems through a bilateral alliance with the United States, without first routing them through a multilateral apparatus such as the United Nations, is also an issue of concern. Moreover, what does Korea have to gain from following Washington’s crusade against the ongoing civil unrest and massacres in Syria? Will the Korean public be prepared to foot the bill for tackling climate change, another facet of this value-oriented alliance?

In one hypothetical scenario, if an extreme political group such as the Tea Party were to seize control of U.S. politics, how far would Korea bend to accommodate it and keep the alliance strong?

The idea of spreading a market economy and liberal democracy to all four corners of the world is a noble task. However, we are more desperately in need of a realistic foreign policy that staves off war and maintains peaceful relations with our neighbors. Over six decades since the launch of the 1950-53 Korean War, we can certainly learn from Kissinger’s advice when it comes to prioritizing our national interests.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

*The author is a political science professor at Yonsei University.
By Moon Chung-in
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