[NTERVIEW] Paul Kennedy warns Korea against populism

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[NTERVIEW] Paul Kennedy warns Korea against populism

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Paul Kennedy

Warning against populist inclinations of politicians in the months leading up to December’s presidential election, Paul Kennedy, a Yale University historian known for his insights into international relations, advised them to concentrate on how to induce greater economic growth through new wealth creators rather than focusing on spending money.

Kennedy, author of “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers,” met with Chairman Hong Seok-hyun of the JoongAng Ilbo last week to talk about a broad range of issues and the latest developments in Korea’s relations with global superpowers. Senior editors of the newspaper and the Korea JoongAng Daily also joined the meeting at Hong’s office on Sept. 21.

During the two-hour discussion, the 67-year-old historian referred to lessons from European history to recommend that Korea’s politicians and policy makers be more patient, prudent and perceptive before making any hasty moves amid growing uncertainties surrounding the peninsula. Kennedy and Hong talked about the upcoming presidential election, China’s rise, territorial disputes in Northeast Asia and unification of the two Koreas.

Introducing the issue of growth versus fairness, especially the effort to escape from the middle income trap and to achieve a more advanced economy, Hong discussed the upcoming presidential election and expressed concern that all presidential candidates are, to varying degrees, trapped in a contest for populism.

Kennedy agreed that it is difficult when all the parties go in the populist direction because there is “no genuine, alternative recipe.” He said it is a “major mistake to emphasize the redistributionist’s aspect of politics as opposed to the wealth creation and wealth enhancement level of politics.”

Referring to 18th-century Netherlands or Britain as a model, Kennedy said those nations created a strong structure of “do not tamper much with business” commercial law. “They rely upon individual enterprises and individual small companies to be the generators of the new wealth,” he said.

“So if you spend all your time attacking the 1 percent as opposed to the 99 percent, which is what the liberals, the very left Democrats, do, you are missing the point,” Kennedy continued. “The point is that in this country, you’ve had the low rates of economic growth for year after year. And the question is how do you induce greater economic growth, and that can only come from the wealth creators. That doesn’t mean that you don’t want to be egalitarian.”

Noting that the situation in the United States is also at a historically bad level, Kennedy said, “You don’t solve that simply by the distributionist’s type of campaign, the populist campaign . .?.?. There has to be a way in which you can argue for greater equality of treatment of your citizens by leaving space for wealth creation.”

Kennedy also warned voters in Korea to be wary of the populist pledges they will hear in the election season.

“That’s so tempting because it seems to be offering benefits without people having to do anything about it,” he said. “Especially if [a politician is] saying we are going to reduce university tuitions, then the people can immediately say that helps my son, my daughter or me.”

Candidates, therefore, present simplistic, extreme slogans, but they really haven’t thought the policies through, Kennedy pointed out.

“I am not at all surprised that the arguments are going to be about populists, distributionists,” he said. “And my worry is that in many countries it’s not just domestic populism, but populist nationalism. I see that so many of the parties which are growing in strength in the Netherlands, in Austria and elsewhere have strong anti-foreign nationalist populism to them.”

During the discussion, Kennedy and Hong talked about the changing environment around the Korean Peninsula, particularly China’s rise and the decline of the United States. Asked by Hong how Korea should adapt to the changes, Kennedy said it is important for Korea to maintain a “wait-and-see” approach toward China.

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Paul Kennedy, right, a Yale University historian and author of “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers,” met with Chairman Hong Seok-hyun, left, of the JoongAng Ilbo, on Sept. 21 at Hong’s office to talk about a broad range of issues and the latest developments in Korea’s relations with global superpowers. By Oh Jong-taek


Stressing that Korea’s geopolitical position has not changed compared to 100 years ago, Kennedy said it still is “in between four big elephants,” referring to China, Japan, Russia and the United States. And the North Korea factor remains.

“We’ll be talking about a long-term trend of relative decline of American capacities and the relative rise of Chinese wealth. Of course a country such as [South Korea] is going to treat China with great significance, probably with increasing significance,” he said. “Does that call for an alteration in the larger Korean policy or strategy? I think that would be rash.

“I think we might be in a phase where we have been overimpressed by China’s strength, so we don’t see some of its weaknesses. And we have been watching America’s weaknesses without realizing its deeper, longer-term strengths,” he said. “So I think it’s a good time for the Republic of Korea to wait and see on China.”

Quoting the American colloquial expression, “If it ain’t broken don’t try to fix it,” Kennedy said, “If Korean relationships with China and the U.S. are not broken, don’t try to fix them,” and “be very wary of people who call for a dramatic shift.”

Hong raised the issue of the latest disputes caused by Japan’s renewed claim over Korea’s easternmost Dokdo islets and the territorial conflict between Japan and China over the Senkaku Islands, also known as Diaoyu in China. Kennedy said he was surprised to see the situation because “each of those countries, governments and publics has much bigger challenges.

“The Chinese have the challenges of internal government,” he said. “They have the challenge of single-party control. They have the challenges of a mysterious leadership,” he said. “And they have fantastically big environmental challenges to deal with. And they have economic slowdown challenges.

“So a rational person would say, ‘What are you doing here? You have bigger fish to catch,’” he continued. “But historians would say it’s not unknown in history to divert people’s attention against a foreign country, a foreign power, when you are confronting all sorts of domestic difficulties.”

Asked what Korea should do in this situation, Kennedy introduced the example of Lord Salisbury, the foreign secretary of Great Britain in the late 19th century. The politician, who was a three-time prime minister and four-time foreign secretary, is known for his “urbane and balanced view of things,” Kennedy said.

In the 1890s, when the United States, Japan and Germany were rising, British politicians demanded that the country make a drastic move, Kennedy said. When Lord Salisbury said the policy is “to float lazily downstream, occasionally putting out a diplomatic boat hook to avoid collisions,” his critics said it was a “no-policy policy” and “nonsense,” according to Kennedy.

“But Salisbury’s policy was exactly right,” Kennedy said. “When you have five or six challenges and problems going on in the world that you don’t understand, you keep your mouth shut, don’t row too fast and just let’s see what’s around the bend when you get around the river.”

Kennedy concluded, “There is too much of a tendency in political leaders and often some of the media to want fast direct action without thinking about consequences.”

Hong said Korea would also probably need to use a similar approach in its positioning between China and the United States, and also dealing with Japan and North Korea as uncertainties continue to rise in the region. Agreeing with the view, Kennedy quoted the case of German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck.

In 1866, during the war between the Hapsburg monarchy of Austria and the rising Prussia that Bismarck was prime minister of, the Prussian Army managed to smash the Austrians in just one battle at Koniggratz, Kennedy noted. While the Prussian generals wanted to immediately march and occupy Vienna, Bismarck flatly said no, Kennedy said.

“Bismarck said, ‘We don’t want to humiliate the Austrians anymore because in the future, we might want to count on them to be neutral if, say, we have a future war with France,’” Kennedy said. “And that was coming in four years of time, and Bismarck knows it’s coming, and if you have a future war with France, we don’t want Austria jumping on our back, we want it to stay neutral.”

Stressing that Bismarck and Salisbury were “not cowardly or timid,” Kennedy urged Korea’s politicians to think ahead.

On inter-Korean issues, Kennedy also recommended the wait-and-see approach for the South.

“I am not arguing against the eventual unification of the Korean people. It is quiet, natural, and I think it is a fate, destiny,” Kennedy said. “The question for me is can it be done in an amicable and wise way so that there isn’t tension between the richer people of the South and the poor people of the North?”

Citing the case of the social jealousy, tensions and residual fights between the East Germans and the West Germans after their unification, Kennedy showed concerns about the North Korean military’s reactions if South Korean politicians spoke about unification ideas too aggressively.

“Supposing Korean politicians propose something striking or say by 2015 or 2020 we should have unification, there will be neuralgic reaction from North Korea,” he said. “There would be silence in Russia, there would be hurried messages from Washington saying, ‘Please don’t do that.’

“And you will be putting the Chinese government on the spot,” Kennedy continued. If Beijing remained silent, the people will think of it as a go-ahead message, while rejecting the unification proposal would worsen China’s reputation and make it “look peremptory, as if [they are] trying to own East Asia,” he said.

“So I am skeptical of any move by any South Korean politician,” he said. “However, I understand the motivation and the emotion and the feeling about this, but there are times that silence is the wisest policy.”

Asked by Hong about North Korea’s nuclear arms programs and how South Korea must approach it, Kennedy said it is not a good time to make the issue a central part of a political debate in the South.

“We have a completely new, unknown leader in the North, and we are not at all sure if he buys certain measures,” Kennedy said, referring to Kim Jong-un, the current leader of the North. He also added that the outside world doesn’t know if the North’s military is beginning to think that “the ice can melt.”

“Since we cannot read his mind, I would give him a chance,” Kennedy said. “In other words, this comes back to my Lord Salisbury argument. Let’s just see what happens.”

The four superpowers surrounding the peninsula are skeptical about a smooth Korean unification because of the possibility of North Korea’s “mad-dog act” and thus prefer the status quo, Kennedy said. But Washington, Beijing, Tokyo and Moscow won’t oppose the eventual, peaceful process.

“The doubts would be about future Korean successes, future Korean enhancement, and the Korean model for political integration, democracy and economic growth,” he said. “So I understand why almost all four say, ‘Let’s just keep things going,’ because they are scared of a war-like outcome. If change equals peaceful integration, I think the reservations would drop immediately.”

He also had a warning for South Koreans who yearn for integration, even a peaceful process like in Germany.

“My West German friends are still complaining of the enormous costs of paying for the East German provinces. You have to take over the pensions, you have to build schools, you have to build new universities, new roads, new hospitals.

“The gap between East and West German populations were nothing like between the impoverished North and the South,” he said. “So you might find that you have a civic duty to invest if there was a peaceful change. But it would be a massive diversion of potential mobile capital sucked into the rebuilding of the North.”

Regarding China’s rise in East Asia and how South Korea must redefine its position, Kennedy said he has noticed that China is now more comfortable in exercising its veto power in the United Nations Security Council.

He said the United States and the neighbors of China cannot object to its peaceful economic development and concurrent rise as a world power, but they are entitled to counteract correspondingly “if Chinese behavior looks more and more erratic and more and more hostile.”

By Ser Myo-ja [myoja@joongang.co.kr]
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