The great qualification

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The great qualification

After learning I’m a journalist, the first question people ask me is who I think will win the presidential election in December. Of course, my guess is no better than theirs. The second question they ask is who they should vote for. Their concerns usually revolve around their lives and their neighborhoods.

On a geographical axis, it is easy to answer. In Daegu and North Gyeongsang, the answer would be Park Geun-hye because those are home places of the ruling Saenuri Party candidate and her father, former President Park Chung Hee. In rival Jeolla, the voting base for the liberal camp, people will want to vote for someone who can beat Park. In Busan and South Gyeongsang, it is anyone who would revive the Maritime and Fisheries Ministry and promise a new international airport for the area.

My heart sinks, though, because this is not the right question to ask, or the right answer to the question. The first thing people should ask is who is most qualified to lead the country. The list is long. One crucial area much neglected by voters is statesmanship on foreign affairs and security issues. The theme remained in my head due to a recent talk with renowned British historian and author Paul Kennedy.

The author, famous for his celebrated book “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers,” discussed international affairs. He quoted Henry Kissinger, former national security adviser and secretary of state for President Richard Nixon, who made the first diplomatic journeys to Beijing and orchestrated Nixon’s visit to China. The veteran diplomat, one of America’s greatest and most experienced experts on China, explored, reminisced and shared diplomatic intuitions to both Americans and Chinese in his book “On China.”

He described Sino-American relations by referring to a memorandum written in 1907 by a senior official of the British Foreign Office, Eyre Crowe, which was drawn up to answer to the monarch’s question about the threat from Germany, a rising power, and the possibility of it coming into conflict with the British Empire. Crow concluded that Germany would like to “build as powerful a navy as she can afford” and that “England must expect that Germany will surely seek to diminish the power of any rivals to enhance her own by extending her dominion.” Both states had limited choices and were destined to conflict.

The hard-eyed realist’s view came as a surprise as the British and Germans were on friendly terms at the time. The royal family was of German background, and the two countries maintained a stable and broad economic relationship. But the historical heritage and contemporary relationship would fall away meaninglessly in the dynamics of a power game between rising and existing hegemonies.

Kissinger revisited the historical memorandum as a critical note on a surge of the “Crowe school of thought” in the United States amid growing concerns about China as a rising and incompatible power in the Pacific. Under Crowe’s theory, a military clash may be inevitable.

China today is in a similar position as Germany a century ago. Helmuth von Moltke, chief of the German general staff in arguing for preemptive war, claimed peace “a dream” and thought that no political goal could be attained without military means. Chinese generals could not agree more as they demand a build-up of military power to irrefutably assert sovereignty over islands in a contentious dispute with Japan.

Yet Kissinger insists peace can be worked out through the “tradition of consultation and mutual respect” and urged leaders of the two powers to muster up the necessary wisdom and insight to build a shared global order.

Kennedy also shared another meaningful episode with Kissinger. When he was asked by a group of students during a special session at Yale University on what worried him most about the future of the U.S. and China, he said “the arrogance of the young generation.” He noted that the Chinese leaders he worked with as the secretary of state had been prudent and modest.

But the younger generation is different. They have not experienced the tumult of wars, invasions, revolutions, madness and extreme poverty. The Chinese have become hyper-proud of their economic and military strength. Kissinger warned that their pride and assertiveness will grow and told the students that it would be up to them to deal with a more difficult opponent on the other side of the Pacific.

Although he warned that a cold war between the two countries would “arrest progress for a generation on both sides of the Pacific” and their rivalry “need not and should not become a zero-sum game,” Kissinger could not shake off worried feelings about an inherently unstable future.

A hegemonic conflict often places other nations as hostages. As Flanders served as a fighting zone for the French and Germans, the Korean Peninsula has often been held hostage by the warring Chinese and Japanese. The dispute over Diaoyu also dates back to the Sino-Japanese war that began on Joseon land.

Kennedy advised Seoul officials to come up with a delicate and scrupulous diplomatic strategy. But it is hard to decipher who has the best prowess in the field among our presidential candidates. Voters should decide who can best lead the country in these critical and challenging times before they head to their polling places.

* The author is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Oh Byung-sang
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