An errand boy isn’t neededU.S. President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seemed to be the best partners. As the head of America’s foreign policy for four years, Mrs. Clinton was always courteous to Obama. And Obama showed high respect for the former first lady who was once his rival. On the surface, there seemed to be no problems between them.
In reality, however, the White House had all the power and intervened in every foreign policy decision leaving little leeway for Mrs. Clinton.
During her service as secretary of state, Mrs. Clinton visited 112 nations, flying 1.54 million kilometers (957,000 miles), the equivalent of 40 circumferences of the globe. She is the most travelled secretary of state in history. Despite her active service, Clinton is considered to have scored few diplomatic accomplishments due to continuing friction between the White House and the Department of State.
Vali Nasr exposes the discord in his book “Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat,” which will be published in April.
Nasr, who is Dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), is a leading American expert on the Middle East. As a senior advisor to Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, for two years from 2009, Nasr observed the internal workings of American diplomacy. In the book, he discloses troubles in foreign policy during the first term of the Obama administration.
According to Nasr, Obama did not give Ambassador Holbrooke discretionary authority. When Obama visited Afghanistan, Holbrooke was not even included in his retinue and was not invited to video conferences with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Holbrooke’s own diplomacy was held back by the White House until he died from complications of a torn aorta in December 2010.
As a veteran diplomat, Holbrooke had a rare career that included the positions of Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs and Assistant Secretary of State for Europe. During the 2008 presidential campaign, he worked as a foreign policy advisor for Clinton. If Clinton had been elected president, he could easily have become her Secretary of State. When Obama’s White house investigated Holbrooke’s personal issues, Clinton reacted furiously and drafted a confidential file reporting the abuse of power and wrongdoings by the White House team. The emotional conflict between the White House and Clinton rose to a level of theater of the absurd.
Nasr points out that the foreign policy for the first term of the Obama administration lacked consistency and suffered repeated setbacks because his team looked at foreign policy from the perspective of domestic politics. As Obama was focused on reelection, he made decisions based on the effects on votes and repeatedly made strategic mistakes in Afghanistan and Pakistan. So he could not properly respond to Iran’s nuclear development, the conflict between Israel and Palestine and the revolutionary waves of the “Arab Spring.” As foreign policy fell under the variables of domestic politics, Nasr argues, the status and authority of the United States has diminished in the last four years.
Of course, Korea’s political structure and diplomatic situation are very different from that of the United States. However, there are lessons to be learned from the American case. A similar struggle can occur in the new Park Geun-hye administration. President Park is the type of leader who micromanages everything. The division and coordination of roles among the head of the National Security Office, the Senior Secretary for Foreign Policy and Security and the foreign minister is unclear. If the national security chief and the senior secretary begin to intervene in the name of the president, not much is left for the foreign minister to do. He could easily become an errand boy for the Blue House. Park’s nominee for foreign minister is known as a “yes man” who diligently fulfills any request.
John Kerry, the secretary of state for the second term of the Obama administration, is currently touring Europe and the Middle East. While Obama announced his Pivot to Asia policy, Kerry seems to have chosen Europe and the Middle East in order to project his own character. Now that Obama is reelected, he is likely to support Kerry more than Clinton. Also, he will not take Kerry lightly as the veteran politician has long been his political mentor.
Kerry’s counterpart in Seoul is Yun Byung-se, foreign minister of the Park Geun-hye administration who passed a confirmation hearing yesterday. The foreign minister needs to face Kerry to discuss responses to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and fundamental solutions to the issues on the Korean Peninsula. Yun is expected to pursue creative and proactive diplomacy. While his own efforts are undoubtedly crucial, the president must give him more leeway. The president should entrust him with authority and allow him to make decisions. Foreign policy is more important than ever. If the foreign minister behaves like a messenger of the president, there is no hope for Korea’s foreign policy.
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Bae Myung-bok