The trap of strategic ambiguity

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The trap of strategic ambiguity

In June 2001, three North Koran merchant ships violated the waters of Jeju Island. As the “Sunshine Policy” was the law of the land at the time, the Navy was hesitant to drive them away. Naturally, the public criticized the lukewarm response. Then, President Kim Dae-joong made an “explicit” order: “Respond wisely.” What did he mean by “wise” anyway? The military authority was frustrated.

Of course, explicitness is not always the best. What would happen if you reveal everything to lead an honest living? You would never know when the enemy would attack. Where drums beat, laws are silent in the international community.

The most notable case of explicitness inviting disaster occurred in Korea. In January 1950, U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson said before the National Press Club that America’s “defense perimeter runs from the Ryukyus through Japan to the Philippine Islands.” As a result, the Korean Peninsula was excluded from the so-called “Acheson Line.”

But the speech was a source of trouble. The North believed that the United States would not intervene even if it invaded the South. Five months later, North Korean forces freely advanced southward. Critics blamed Acheson for not mentioning “a solid defense perimeter across East Asia” and potentially causing a catastrophic war.

So, “strategic ambiguity” was developed to prevent such mistakes. It is a tactic to refrain from stating specifics on a certain topic or to speak vaguely. Then, other countries cannot guess the next move and do not act freely.

The United States chose strategic ambiguity to protect Taiwan. Washington has never explicitly said what it would do if a conflict breaks out between Beijing and Taipei. So, the possibility of America’s high-tech missiles flying to China remains open should China invade Taiwan. During the cold war, the United States also remained ambiguous about whether it would use nuclear weapons if Eastern European communist states attacked the Western bloc with conventional weapons. It is believed that strategic ambiguity contained provocation. That’s another appropriate application of strategic ambiguity.

The concept has been used in many other fields. Last year, Ahn Cheol-soo made vague comments when he considered a presidential bid and merging with the opposition. His attitude was analyzed as strategic ambiguity.

What we should keep in mind, however, is that this should not be confused as a lack of principle and philosophy. Strategic ambiguity requires external vagueness based on clear internal consensus.

The Park Geun-hye administration’s foreign policy slogan is “diplomacy of trust.” It is just as ambiguous as her “creative economy,” a concept that put officials in chaos. The latest confusion between the Blue House and Prime Minister Chung Hong-won over North Korean policy is not unrelated to the ambiguity of foreign policy. While the Blue House proposed talks with Pyongyang, Prime Minister Chung urged firm responses to North Korean threats. While Chung backed down, it is hard to say which position corresponds to the president’s “trustpolitik.”

On April 10, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs went a step further during a report to the National Assembly. It proposed pursuing “diplomacy of science and technology to attain a creative economy,” and the vague plan earned criticism for lacking substance.

Nevertheless, government officials try to cover up dubious foreign policy with “strategic ambiguity.” Some argue that foreign policy should be ambiguous. However, the United States pushes for a specific strategy of shifting the foreign policy focus to Asia. As the next generation of oil shale resulted in reduced strategic value in the Middle East, President Barack Obama did not hesitate to declare that the United States would get closer to Asia.

There are a lot of benefits derived from specific policies. Confusion can be prevented, and the entire organization can respond more promptly to a rapidly changing international situation.

Foreign policy experts say that we need to come up with a doctrine that defines specific and long-term diplomacy goals. Since various values coexist, we don’t have to stick with just one doctrine. As for the United States, isolationism to stay out of overseas issues and internationalism to actively intervene have coexisted. The two doctrines are woven together to keep a balance.

The Park Geun-hye administration may want to consider a doctrine with a clear direction instead of foreign policy with vague titles. Only then can Korea have consistent diplomacy that remains intact even after leadership changes.

*The author is a traveling correspondent and director of global cooperation at the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Nam Jeong-ho

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