Increasing visibility in Washington
Friends at the Joongang Ilbo have been asking me why Korea does not have a higher profile in Washington. Despite the much touted “pivot” to Asia - the administration, Congress and the media seem transfixed on Ukraine and the Middle East. Meanwhile, Korean media has been perplexed that U.S. officials and think tanks won’t take Seoul’s side on historical and territorial disputes with Japan.
Are Americans biased toward Japan? Is Korean public diplomacy ineffective? Should Seoul increase its lobbying activities in Washington? In my view, Korean diplomacy is quite effective in Washington, where the context is very different from what it may appear when viewed in Seoul. Here are some facts that may be worth considering when looking at Korean visibility in Washington.
1. Historically, the United States has been far more focused on Europe than Asia and more focused on Japan than Korea - but that is changing.
While George Washington famously told his fellow citizens in his farewell address that the United States should stay out of entangling alliances in old Europe, in the 20th century American strategy prioritized Europe over Asia on every occasion. During World War I, Woodrow Wilson allowed Japanese expansion in Asia because Tokyo was allied with Britain and the Americans’ most vital interest was to preserve the Anglo-American order and prevent German domination of Europe. In World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt focused on defeating Hitler first for the same reasons, despite the fact that Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor.
After the war, the United States focused on protecting the European industrial heartland and Japan against communism, and chose an offshore balancing strategy in the Pacific that cut off Korea - until the North Korean attack forced the United States to draw its defense perimeter on the peninsula. Richard Nixon’s Guam Doctrine to reduce U.S. military overstretch in Asia was mostly designed to reinforce Europe after the Vietnam War. Carter’s troop withdrawal was also aimed at reinforcing Europe.
This trend has reversed in the past few years. The Pentagon’s rebalance to Asia will put the weight of American military power in the Pacific and not Europe for the first time, and the majority of Americans now say in public opinion polls that Asia is more important than Europe. Moreover, the prioritization of maritime Japan has not always cost Korea. In fact, the Truman administration’s defense of Korea in June 1950 was premised in large part on defending Japan, and Jimmy Carter’s reversal of his promise to withdraw U.S. troops was the result of Japanese lobbying in Washington. So Japan and Korean interests in Washington have not always been zero sum in the past, nor are they today.
2. Korean diplomacy in Washington has been highly effective in recent years.
White House officials tell me consistently that President Barack Obama’s first summit with Korean President Lee Myung-bak was the most important one he had in 2009. President Lee talked about what the United States meant to Korean development and security and what Korea could now do to help the United States in regional and global diplomacy and development. The Obama administration came into office expecting to engage China and maintain a balance of power through the U.S.-Japan alliance. They were surprised to find that Korea was a major net exporter of security goods and their most reliable partner. The administration then enthusiastically backed Korea hosting the G-20, the nuclear summit, and the High Level Aid Effectiveness Summit - and stood squarely behind Seoul’s policies towards North Korea.
Ambassador Han Duk-soo was then extremely effective engaging the U.S. Congress on the KORUS Free Trade Agreement, patiently explaining to members the economic benefits to their own districts and winning them over one at a time - a pattern that he had seen work for the Australian Ambassador on the U.S.-Australia Free Trade Agreement. Ambassador Han’s successors have kept up the same strong link with Congress.
3. Korean lobbying against Japan in Washington often hurts Korea’s brand.
Japan experts in Washington have all pressured Tokyo to be more forthcoming with Seoul on the history issue, but this is not because of Korean lobbying. It is because the U.S. national interest in Asia is hurt by Korea-Japan tensions. When the Korean government explains the damage done to Japan-Korea relations by some of the statements or actions made in Tokyo, that resonates for experts in Washington. However, when Korean officials sometimes make the case that the United States should turn against Japan strategically (citing Abe’s “dangerous nationalism”), that gives the impression that Seoul is drifting into Beijing’s orbit, which makes American officials and scholars nervous. Informed Asia experts know full well the strength of the U.S.-ROK alliance, but those who challenge that assumption often point to Korean criticism of Japan.
Meanwhile, most experts in Washington look at Korean lobbying on territorial issues as designed primarily for domestic Korean audiences and not likely to have any impact on U.S. policy.
So all this brings us back to the first and second points. Korea’s presence and influence in Washington have grown because of the affirmative messages from Seoul. Asia is more important to U.S. global strategy now, and Korea has much to offer as a reliable and ally and stakeholder at a time when trust in China is declining and Japanese politics have been highly volatile. Korean branding is most effective when it is based on the ability of global Korea to bring solutions to poverty alleviation, proliferation, global governance, aid effectiveness and trade. Korean branding aimed at relative gains vis-a-vis Japan recasts Korea in a less global and affirmative light. If anything, Korea and Japan should be pooling their diplomatic efforts in Washington - making the case for strong U.S. engagement in Asia, promotion of democracy, and support for allies. Effective diplomacy, like effective politics, should begin not by asking what you can do for me, but by showing what I can do for you.
*The author is senior vice president for Asia and Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and an associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
by Michael Green