Worth the wait

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Worth the wait


Kathleen Stephens
The author was U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Korea from 2008 to 2011. She is the president of the Korea Economic Institute of America located in Washington, D.C. 
 The White House announced on Feb. 11 President Biden’s pick to be the new U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Korea: Philip Goldberg, now serving as U.S. Ambassador to Colombia. Though not well-known to Koreans, Ambassador Goldberg is one of America’s most seasoned and skilled career diplomats. He is an inspired choice for Seoul. His nomination was worth the wait.

Before getting to why I think Ambassador Goldberg is the right man at the right time in Seoul, there are two canards to dispel. The first is that the year-long wait for the nomination, while ambassadors to neighboring posts such as Japan and China were named, reflects the Biden administration according a lower priority to Korea, or even subtle dissatisfaction with the Moon administration. It’s simply untrue. Rather, it is evidence of the overall difficulty — for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with Korea — the Biden Administration has had in filling out its team, combined with an understanding that the American ambassador to Korea remains one of the most consequential diplomatic berths overseas. In the meantime, the energetic, well-liked Charge ‘daffaires Christopher Del Corso has ably led the talented U.S. Embassy in Seoul.

The second canard has to do with how the Korean press has headlined Goldberg’s nomination. Goldberg’s resume features a panoply of senior positions in Washington and abroad, including three ambassadorships and a three-year-plus stint as Assistant Secretary of the State Department’s influential Bureau of Intelligence and Research. But to read the headlines it would seem Goldberg was picked because of his short stint coordinating with the UN on sanctions against North Korea, and hence the U.S. is sending a hard-line “sanctions enforcer” to Seoul. While understandable to focus on his “Korea experience,” this slant on Goldberg’s putative views is misleading. More telling is that virtually every country or issue that Goldberg has been involved in — Cuba, Colombia, Kosovo, Bolivia, the Philippines — has required a nuanced consideration of the utility of a whole array of diplomatic tools, carrots and sticks, incentives and disincentives, to achieve progress through diplomatic means. Ambassador Goldberg understands that sanctions have utility as well as limitations. He will be a thoughtful, respected voice in Seoul, Washington and New York in this ongoing discussion.

Still, I hear my Korean friends ask me, why are you so enthusiastic about Goldberg? Perhaps it’s natural that as a career diplomat myself I would favor such a background, but is it always the most effective? My answer is that I don’t think excellent ambassadors are always career diplomats. In Korea, among the former American ambassadors I most admire is James Lilley, who was a career intelligence officer, and James Laney, a scholar and friend of then-President Jimmy Carter. Both played pivotal and positive roles at critical moments in Korea. I consider both mentors and models to those of us who followed.

But whatever his or her background, a successful ambassador has to combine effectiveness overseas with credibility in one’s own capital. This is easier said than done. Phil Goldberg is strongly positioned to do so. He has repeatedly been sent overseas to operate in the most sensitive of environments, and established the kind of rapport and insights that allow him to build strong, honest relationships abroad as well as to reflect back to Washington the realities on the ground. And his assignments in Washington, notably as Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence and Research, have allowed him to nurture the networks of contacts and credibility that will make him a player in the capital, not just a voice from the field. This bodes well for U.S.-ROK coordination.

I have seen Ambassador Goldberg in action both overseas and in Washington. We first met in Pristina, Kosovo, where he led the U.S. Mission there 2004-2006. I was Washington’s main negotiator as we sought to move forward after the Kosovo war, and it was not easy. I was in Pristina often, and even more often on the phone with Phil. I relied on his contacts on the ground, his assessment of the situation, and his analysis of the options going forward as we confronted growing instability and impatience in Kosovo, and unrest in the broader region. I admired and relied on his sound policy judgment, as well as his ability to find humor and humanity in any situation, however dismal. I am confident Koreans will, like me, appreciate his keen intellect, his searching curiosity, and his capacity for empathy and enjoyment.

Ambassador Goldberg still faces a confirmation process in the U.S. Senate before he can present his credentials in Seoul. That process has become unnecessarily and destructively petty and partisan over the years, and so the timing of Ambassador Goldberg’s arrival in Korea cannot be assured. But I look forward to his taking up residence at the lovely U.S. ambassador’s residence in Seoul, Habib House, named after another legendary

American career diplomat, Philip Habib. I am thrilled that Philip Goldberg will be the newest resident of Habib House to carry forward the strengthening of the complex but ever-more-important U.S.-Korea relationship. It’s worth the wait.
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