A Lesson in Statesmanship

April 22, 2008

When studying world affairs, students often struggle to understand the relationship between events on the international and domestic levels. Diplomacy by South Korea’s new President Lee Myung Bak, inaugurated by his visit to the United States, gives them an opportunity to observe the relationship first hand.

Mr. Lee’s diplomacy comes at a crucial time in America’s engagement in the world and in U.S. domestic politics. In international relations, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue to test U.S. resolve, while the specter of a nuclear Iran looms large on the horizon. America is also leading the six-party talks with North Korea, which was one of the important agenda items during Mr. Lee’s visit.

In domestic politics, America is in the middle of a heated presidential election campaign. Republican Senator John McCain has secured the nomination of his party. On the Democratic side, former first lady and now-Senator Hillary Clinton is fighting for her political life against the immensely popular junior Senate colleague, Barak Obama. In addition, the Democrat-controlled Congress is eager to reassert its role in international affairs, which the Republican-controlled Congress has allowed to erode from 2001 to 2006. On foreign policy, the Congress is urging a timely withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. On international economic policy, the Democratic majority is actively opposing President Bush’s proposed free trade agreements with Colombia and South Korea.

The warm reception by President George W. Bush gives Mr. Lee a rare momentum, which he should use to engage in robust diplomacy. When appearing at the joint news conference with President Bush, Mr. Lee addressed the international community, as well as domestic audiences—both in America and back home. In the coming weeks and months, he should continue this diplomatic engagement by delivering two messages.

First, Mr. Lee must continue affirming the critical importance of U.S.-Korea alliance for South Korea’s security and for regional security in East Asia. He was wise to foreshadow this point before his U.S. trip, saying that he will seek to “rebuild the trust between the two countries” during his visit. Such rebuilding of trust is badly needed after the alliance was strained during the presidency of Mr. Lee’s predecessor, Roh Moo Hyun.

The significance of this message goes beyond Mr. Lee’s relationship with the current U.S. administration. Indeed, by making clear the importance of the U.S.-Korea alliance, Mr. Lee will be sending a signal to the next U.S. administration—specifically, to the presidential candidates currently running—seeking to ensure that the current productive U.S. policy in East Asia continues after President Bush leaves office in January 2009.

Mr. Lee must be aware of the vagaries of the U.S. domestic politics. A presidential transition can seriously derail diplomatic progress achieved by the outgoing administration. For instance, upon coming into office in January 2001, President Bush quickly reversed President Bill Clinton’s diplomatic approach vis-à-vis North Korea. While President Clinton engaged DPRK and sought policy change on the nuclear issue, President Bush stopped the engagement and clearly signaled the desire to change the North Korean regime. This hard-line policy saw North Korea kick out the International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, withdraw from the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty, test a nuclear bomb and accumulate enough plutonium for several nuclear weapons. The Bush Administration has now returned to the Clinton policy it originally repudiated.

The lesson is clear. President Bush came into office with “anything but Clinton” attitude. All current U.S. presidential candidates are sounding “anything but Bush” themes in their policy speeches. Mr. Lee must strongly caution against reversing the diplomatic progress in the six-party talks.

The second message Mr. Lee must deliver should be of discipline in negotiations with North Korea. Talking about the progress in the talks, Mr. Lee will be addressing the international community, as well as the North Korean regime. So far, he has been very sensible in refusing to vigorously rebuff DPRK’s verbal provocations. In response to the North Korean official news agency labeling him a “traitor” and a “U.S. sycophant,” Mr. Lee diplomatically stated that the two Koreas were “testing each other”. He rightly recognized that the statements were aimed more at the North Korean domestic audience than himself. Mr. Lee has, likewise, downplayed North Korea’s missile launches and the expulsion of the South Korean officials from DPRK. Obviously, he is keeping his eyes on the larger goal of the denuclearized Korean Peninsula and is seeking to prevent these provocations from derailing the existing progress in the six-party talks.

Influencing international and domestic audiences at the same time will be a good test of Mr. Lee’s diplomatic adroitness. If he succeeds in navigating these challenges, Mr. Lee will not only deserve to be called a statesman, but he will also be an inspiration to many students of international affairs.

Eugene B. Kogan is an international relations specialist at Brandeis University and a Senior Political Analyst at Americans for Informed Democracy in Boston, USA.