[Eyes of the Wise] Strategic Diplomacy in an Age of Globalization

This speech was presented at the sixth symposium: Diplomatic Strategy in the Age of Globalization on May 9, 2008. The original speech was made in English. 

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I will start by telling you my thoughts on what is needed for diplomacy in the age of globalization.

First, we obviously need global thinking. Just like a go game, on the board called the globe, what is happening in one part of the world affects directly and almost instantaneously other parts of the world. It is for this reason that the effectiveness of U.S. diplomacy suffers in other regions as it is bogged down in the war in Iraq. It is not only the superpower such as the United States but also other powers such as Japan, China, and even lesser powers such as South Korea that have to think globally to make their diplomacy effective and productive. Furthermore, many of the important problems today are global in nature: global warming and other environmental problems, contagious diseases, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), refugees, water, energy and food resources, and human abuses, to name a few.

Second, we need strategic thinking. Strategy means analyzing the existing situation correctly, setting the right objectives, and employing the appropriate means to achieve those objectives. In the diplomatic game, we have counterparts called other countries and governments. We need to judge their objectives, intentions, strategies and limitations. We need to compete, negotiate, persuade, threaten, reward, or compromise with them. In a world of globalization where countries are less subjected to intimidation or subjugation, the best policy would be to find a way to play a non-zero sum or a win-win, game, whereby the parties in contention or cooperation would all gain something rather than gain only at the expense of other parties or vice versa.

Third, we need multi-dimensional diplomacy both as objectives and instruments. Diplomacy in a globalized world deals not only with interests related with traditional security issues, territories and economics. Today's diplomacy deals with a country's culture, science, sports and other endeavors such as scholarship and the arts. Instruments of diplomacy comprise both hard power including military and economic capabilities and famously soft power which covers values, institutions, ideas and communication capabilities. Also included are human security issues such as environment, resources, health, human rights and economic development.

Fourth, a globalized world requires a greater emphasis on public diplomacy. According to Winston Churchill, Stalin is supposed to have asked how many divisions the Pope had. There is a lot more to diplomacy than simply having many military divisions and defeating the enemy by military means. That is, to say, we need to win the hearts and minds of the people and non-governmental organizations in other countries. This is especially true in the age of the internet, which enables freer and wider communication across the national borders. To be sure, wider access to the internet contributes to opinion polarization, fluctuation and combativeness toward the outside world. But properly and wisely used, it can contribute toward better understanding, greater knowledge about the other side and greater harmony, cooperation and even integration between and within countries. "Soft power" has become as important and useful as hard power.

Fifth, globalization requires the government's ability to deal with conflicting demands of internationalism, nationalism and parochialism (i.e., separatism). In the economic area, we witness today the expression of nationalism (often combined with parochialism) in the United States and other countries through opposition to freer trade and to offshore investments which presumably lead to job exports among other things. In China, nationalism is expressed through near-violent reactions to what they consider to be an infringement on their internal affairs such as the Tibet issue. In the case of Japan, internationalism is expressed in a rather generous foreign assistance program while nationalism is expressed in the form of visits to the Yasukuni Shrine.

This leads to the final point; for diplomacy to be effective in a globalized world, the international-domestic linkage has to be adequately dealt with. Domestic politics has always been an important component of diplomacy. But in an age of globalization where information and opinions, right or wrong, are disseminated rapidly and widely, and where the effect of foreign affairs, psychological and substantive, is more keenly and directly felt in domestic daily lives, domestic politics and relations have become truly an important element in diplomacy in a globalized world that may make or break its solvency. Domestic politics is often the reason for a particular policy; it is often an enabling or limiting factor of foreign policy; also, it often has serious consequences for domestic politics.

In light of these criteria, how do we judge the diplomatic record, for example, of the United States in recent years, especially in Asia? And how should one assess the new Korean government's diplomacy under President Lee Myung-bak?

More than six years ago, on January 29, 2002, President Bush gave his State of the Union address, in which he identified three countries as the axis of evil, that are arming to threaten the peace of the world. Of the three, two, Iraq and Iran will still be in the "in-box" for the next president by the time he or she takes office. The third one in the axis, "North Korea," is one that President Bush is now trying to wish away, or at least hopes that it will not be there any longer.

Until February last year, the Bush Administration kept a hard line on North Korea and the nuclear issue in particular. It was against bilateral talks with a country in the axis of evil. It was against "rewarding" North Korea for its bad behavior. But on February 13th, 2007, it made a policy turn-around. It would and did negotiate on a bilateral basis. It would reward North Korea for its "good behavior," that is, for freezing, declaring and dismantling its nuclear weapons, material and facilities.

The Bush Administration actually went further. It moved the goal post and lowered the threshold in a way that it became easier for North Korea to meet the requirements for an agreement. North Korea, on its part, decided to dole out small concessions that the Bush Administration could construe as a significant progress. It appears that in the wake of the North Korean explosion of a nuclear device in October 2006, the Bush Administration decided to give up its hard-line policy and salvage whatever little diplomatic success it could claim during the remaining years of its presidency. This was important and necessary for the Bush Administration's legacy in the face of multiple difficulties in other parts of the world, particularly the Middle East involving Iraq and Iran. Such a policy turn-about by the Bush Administration made the South Korean government, then of former President Roh Moo-hyun happy. It made China relieved. It made Japan uneasy. It made North Korea contented.

Even the photos of the Syrian nuclear facility last month, which were released by the United States, purportedly to indicate North Korean participation in its nuclear program, are not likely to derail or torpedo the U.S.-North Korea deal or the Six-Party Talks. As long as President Bush regards the disposition of the plutonium program, nuclear weapons and material (i.e., plutonium) the most important parts of the negotiation, even leaving the uranium enrichment program and Syrian connection ambiguous, the U.S. and North Korea will proceed with the negotiation with the blessing of China, South Korea, and most probably Russia.

In the absence of a dramatic breakthrough in the Six-Party Talks, and at best with a piecemeal progress on the issue, a new U.S. administration will urgently need to address the question of what policies to adopt to maximize prospects for success on denuclearizing North Korea, and how to deal with the consequences of failure. There should be a full-fledged examination of whether the present U.S. policies are adequate for the purpose of not only securing U.S. interests in Northeast Asia but also elsewhere such as in dealing with Iran. Otherwise, do these policies need to be recalibrated; and if so, in what fashion? One should also ask to what extent, and under what conditions, engagement with North Korea will further U.S. and its allies' goals. Furthermore, the question arises as to whether a U.S. goal would be to seek a six-party stabilization arrangement in Northeast Asia.

Alliance Relationships

Asia is in a transition phase where regional countries are in general disinclined to adopt threat-based approaches to enhancing security, preferring cooperative measures. All U.S. allies in Asia attach importance to keeping their relations with China on an even keel. Under these circumstances, the United States needs to rethink its conceptual approach to regional security. The United States should seek ways to transform and revitalize its alliance relationships in ways that would retain and enhance their relevance in dealing with potential problems while keeping in step with shifts in regional attitudes. The United States should take steps that would strengthen perceptions on the part of East Asian countries that the United States was properly engaged in the region and that its continuing presence enhanced security in the Western Pacific.

This leads to the next question of what the military/security challenges in East Asia are that a new U.S. administration should focus on. Is the U.S. force posture in the Western Pacific appropriate for the protection of U.S. interests and those of its allies and friends? U.S. capabilities for power projection in East Asia remain strong but the political underpinnings for such use of power seem to have weakened. To what extent is the U.S. forward presence viewed by Asians as contributing to regional stability or as increasing the risks of military confrontations? What should be an ideal mix between "hard power" and "soft power" in dealing with the Asian countries and security situation in particular? These are the key questions that a new U.S. administration should ponder on in this new age of globalization.

U.S.-Japan Relations

The new post Cold War generation of leaders that is emerging in Japan is trying to find ways to reinvigorate the Japanese economy, gain the international stature Japanese feel they deserve, and cope with the challenge of China's growing influence and power in the region. Many U.S. leaders seem to take Japan for granted and are only dimly aware, if at all, of the frustrations Japanese feel as they seek to determine what strategy can best address these challenges. Moreover, coordination in successive U.S. administrations of the political, economic, and security aspects of the U.S. - Japan relationship has been less than optimal. A new U.S. administration should take actions that would put this vital relationship on a sound footing for the next decade or more.

U.S.-China Relations

Transitions between U.S. administrations have historically exacerbated problems in the U.S. - China bilateral relationship for temporary periods of differing durations. In the past, each administration has discovered over time that cooperation with Beijing is more effective than contention in advancing U.S. interests. There is the question about whether this pattern can continue as the United States worries about China's growing economic and military power and burgeoning political influence. One can still envisage the possibility of a Sino-U.S. friction over such issues as human rights and trade. A new administration can and should draw lessons from past experience that would put the U.S. - China bilateral relationship on a sound footing from the beginning. A new U.S. administration should prioritize its dealings with Beijing on issues such as Korea, Taiwan, trade and financial differences, and regional cooperation.

U.S.-India Relations

U.S. relations with India have improved dramatically over the last decade, as symbolized by the efforts by the two governments over the past two years to conclude an agreement on civil nuclear cooperation. India is both an important country in its own right and a potential counterweight to China's growing wealth and power, even while India's non-aligned tradition retains deep roots in Indian society. Can the U.S. - Indian relationship be strengthened without assuming an anti-China character? A new U.S. administration would be well advised to seek a strategic partnership with India, keeping in mind that the Bush Administration has been seeking a strategic partnership with China as well.

Diplomacy of the New Korean Government

The South Korean government of Lee Myung-bak was inaugurated with the intended goal of making its diplomacy more consistent with and appropriate for the globalized world. The proclaimed means of such diplomacy was emphasis on promoting economic interest, engaging in resource diplomacy, restoring trust with the United States, building partnership with Japan and friendly relations with China, and pursuing conditional engagement with North Korea. In order to achieve these objectives, the Lee government has emphasized pragmatism over ideology and politics. This was in large part a reaction to the diplomatic behavior of the preceding Roh Moo-hyun government which tended to place greater emphasis on sentiments and political considerations. However, as the recent controversy over the opening of the beef market to the United States indicates pragmatism when carried to an extreme would bring about a domestic backlash that would make the implementation of diplomacy quite problematic.

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At the end of the Cold War, Charles Krauthammer declared the United States having become the unipolar power in the world. In hard military power, it may still be the unipolar power. In a comprehensive way, however, if the United States ever was a unipolar power in the post Cold-War era, that period seems to have passed rather quickly. The United States now has to learn to adjust to a position that is number one but not by far the pre-eminent, dominant global unipolar power. In Asia, perhaps the United States and other countries such as Japan should make the necessary psychological and policy adjustments to a newly shaping power configuration, even as they bring in the new rising powers such as China and India into the new international and regional order.

All this means that even a superpower such as the United States should approach the world with what might be called strategic diplomacy. Some years ago, a Danish foreign minister told me that there were two ways for a small power to behave vis-à-vis a big power. One is to play the "good boy" role, that is, to cooperate with the big brother with the expectation that rewards will be forthcoming for the cooperative behavior. The other is to play the "bad boy" role, that is, to be a gadfly and obstructionist so that the big power will try to reward the bad boy just to get it out of the way. There is perhaps a third way: to be a "smart boy," conducting smart diplomacy that will make or define the interests of a country to coincide with those of its neighboring big power(s). Playing the "smart" boy role is an essential component of a good strategic diplomacy, not only for the small and middle powers such as Korea but also big and super powers such as the United States, Japan and China.

Han Sung-joo

  • Chairman, Asan Institute for Policy Studies