President Moon Jae-in greets U.S. President Donald Trump on the latter’s arrival at Cheong Wa
By David Tizzard
These are the best of times, these are the worst of times. The age of wisdom, and the age of foolishness. London and Paris might appear down and out as they suffer under the weight of migration problems and an indecisive German council, but Seoul and Washington are experiencing their own bleak houses. President Moon Jae-in’s arrival was seen by some as part of a necessary egalitarian revolution; conversely, some have described the current regime in America as little more than a Robespierrean reign of terror.
How to make sense of it all? A tool for understanding the complexity of international relations and politics was provided most memorably in three levels of analysis by Kenneth Waltz: the individual, the nation, and the system. The third is the most difficult to ascertain because of its lack of any true physical properties. Briefly, nations exist together not in a vacuum, but rather in an international system. Moreover, not only do states such as America and South Korea exist at this level, the main causes of war and peace are both to be found in the very architecture of this system.
Its importance is unquestionable. Upon such a framework then, and with these tumultuous times in our minds, a question arises: Is it possible for a leader of a major nation to achieve both domestic success as well as act in accordance with the requirements of the systemic level and thus maintain a balance of power while avoiding the threat of war?
A brief analysis might suggest that such dual-objectives are incredibly difficult and, moreover, that focusing on one leads to the other suffering. Richard Nixon was seemingly more concerned with foreign policy and systemic achievements believing them longer remembered in the annals of history; thus, we witnessed his prolonging of the Vietnam War when LBJ had been close to peace as well as his 1972 visit to China. His domestic record, however, leaves little to be desired.
In South Korea, President Roh Moo-hyun was very popular upon election but his internal focus and 2007 visit to Pyongyang severely tested the alliance with America and wider foreign policy. The system creaked, somewhat. More recently, Obama led the world in cool and his domestic supporters point to the remarkable things he achieved on home soil. Yet systemically, his “strategic patience” toward North Korea and the failure to fully “pivot” to Northeast Asia has to have contributed in some way to the increasingly volatile situation we have now.
China has flexed continually and North Korea has undertaken a whole series of actions without any real punitive measures over the past eight years. And, while it’s hard to imagine a less popular domestic ex-president than Park Geun-hye, at the international level she clearly tried to attend to the necessary systemic balance.
She partook in China’s 70th Anniversary V-day parade, accepted Japan’s apology regarding the sensitive comfort women issue, and maintained the U.S.-ROK alliance. Such international focus was then combined with disastrous domestic results. And now enter Messrs. Trump and Moon. The former has a growing list of domestic critics.
While he retains most of the support that won him the election against a weak opponent, his approval ratings score very low. President Moon, however, is very much the opposite. Notwithstanding the challenges he has faced since taking office, his domestic ratings remain high. The two are undoubtedly also seen in stark contrast to their respective predecessors, for both better and worse. But, does the flipside of the argument work in terms of the correlation between domestic success and systemic security?
President Moon has struggled recently with China’s Three Nos and his refusal to enter into joint drills with Japan. President Trump, on the other hand, has placed North Korea on the terrorist list, strengthened relations with both South Korea and Japan in the shape of massive arms deals and looks to be working towards securing the systemic architecture through offshore balancing. Does the domestic and international dichotomy work in such a way then: One you can have and one you can have not? Do great expectations eventually succumb to leaders having to choose between your countrymen and the innocents abroad? Or do I simply not know what the Dickens I am talking about?
David Tizzard is an assistant professor at Seoul Women’s University and host of TBS eFM’s cultural talk show “A Little of a Lot.”
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