A number of folks have raised a ruckus over a point I made Thursday night about the strained relations between the United States and South Korea (ROK).
Their beef is with this passage â¦
the deep strains in US-ROK relations â¦ have deep roots. Much of it stems from difficulties adjusting to the end of the Cold War and Korean democracy itself, which is fairly new. But in no small measure the stance of the current South Korean government is the result of the Bush administrationâs aggressive and unilateral policies toward the Korean Peninsula.
How can I call White House policy unilateral, these folks <$Ad$>ask, when the US has been trying to get six-party negotiations underway for months?
Through the second half of the 1990s the situation on the Korean peninsula was governed by what the South Koreans called the âsunshine policy,â one of rapprochement with the North, and the so-called Agreed Framework. The latter was basically our deal to give the Koreans various stuff if they would shutter their plutonium-based drive for nuclear weapons.
Though imperfect and requiring revision, this approach was widely supported by our allies and sometime-allies in the region. Bill Clinton supported it. Colin Powell supported it, and wanted to continue it. But the White House didnât support it. And it got deep-sixed for that reason.
The defining encounter came in March 2001 when then-President Kim Dae Jung visited the White House only to be told by the president that we were withdrawing support for his policy. As Jessica Matthews, head of the Carnegie Endowment put it, President Bush took âthe architect of the North-South reconciliation and â¦ publicly humiliate[d] him.â
For almost the next two years the White House pursued a bellicose and uncompromising policy vis-Ã -vis the North. Another defining moment came when the president labeled North Korea one of three members of the âaxis of evilâ in January 2002.
Now, first for âaggressive.â
Thereâs a lively and complex debate about whether it was a good tactical move to apply this âaxis of evilâ label to North Korea. But however you come down on that point, so long as you have your brainstem securely attached, I do not see how you can say this does not constitute an 'aggressive' approach.
Now, as to 'unilateral'.
As I was saying, the administration pursued this policy pretty much against the wishes of everyone in the region for almost two years --- all the while salting it with invidious contrasts between Clintonian appeasement and President Bushâs steely resolve.
Finally, in late 2002, the North Koreans called our bluff and it became clear we had little to back up our tough talk. Since then -- roughly since the spring of this year -- we've been trying to get everyone else in the region together to help us out of the jam. And for most of this year we've been slowly but surely making offers of various things that we said we'd never offer.
For much of that time, the response from other countries in the region has been that there's not that much to talk about until we put something on the table -- probably some offer of a security guarantee for the North Koreans. And the progress has been slow.
Now, just because our allies in the region didn't agree with our policy doesn't mean it wasn't the right policy. Similarly, just because we pursued the policy in defiance of their wishes doesn't mean it was a bad policy. But such an approach is pretty much the definition of a 'unilateral' policy.
What happened is that since the administration's unilateral policy hit a brick wall we've been trying to get the same regional allies on board to work our way out of the jam.
You don't need to know too much about foreign affairs to know that the term for such an approach isn't multilateralism but desperation, or perhaps multilateralism used in desperation after unilateralism has created grave damage.
Unilateralism has its place in limited situations. But let's not lie about it after the fact.
There is of course a telling and unfortunate parallel with the current situation in Iraq. Now that things are going south we're looking for help from anyone and everyone there too. But, again, that's desperation, not multilateralism. Does trying to get the South Koreans to send us a few troops change the fundamental character of our policy? Of course not. Everybody goes begging for help when they run out of options. That's human nature. The key is to avoid pursuing a policy based on recklessness and swagger that gets you into such a position in the first place.
In Iraq that is certainly where we are right now.
The president loaded us all into the family van, revved the thing up to 70 MPH, and slammed us into a brick wall called Reality.