Bitter aftertaste of democracy
In TIME Magazine’s July 2nd article, ``Why South Korea Is in an Uproar over Intelligence Sharing with Japan,” Bill Powell begins the story with an insightful observation: ``On its face, the idea seems rational enough: two allies and regional neighbors, both prosperous democracies with key foreign policy interests in common, resolve to share military intelligence, something that they perhaps should have been doing for some time now. But when the countries involved are South Korea and Japan, rationality can be a scarce commodity. The tortured history between the two countries almost guarantees that.”
I would presume to make only two edits in the whole paragraph: swap out ``almost” with ``absolutely” in the last sentence and point out that the scarcity of rationality is not unique to Japan-Korea relationship ― it’s actually the human condition.
The central narrative of the Great Recession is that highly capable individuals driven by rational self-interest have made such bad decisions that they almost brought down the world’s financial infrastructure and visited ruin upon themselves, not to mention us on Main Street. But bad decision-making is not limited to powerful executives. From A-list celebrities to powerful politicians, we have witnessed people make disastrous, self-destructive decisions. As behavioral scientists have already proven, human decisions are not driven by rational self-interest coldly maximizing utility and resources. Then, what really drives our decisions? Emotions.
As Powell points out, the intelligence sharing agreement makes total logical sense from a risk management perspective for both South Korea and Japan. And, as President Lee pointed out, the agreement is nothing new ― South Korea has similar agreements with sundry other nations, including Russia. Also, the U.S., South Korea’s closest ally, was pushing for South Korea to conclude the agreement with Japan, according to the press. In light of all this, that South Korea and Japan waited this long to enact such an agreement is what’s strange, not that they agreed to one. It’s so logical.
Alas, emotions always trump logic when it comes to relationships, even between nations, something that the Lee government forgot in trying to push this through. Actually, they didn’t forget. The fact that they went about this in such an ill–advised, non–transparent fashion illustrates that they knew they would face opposition from the public that’s bound to be loud, irrational, and emotional. So, they decided to leave the public out of the process. Bad call, it turns out.
To be fair, I am sure that they were all acting out of a sense of patriotism and choosing the best path forward on what they thought was right for the country. And very few are actually arguing against the merits of the negotiated agreement. What they have an issue with is the process, or lack thereof. And in a democracy, the end never justifies the means because the means is almost always more important than the end. In fact, democracy is all about the process. Consequently, this means that politics in a democracy is all about the process also.
Political leadership in a democracy is not a matter of overpowering all other voices into submission, disenfranchising other viewpoints through exclusion, or marginalizing your own people through opaque procedural trickery. To be effective, political leadership must be an inclusive process that invites all viewpoints to the table to hash out an unsatisfactory but tenable compromise that most have a say and stake in. This is even more important in cases where raw emotions are sure to rule the discussion. The end result will almost never be the logically optimal choice. But it will be something that everyone would have had some say in. At least the opportunity to have a say in it, which was what was taken away by how this process was played out by the Blue House.
In short, in a democracy, you can’t ``bulldoze” or ``sneak” your way to better policies, as much as you know that you are correct and doing it for all the right reasons. You have to argue, persuade, and convince. You have to face head–on the irrationality, self-centeredness, mean politics, narrow group interests, backbiting, outright distortions, and even accusations of being a traitor in order to make your case publicly to the nation. And if you can’t convince your own people, maybe your policies haven’t yet found the right timing and you have to give up gracefully, even if you end up holding your nose and the back of your throat is puckering from the bitter aftertaste of messy democratic politics.
But just remember the old Korean saying that medicine has to be bitter to be effective. In the same sense, the bitter aftertaste of democracy is sure to be the right medicine for Korea. So the lesson here is: take your medicine to get better.
The author lives and works in Washington D.C. He’s been writing for The Korea Times since 2006. His email address is Jason@jasonlim.net.