By Robert M. Hathaway
When President Lee Myung-bak visits Washington this week, he will find his American hosts in something of a funk. The U.S. capital is a sour, cranky place these days, accurately reflecting the mood of the vast majority of Americans.
Traditional American optimism is battered. Americans fear the American dream is fading. Three years after the global financial meltdown, the U.S. economy remains in the dumpster. Economic growth is anemic. Good jobs are harder and harder to come by; long-term joblessness is more serious than at any time since the Great Depression 80 years ago. Nearly one American in six lives in poverty.
Americans worry that their vaunted economic machine, at one time the envy of the world, is grinding to a halt. For the first time in history, they no longer assume that the living standards of their children will surpass their own. Many fear that America has lost its groove, that the United States risks sliding into genteel decline, or is already on the glide path downward. America, for so long the “can do” nation, no longer appears able to do.
This gloominess about the future stems in good measure from the failures of official Washington and the political establishment that governs ― or at least is expected to govern ― the country. Polarization, partisan gridlock, and political brinkmanship have replaced statesmanship, compromise, and the concept of the common good.
Widespread calls for a third political party as Americans gear up for another presidential election illustrate the disillusionment with the two major parties and the politics-as-usual they embody. Why should any of this matter for Korea, or have a bearing on President Lee’s visit this week?
First, because in an anxious world, Americans will look to old friends for reassurance. The U.S.-ROK mutual defense pact is nearly 60 years old. Yet, no one in Washington suggests that the treaty has become a fossil of an earlier era, or that it is no longer relevant to the 21st century Asian security environment. To the contrary, as uneasiness about a rising China grows, old friends such as Korea take on added value.
No one in Washington wants to see an openly antagonistic U.S.-China relationship, or force South Korea to take sides in an emerging split between Washington and Beijing. Washington has no intention of asking Seoul to choose between its largest trade partner and its longtime strategic ally.
Still, new anxieties reinforce the importance of old friends. Ceremonial state visits have been a rare commodity under Barack Obama; this will be only the fifth in Obama’s nearly three years in office. That Lee has been accorded the distinction of a state visit and an opportunity to address a joint session of Congress speaks volumes for the value Washington places on its ties with South Korea.
Second, America’s economic anxieties may also encourage a search for new partnerships with Korea. After interminable delays stretching back to the previous administrations in both countries, the White House has finally submitted the 2007 U.S.-Korea free trade agreement to Congress for approval. It is possible (though not certain) that one or both houses of Congress will clear the bill this week. All remaining legislative obstacles appear to have been removed, and final passage by both houses seems assured.
The importance ― symbolic and substantive ― of this step should not be dismissed merely because the process of getting here has been tortuous. If the pact lives up to its promise of boosting U.S. exports, creating new U.S. jobs, and adding $10-12 billion each year to the U.S. economy, it could open the door to additional win-win agreements between the two countries.
Third, the Obama of big ideas and bold vision ― think of his calls for a world without nuclear weapons, or serious action to combat climate change ― is no more, at least for the time being. Managing threats rather than solving problems is the name of the game in Washington these days.
So President Lee should not look for big solutions or historic breakthroughs this week. On North Korea, for instance, the United States is likely to be satisfied with incremental steps and continued patience. For example, Obama may use the occasion of Lee’s visit to announce that he is sending Special Envoy Stephen Bosworth back to Pyongyang ― but if so, it is a safe bet that Bosworth will operate under tightly drawn instructions.
This is not to say that the Obama administration is oblivious to the risks of further North Korean provocations. It does suggest, however, that the president and his team understand that modest expectations about the degree to which the international community can coerce or sweet-talk the North into more acceptable behavior may represent the better course of wisdom. This relative caution may comport well with President Lee’s own political needs and soft poll numbers as his term begins to wind down.
In short, while Lee is unlikely to return to Seoul with glitzy accomplishments, there is every reason to expect that his trip will feature exactly the sort of serious, unhysterical dialogue that is essential for a substantial and substantive partnership between two longtime friends and allies. And this should cheer up Americans at least a bit.
Robert M. Hathaway directs the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He may be reached at Robert.Hathaway@wilsoncenter.org.