[칼럼] Conditions for practical diplomacy

- 이재승 (고려대 일민국제관계연구원장 및 국제대학 교수)

The huge chessboard of international politics is shaking with thick clouds gathering fast over domestic politics and international relations. Just think of the heated race for the U.S. presidential election, the protracted Ukraine war, the Israel-Hamas conflict and the security risks in Northeast Asia. The fragmentation of the international order and norms poses a serious threat to South Korea, which must rely on diplomacy for its security and economy. Such reality calls for the country to take an even more practical — and strategic — stance to tackle all the challenges.

This period of confusion presents a crisis for Korea, but it also offers time to reset its diplomacy. The country is taking a step closer to core groups in discussing international rules. One of the powerful groups could be the G7+ or other organizations. Some cynically say that the distinction between a developed country and a developing one depends on whether the group of advanced economies sends an invitation or not. But such a self-sneer is sheer nonsense. What matters is the substance that lets you join the exclusive league proudly, not the style. Instead, Korea must try what it hasn’t so far.

Some diplomatic experts point to the need for Korea to break away from its heavy diplomatic reliance on the United States and Japan. Practical diplomacy prioritizing substantial gains over nominal ones is nothing new in realpolitik, as all countries move in that direction. But practical diplomacy is basically not about whom to partner with, but how to conduct it. In other words, it’s a matter of methodology.

When it comes to national security and alliance management, in particular, a government must present the big picture. An obsession to show something tangible during a presidential term can hardly be curbed under a single-term presidency. Yet, that compulsion should be controlled. Practical diplomacy must start with removing empty formalities and a head of state must share that recognition with the general public.

In particular, economic diplomacy dealing with various types of interests must resolve countless individual cases on microscopic levels. Here, what counts most is how many networks you have built to connect all the dots and lines in international relations. Even if situations worsen, you still can restore a face as long as you have those dots and lines. Such multi-layered networks that form the very foundation for practical diplomacy can often be invisible, but they are effective to strengthen the government’s confidence and negotiating power. Improving relations with non-allies also should be based on such dots and lines, which will eventually lead to better ties.

Some countries in Europe are leaders in practical diplomacy. Though an economic power with its unchallenged technological prowess, Germany still knows the value of modesty and humility when making friends with other countries. That prudence and discreetness help boost the country’s negotiating power. The Netherlands has been forming an indispensable axis of the world economy by proactively participating in fixing global norms while earnestly applying its unique openness and practicality to scientific innovations. Finland has relied on its practical diplomacy of playing a role as a bridge between the West and the East to safeguard its democracy and market economy from Russia’s constant security threat. Even with only five million people, Finland can still play its role as a mediator for international peace successfully. The commonalities of these countries are their precise calculation ability — and policy consistency — while reserving their words and emotions. Korea must learn from them.

Could Korea demonstrate its skills for practical diplomacy? Fortunately, the country has three reliable cards. The first is its undisputed manufacturing ability. Few countries have such strong leverage in nearly all industrial fields ranging from semiconductors to military weapons on their home turf. Within just three hours of Seoul, a vast amount of chips and smart phones are produced to meet the global demand, not to mention the existence of a vital co-habitat for car-making and ship-making in the region. If foreign countries can partner with Korea, they can take full advantage of its concentrated manufacturing base and easy access to tech powers around the country.

Korea’s second card is its remarkable soft power. Cultural intimacy can significantly lower the “entry barrier” when the country connects the dots and lines to expand its diplomatic frontier. From high-nosed Europe to the Global South, the room for Korea to use its soft power has been noticeably broadened so that the country can use its reinforced cultural power as an economic or political asset for the future.

Korea’s third card is the diplomatic experience the country built up in the process of pushing Busan’s bid for the 2030 World Expo, though it failed. Korean representatives fought hard to win the race by crisscrossing the globe. The strategic use of those networks will be very effective in ratcheting up its practical diplomacy. If Korea can connect with strategically important countries before the “statute of limitations” runs out, the past effort the country made to seek their votes will not be wasted.

However, to use the three cards effectively, Korea must pay heed to the following challenges.

First, Korea must secure alliances as a safety value in a multi-polarized world of partnerships. The Korea-U.S.-Japan cooperation system is the most reliable diplomatic asset for the country at the moment. Despite some lingering anti-Japanese sentiment, improved relations with Tokyo can serve as the most effective “cheat key” for Seoul to prevent a waste of energy and widen its diplomatic space in multilateral stages. Our diplomats on the frontline are acutely aware of the high cost they had to pay for Korea’s hostility toward Japan. Practical diplomacy with negotiating power can efficiently function when it is expanded to the alliance plus. A blind reliance on an alliance — and a dismissal of the alliance — only helps practical diplomacy to fail.

The second challenge involves the imagination to extend Korea’s efficacy to the rest of Northeast Asia. Japan and China are Korea’s close trade partners and neighbors. North Korea is still the other half of the Korean Peninsula for South Korea to live with. South Korea needs Uncle Sam for nuclear deterrence while the country needs China for economic security. Such a fateful dilemma can only be addressed by South Korea itself: While the U.S.-led rebuilding of global supply chains poses a grave challenge to South Korea, the negotiating power the country can get from joining the chain rebuilding should be projected toward managing economic ties with China. Reinforced industrial connections with Japan can be useful in resetting Korea’s relations with the United States and China. After World War II, France could lead the integration of Europe by initiating the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) starting with six countries in 1951. When backed by rational imagination, practical diplomacy can get traction.

The third challenge is to avoid extreme thinking and a black-and-white approach. Practical diplomacy without firm principles — as in the case of a frequent change of partners — cannot be respected by others. Practical diplomacy, if politicized and sentimentalized, will be most welcomed by Korea’s rivals, who would be happy to see their competitor being so easily fragmented, forgetful and weakened. If diplomacy becomes a target for cynicism and gossip, it cannot be respected by others. Sometimes you need to keep a poker face not to upset your counterpart.

It may not be easy for the Korean government to set the domestic foundation for practical diplomacy after the governing party suffered a crushing defeat in the April 10 parliamentary elections. But the existence of a strong veto group could help strengthen the government’s negotiating leverage, if backed by a meticulous strategy. The conservative government can think of launching a bipartisan diplomatic advisory council — dedicated to boosting communications among the government, legislature, academia, and the corporate sector — before or after the new National Assembly convenes on May 30.

Diplomacy and national defense are certainly under the jurisdiction of the president, but such council meetings should be encouraged to ensure a brisk exchange of ideas to help the government devise sustainable policies for practical diplomacy. At the same time, the government must help the private sector to move more aggressively than before, given all the complexities of international relations that can’t be resolved by the government alone.

[Korea JoongAng Daily, 2024-05-19]