Time to expand Korea’s alliance diplomacy

 The author is a professor of international studies at Korea University and head of the Ilmin International Relations Institute.

The Nov. 5 U.S. presidential election is more than seven months away. But uncertainty over who will win the race already shakes the rest of the world. In a campaign for the Feb. 24 Republican primary in South Carolina, former President Donald Trump used rough rhetoric toward U.S. allies. During a rally in the state, the Republican presidential candidate said the United States would not protect NATO members from Russia’s future attack if they don’t pay their share of defense costs, adding he would rather encourage Russia to do whatever it wants to.

Such remarks could be hyperbole to show off his power and reject the status quo. But Trump’s disrespect for allies has rattled diplomats. His foreign policy is based on the creed that allies in Europe and the Indo-Pacific do not represent U.S. national interests. Trump even believes the United States is being exploited by its allies. The Senate’s $95 billion aid to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan is still stuck in the Republican-dominated House.

Russia is tightening controls on the territories it annexed after a series of battles in the Ukraine war. But the $60 billion defense aid the Biden administration promised to Ukraine is being delayed. In Kiev, where leaders of the European Union, Italy, Canada and Belgium gathered to mark the second year of the war, they promised steady support for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, but their faces didn’t look bright. The protracted war in Ukraine is testing the unity of the West again.

The name of Estonian President, Alar Karis, was put on a most-wanted list in Russia for championing the removal of a monument built during the Soviet era. Russia made the decision as he dishonored the historical memory and showed hostility toward Russia. Estonia, a Baltic state bordering Russia, faces the most direct Russian threat after Ukraine.

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After the U.S.-led alliance showed signs of schisms, another axis of coalition — comprised of Russia, China, North Korea and Iran — has emerged to take advantage of them. In an interview with Tucker Carlson, a U.S. conservative commentator, Russian President Vladimir Putin blamed the United States for the prolonged Ukraine war. He openly advocated for the Trump camp to further divide America. The Third World, upholding noninterventionism and pragmatism, simply distrusts the West and criticizes its double standards.

The world is headed to uncertainty. We must prepare for an even more disorderly situation than now. While the liberal international order has diminished over the past decade, the challenge from authoritarianism grows fiercer. If the West loses the will and power to control its rivals bent on violating universal norms such as freedom and human rights, the international order could shift to an asymmetrical — and multi-polarized — system. If international organizations designed to achieve multilateral cooperation fail to play their due roles, the global economy cannot but be divided into blocs. Alliance diplomacy is being tested again. Even NATO shakes after Trump’s threat to not comply with the collective defense article. Korea is no exception, given Trump’s constant mulling of pulling U.S. forces out of Korea. If Trumpism prevails and the U.S.-led global alliance shows its limits, what will happen? Should Korea take a step back from its cherished alliance with America, including the Camp David Principles?

It would be shortsighted to expect the Korean Peninsula security situation to improve if South Korea lowers its cooperation with the U.S. and Japan while mending fences with China, Russia and North Korea. Such a shift will more likely weaken our diplomatic leverage in the long term than otherwise. South Korea, still at war with North Korea, needs to maintain the spirit of pragmatism but also the principle of internationalism, too. As long as our core security interests — like nuclear deterrence — are at stake, the option of staying neutral is a luxury.

Some may criticize the government for blindly worshiping the Korea-U.S. alliance. But such criticism can better be addressed by revitalizing Seoul’s dialogue and exchanges with Beijing, Moscow, Pyongyang and the Third World, not by weakening the alliance. It’s not about choosing one or the other, but about creating an extra value based on the decades-old alliance.

Trust in the Korea-U.S. alliance has largely been restored over the past two years, as seen in the launch of the Nuclear Consultative Group last July. The improved Korea-Japan relations — and the establishment of a frame for tripartite cooperation among Korea, the U.S. and Japan after their leaders’ meeting at Camp David last August — have started providing platforms for Korea to build new bilateral or multilateral cooperation with Indo-Pacific or European countries.

The first half of the year — shortly before the U.S. presidential election locomotive starts to run at full speed — is a perfect time for Korea to consolidate its alliance assets. The challenge encompasses not only the alliance, but also the new tripartite security cooperation and partnerships between the NATO and four Asia-Pacific countries of Korea, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.

The solidification of the alliance carries significance regardless of the character of the next U.S. administration. If Joe Biden is re-elected president, the strengthened alliance will provide fertile ground for Korea to participate in shaping a new international order or norms more proactively than before. If Trump wins the race, the reinforced alliance can still serve as a safety valve against turbulence in the international order by his egomania. In the mid to long term, the bolstered alliance can serve as a starting point to reestablish Korea’s relations with allies.

Korea must consider the following before intensifying its alliance diplomacy. First, it must make clear what “leagues” it wants to join. For a country to play a key role in international orders, it must choose an appropriate group. Unfortunately, Korea is not an official member of the G7 — and in the G20, where Korea belongs, it is very difficult to reach an agreement among disparate members.

East Asia does not have region-based international organizations like those in Europe, nor does it share culture or language as much as in Europe. Korea needs to launch a small association of countries to safefuard its security and economic interests. That demands diplomatic imagination, including so-called “minilateral cooperation.”

Second, Korea must faithfully participate in alliances, but at the same time it must specify the conditions for aid and assistance. Alliance is not totally free from trade. Rather than adhering to a vertical alliance based on one-sided favors, Korea must strengthen its relations with majors like Japan, Australia, the United Kingdom and Germany with horizontal partnerships in mind. Given its grown-up stature, Korea will surely receive more demands from the rest of the world.

Third, Korea must ratchet up the level of talks with emerging economies like Brazil, Russia, India and China. But it must not weaken its alliance to “strike a balance.” Korea must strengthen its negotiating and pulling power based on its extended networks. Instead of dismissing the networks it built in the process of bidding for the World Expo, for instance, the country must use them as diplomatic assets for the future.

Fourth, the private sector must take part in the government-led alliance diplomacy, given the need for its cooperation. Above all, the government must create an environment for such cooperation between the two sectors.

Given the drastic rebuilding — and diversification — of supply chains and the ever-deepening competition over cutting-edge technologies, defining the concept of national interests has become even more difficult than before. When a government cannot come forward to deal with its counterpart, it must mobilize various resources in the private sector. At a time when the international order undergoes a drastic change, augmenting the collaboration between the two sectors is important if it really wants to protect security and economic interests and wisely respond to new norms.