Grappling with democracy: South Korea, Turkey

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By Sol Sanders

Sol W. Sanders

March 4, 2003

At the very moment President Bush is talking about a war to democratize Iraq, leading to a hoped-for wave of reform in the Mideast, Washington must turn its attention to how to deal with new, populist democracies Ý a sharp reversal of our past dealings with autocratic, client states. The problem is epitomized by two new administrations at opposite ends of Asia Ý in South Korea and Turkey. Both are turning their backs on America at a moment of crisis. Both are making the problem of dealing with crises in their area infinitely more difficult.

In South Korea, a newly elected government, composed of largely inexperienced idealists and hangers on, has refused to acknowledge the realities of dealing with North Korea. After five years of outgoing President Kim Dae Jung’s failed policy of appeasement of the North, it not only wants to continue that policy but its public demeanor accuses the U.S. of being the culprit in the confrontation.

Its supporters are young people who claim to be Korean nationalists, who see the question of better relations with their brothers in North Korea as the first issue. Nevertheless they are prepared to close their eyes to an evil regime that has permitted more than two million fellow Koreans to die of starvation, and continues to pursue those policies, despite massive food aid from the U.S.. Nor do they hide their view that a crumbling regime in the North could call on resources from their prosperous South were there to be sudden reunification. So much for the hypocrisies that afflict us all.

In Turkey, a party with a nucleus of Islamicists Ý some believing that there must be a confessional aspect to decent political life, others professing the same fanatical fundamentalism that has spawned the wave of international terrorism Ý has swept to power. Quite rightly, it would not like to go to war, even as a complicit, against a neighboring Moslem country, even though that country’s totalitarian regime for more than three decades has persecuted and killed, among others, Moslem believers. Again, newly arrived politicians, unsure of how to manipulate the levers of government, have been unable to persuade their voters that preservation of the alliance with the U.S. and its strategy against Iraq is essential to their country’s well being.

In a country with representative government responsibility for presenting issues in their complexity must reside with its own leadership. But among allies, especially among allies with differing levels of resources [both material and intellectual], alliance leaders have a responsibility to present issues to their allies in a fashion that reinforces that leadership. That is done, of course, through the official interchanges Ý the whole panoply of foreign ministries and diplomats. But, again, among governments and peoples with representative institutions, for a successful relationship there must be a wide interchange of ideas and arguments through a welter of cultural institutions -- media, educational institutions, business contacts, and cultural exchanges. In recent years, all this has been called “public diplomacy”.

During the long years of the Cold War, the U.S. mounted a massive, government-financed effort to refute the propaganda of the Soviet Union and the Communist Bloc. It had its accomplishments and its debacles. But most students of the fall of Communism in Eastern and Central Europe would concede that this campaign made its contribution to the earlier than anticipated implosion of the Communist Bloc.

[More than one commentator inside the former Soviet Bloc has argued, for example, the importance of President Reagan’s “evil empire” speech in the battle of ideas.] With the end of the Cold War, with the explosion of international media relationships, with the technological growth of communication, the U.S. government retreated from this effort.

That long history has implicit lessons for what needs to be done in the long war that we have now undertaken against terrorism in the Islamic world and its state sponsors like Iraq. The longstanding cultural connections between the U.S. and with the much more familiar Europeans have continued, although some have become moribund. New cultural institutions have developed as a byproduct of globalization, like the amazing and revolutionary Internet. But the huge United States government sponsored program, which once was at the center of cultural activity in many third world countries, is virtually gone.

Today its remnants largely ineffectual U.S. “public diplomacy” is a bust. An example was the State Dept.’s $75 million boondoggle to make films to demonstrate that there are Moslems living happily in America, which predictably, hasn’t even made it on to state controlled TV in most Islamic countries. [Who at Foggy Bottom could possibly have believed that media bosses would have permitted it!]

It’s time, even in the midst of so many tasks facing it, for Washington to pick up the torch of a new cultural and media exchange program.

Sol W. Sanders, (, is an Asian specialist with more than 25 years in the region, and a former correspondent for Business Week, U.S. News & World Report and United Press International. He writes weekly for World

March 4, 2003

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