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Are we good at foreign affairs and diplomacy?

Publication Date : 16-07-2014

 

These days, you can have as many identities as you want. When I delivered a lecture at an American university recently, the person who introduced me to the audience announced, “Today’s guest speaker is a professor and journalist from South Korea.” A journalist! That title was something new to me but I liked it. Presumably, the American introducer knew that I was a regular columnist for The Korea Herald and thought that I deserved the title.

A few days ago, while browsing the Internet, I found a French version of my Wikipedia page which described my occupations as literary critic, administrator and diplomat. A diplomat! What a charming title! I was as flattered as could be. Even though I had occasionally thought of myself as a cultural ambassador, I was pleased to be called a diplomat in public. With all due respect for professional diplomats, I believe we all are diplomats in the sense that whatever we do or say every day is basically diplomatic.

A diplomat should be a person who is very good at negotiating and compromising. Charles M. de Talleyrand once said, “A diplomat who says no is no diplomat.” If so, every diplomat’s motto should be “Never say no.” Indeed, a good diplomat is someone who is so refined and diplomatic that no one can possibly read his mind or notice his true intentions. When I first came across Robert Frost’s insightful definition of a diplomat, I could not help but smile: “A diplomat is a man who always remembers a woman’s birthday but never remembers her age.” And when I first encountered Caskie Stinnett’s humorous description of a diplomat, I burst into laughter: “A diplomat is a person who can tell you to go to hell in such a way that you actually look forward to the trip.” Trygve Lie, too, pinpoints the quintessential nature of a diplomat: “A real diplomat is one who can cut his neighbour’s throat without having his neighbour notice it.” Embarrassingly, our diplomats often seem to say no and reveal their intentions easily.

Presently, Korea is facing an unprecedented diplomatic challenge, as the tension between China and Japan is rapidly rising and so is the rivalry between China and the United States over exerting influence in Asia. The current international crisis is so complicated that we cannot open champagne to celebrate our amicable relationship with China, which was significantly enhanced by the recent visit of Xi Jinping to Seoul. While welcoming China’s friendly gesture, we should simultaneously take into account our indispensable alliance with the States and our friendship with Japan as well, both of which are crucial for our national security.

People often pessimistically say that Korea, located like a bridge between China and Japan, is destined to suffer a geographical disadvantage. But I believe we can reverse the situation. In fact, our geographical location can be a decisive advantage if only we tactfully use it as leverage when practicing diplomacy. Indeed, we can make our neighbouring countries competitively smile at us, beckon us and respect us, asking for our hand like two passionate rival suitors. But if we hastily and naively choose one of them as our fiance and turn against the other, we will lose our leverage and thus be doomed to be abandoned and swept up in the whirlpool of international politics. Then we will go down hopelessly in the vortex of international conflicts. In the past, we made a fatal mistake under similar circumstances which eventually cost us our sovereignty. We cannot afford to make the same mistake again. Besides, no rescue is likely to come for us this time.

A diplomat is not a warrior. As Will Rogers puts it, “Diplomacy is the art of saying ‘Nice doggie’ until you can find a rock.” When you grab a rock and attack the ferocious dog, you are no longer a diplomat; you become a soldier. Henry Kissinger says, “Diplomacy is the art of restraining power.” Indeed, a diplomat should be good at compromising, not at fighting. John Keegan, too, writes: “Uncompromising politicians or diplomats get you into the most terrible trouble.” Watching the uncompromising, warrior-like diplomats in China, Japan and Korea these days, we cannot help but worry about the future of East Asia.

Sometimes a nation’s leader may find it necessary to take a firm stand. But diplomats should be different; regardless of their president’s stance, they should busily contact each other for behind-the-scenes negotiations. Madeleine Albright’s remark is illuminating: “I do believe that in order to be a successful negotiator that as a diplomat, you have to be able to put yourself into the other person’s shoes. Unless you can understand what is motivating them, you are never going to be able to figure out how to solve a particular problem.”

Instead of antagonising other countries, diplomats should try to compromise and conjure up peaceful solutions to cope with an impending international crisis. Diplomacy can accomplish what military might cannot.

Kim Seong-kon is a professor of English at Seoul National University and president of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea.

 

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