The personal ties that bind

The Congress-approved free trade deal is expected to bring the leaders of the US and South Korea closer together.

Lee Myung Bak
US President Barack Obama welcomes South Korean President Lee Myung-bak at the White House [EPA]

State visits to the United States by foreign leaders often carry a whiff of domestic US politics. The October visit of South Korea’s president was no exception. In addition to White House meetings, a formal state dinner, a massive lunch in the State Department’s Ben Franklin Ballroom, and calls on congressional leaders, President Lee Myung-bak also addressed a joint session of Congress. Accompanied by his host, President Barack Obama, Lee also journeyed into America’s heartland to visit an autombile factory in Michigan.

All of these elements of diplomatic protocol are familiar, but Lee’s visit carried with it something more: it was also a celebration of the relationship that the two presidents – and their predecessors – have forged to make the South Korean-US partnership one of the strongest in the world, rivaling any bilateral relationship that the US has in Europe or elsewhere.

When US and South Korean presidents sit together, they do not just discuss the Korean peninsula or northeast Asia; increasingly, their discussions take on a global character and reach. The emergence of this partnership, perhaps as much as anything, has signalled the long-awaited US shift from an Atlantic perspective to one balanced by Pacific interests.

“The emergence of this partnership … has signalled the long-awaited US shift from an Atlantic perspective to one balanced by Pacific interests.

A good test of a bilateral relationship’s durability is, of course, how long it has endured – and also how it has endured leadership changes. In the case of the US and South Korea, the relationship strengthened during the administration of a Republican, George W Bush, with Obama’s Democratic administration sustaining that trend. Equally important, the relationship has deepened over the course of two ideologically different South Korean governments: that of the left-leaning Roh Moo-hyun, who worked effectively with Bush, and now under the right-leaning Lee, who was paired first with Bush and, for the past three years, with Obama.  

This transpacific partnership has been an important priority for all four administrations. The diffident Roh was not an easy person to get to know, but Bush persevered, because he understood that a personal relationship would be essential to the future of the South Korean-US alliance.

Of course, leaders’ personal relationships are built on something deeper, and in the South Korea-US case there is much to build on, starting with a traditional mix of mutual interests and shared values. From South Korea’s perspective, there has been another ingredient (and also a very old concept in international relations): the distant power.

South Korea’s geography and history have not been kind to its people – and nor have its neighbours. Until the second half of the twentieth century, when China and Japan were not bludgeoning each other, they were often taking turns tormenting Korea. This centuries-old dynamic was changed dramatically by the arrival of the US on the Korean peninsula.  

“South Korea’s geography and history have not been kind to its people – and nor have its neighbours.

At first – indeed, for several decades – the relationship did not look like a partnership. Korea remained known to much of the American public mostly as a war, even though it had long since become a successful republic, with a thriving economy whose products and brand names had begun to penetrate world markets.

Moreover, South Korea opened its own markets and welcomed an international presence. For a country once known as “the hermit kingdom”, this took some doing. Many Americans, accustomed to Japanese imports and brands, experienced a sense of déjà vu in the late 1980s when the first Korean automobiles rolled into the US market.

The US-South Korea relationship is not just about trade, however. Their leaders’ personal ties do matter. Whether the country-to-country relationship can thrive in the future will depend at least in part on future political leaders’ ability to do what Roh, Bush, Lee, and Obama have done: forge a partnership, not just conduct transactions.

The US will need many more such relationships in the future. But they take time to build, and US leaders’ foreign trips do not necessarily sit well with the American people. Too often, congressional trips to distant countries have been held up to ridicule upon media revelations that the trip included a tourist destination or, worse, a shopping excursion.

More recently, Obama has had to cancel trips abroad to attend to domestic crises. And when the president does go overseas, the US press often demands that he bring back tangible bounty, in the form of export deals, or assurances on some other immediate “deliverable” – in short, enough transactions to justify the expense.

Several of America’s recent presidents have done well at establishing personal relationships with foreign leaders. It is difficult to imagine that George HW Bush could have assembled the Gulf War coalition without the personal relationships that he forged over many years prior to that crisis. And, when Iraq lurched through months of political uncertainty as a new government was formed in 2010, Vice President Joseph Biden was able to make an enormous contribution, owing to his six visits to the country during the preceding year.

One wonders whether future US presidents and vice presidents will be given the time and space needed to develop the strong personal relationships with other world leaders on which an effective foreign policy depends. The transactional understanding of international relations, with its demand for instant gratification, threatens to undermine such efforts. But, as Lee’s recent visit to the US proved, there is no substitute for a face-to-face meeting.

Christopher R. Hill, a former US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, was US Ambassador to Iraq, South Korea, Macedonia, and Poland, US special envoy for Kosovo, a negotiator of the Dayton Peace Accords, and chief US negotiator with North Korea from 2005-2009. He is now Dean of the Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver.

A version of this article was first published by Project Syndicate.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.