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  Global Views
Role of E. Asia in Coming Presidential Campaign
Special Contribution
By James Steinberg
For the first time in over 30 years since the days of the Vietnam War foreign policy and national security issues will play a major, indeed potentially decisive role in the American presidential election. While the most pressing question concerns the decision to go to war in Iraq, the two campaigns will engage in a much broader debate about the role of the United States in the world, and our relationship with key allies and partners.

This debate will have profound consequences for East Asia, and especially for South Korea, which lies at intersection of many of the important policy issues that will emerge during the campaign.

On the broadest level, one of the major issues in the campaign will focus on how the United States relates to allies in formulating its national security policy.

During the 2000 presidential campaign, candidate Bush criticized then President Clinton for neglecting traditional allies, both in Europe and East Asia. After taking office, however, President Bush and his administration made clear that they had strong convictions about US national interests, and intended to pursue those interests even when they came into conflict with the views of key allies.

Secretary Rumsfeld, for example, announced that under the Bush Administration, the "mission would determine the coalition" meaning, in effect, that the United States would work with those countries that agree with the United States, and not allowing dissenting views, even from allies, to deflect the United States from its chosen course.

North Korean nuclear facility at Yongbyon north of Pyongyang
The Administration's approach was most clear in dealing with European allies during the Iraq war, but it was foreshadowed even before 9/11 in the disagreement between the United States and former President Kim Dae Jung over the Sunshine Policy. Alliance management issues continue to be at the forefront in East Asia, on issues ranging from the administration's proposals to withdraw a significant number of troops from the Korean Peninsula, to the strategy for the six-party talks concerning the North Korea nuclear program.

During the campaign, Sen. John F. Kerry can be expected to raise many of the same themes concerning alliance relations that candidate Bush raised in the 2000 election. Kerry has argued that the Bush administration has ignored the views of the United States' traditional allies, thus making it harder for the United States to gain the support it needs on important policy issues, such as fighting the war on terrorism. He will point to the difficulty of getting additional troop commitments for Iraq and Afghanistan, and the sharp declines in favorable opinion towards the United States around the world.

This argument is most convincing in the case of Europe, where few allies are prepared to provide additional support, and a few (most notably Spain) have withdrawn their troops.

The picture of course is more complicated in East Asia, where both South Korea and Japan have agreed to sustain their troop commitments, even in the face of threats (carried out in the case of South Korea) to kill civilian hostages if the troops were not withdrawn.

However, even in East Asia, there is growing skepticism about the United States and its intentions as seen in recent polls by the Pew Global Attitudes survey and the RAND Corporation, which could pose long-term challenges for the ability of the United State to pursue its global interests.

A second focus of the campaign will concern US national priorities. President Bush has reiterated that he continues to believe that the war in Iraq was necessary for US national security, even though no weapons of mass destruction have been found and there is considerable skepticism about the links between Iraq and al-Qaeda. In a speech on July 12, 2004 President Bush forcefully asserted that the United States and the world are safer because Saddam Hussein was overthrown.

Sen. Kerry argues that the war in Iraq has distracted the United States from what he believes are the two top national security priorities fighting al-Qaeda and reducing the threat from proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. He has been particularly critical of President Bush's handling of the North Korea nuclear program, faulting the Administration for allowing North Korea to reprocess the spent plutonium at Yongbyon (thus increasing the possibility that North Korea will expand its nuclear capability), failing to make a serious proposal to end the stalemate and refusing to engage in a bilateral dialogue with North Korea to resolve the issues. Although the recent talks in Beijing suggested a slightly more positive environment for negotiations, it is unlikely that there will be significant progress before the November US election; therefore, the debate between the two candidates over the proper strategy will continue

The twin issues of alliance management and nuclear non-proliferation assure that important areas of concern to East Asia will be addressed during the campaign. Similarly, differences between the two candidates on missile defense will also have implications for the region.

At the same time, however, it is unlikely that the campaigns will focus on the longer-term challenges in the region, including the evolution of China and its political, economic and security impact on its neighbors, the risks of a confrontation over Taiwan, the likely scenarios for Korean unification, the future national security strategy of Japan and prospects for deeper regional cooperation, with or without the United States.

For the time being, the preoccupation with Iraq, the Middle East and Islamic fundamentalism terrorism will crowd out other equally consequential issues that will confront the next president of the United States. Yet it is a safe bet that next president whether President Bush or Sen. Kerry will need to devote considerable attention and skill to the region in the years ahead.

Other Articles by James B. Steinberg
    Korea, Japan Needs to Play Key Role to ...

James B. Steinberg has been serving as vice president and director of Foreign Policy Studies Program at Brookings Institution since he joined the prestigious and liberal think tank in 2001. An expert on national security in U.S. foreign policy he held several senior positions including deputy national security advisor during Clinton administration. A holder of J.D. degree from Yale University, he is also a member of the D.C. Bar.






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