Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory


May 13, 2004

By Gregory F. Treverton and Spencer Kim

This commentary originally appeared in The Korea Herald on May 13, 2004.

From South Korea to Spain, real democracy is breaking out. Yet for too many voices in the world's pre-eminent democracy, the United States, that seems like bad news, not good.

Sure, some of the immediate consequences are awkward. Spain is pulling its troops out of Iraq, and South Korea is pursuing an increasingly independent line on a range of issues from North Korea to the presence of American forces in Korea. In Oscar Wilde's line, when the gods wish to punish us, they grant us our wishes; any parent who has wished for his toddlers to grow up knows the wisdom of that line.

Yet the wish for democracy is still the right one. Events in both countries are, in the longer sweep on history, cause for celebration, not moaning.

Take Spain. At NATO's inception more than a half century ago, France proposed three categories of members, from full ones to those from whom the alliance only needed real estate for bases. France was trying to smuggle in its colonies, and the United States opposed the idea; Robert Lovett, the undersecretary of state -- grade inflation had not yet arrived in Washington, creating deputy secretaries -- derided the idea as "resident members, non-resident members and summer privileges."

The idea died, but what is interesting is that Spain under Francisco Franco was such a pariah that it was not even a candidate for summer privileges. Instead, the United States had to make a bilateral agreement to base submarines and aircraft in Spain. Spain's desperation for any international seal of legitimacy produced one of the more memorable guidance cables: Spain's negotiating party in Washington was told to "bargain hard, and if you come up with nothing, sign it."

Now, Spain has been for several decades a member of NATO, and its democracy is a mature one. Its voters have "thrown the rascals" out several times, most recently returning the socialists to power. Coming hard on the heels of the terrorist railroad bombing in Madrid, Americans were tempted to see the election, and incoming Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's promise to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq, as electoral cowardice, as an attempt to make a separate peace in the war on terror.

The outcome, however, is better interpreted through Tip O'Neill's maxim that "all politics is local." Loose talk of old and new Europe notwithstanding, the war in Iraq was as unpopular in Spain as anywhere in old Europe, and former Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar deserves credit for the courage of his convictions in sending Spanish troops to Iraq in the first place. When the governing conservatives looked like they were trying point the finger for the Madrid attacks at the Basque separatists, ETA, that smacked of convenient deception to many Spaniards. The attack had few of ETA's trademarks, and when al-Qaeda was implicated, voters vented their wrath on Aznar and the conservatives.

With regard to South Korea, the election of Roh Moo-hyun in 2002 produced hand-wringing in the United States, for the election seem to bode for difficult times in U.S.-Korean relations. That commentary was wrong then, and similar concerns about recent turns in Korean politics are also off the mark. Roh's election marked the beginning of the end for Korea's regional, personality-driven and corrupt brand of democracy. He lost in his native but conservative southeast, as he had in earlier tries for a parliamentary seat, but won in other regions around the country. Korea's election was cause for congratulations, for Koreans themselves but also for those Americans, missionaries and others, who went to Korea at the turn of last century to introduce American values, especially democracy.

Roh's election was notable for continuity, with the voters opting for the governing party, not swinging to the other extreme. It was also the opportunity for a real changing of the guard. It put an end to the era of the "three Kims" - three men well into their 70s, including the previous president, Kim Dae Jung, who have dominated Korean politics for a generation. Roh came to office less burdened by the lifetime of deals, compromises and secret money that hung over all his predecessors, even Kim, his immediate predecessor and Nobel prize winner.

Only time will tell whether the endemic corruption in Korea's politics can be changed, but recent events suggest that voters may have had enough. The opposition trumped up, then passed, the beginning impeachment proceedings against the president. It was business as usual in Korean politics. Rather, it was business that had been usual. Given the chance to speak on the matter in parliamentary elections several weeks after the impeachment, Korean voters overwhelmingly reject the opposition party, giving Roh a wide margin of support. The impeachment proceedings are likely to be quietly reversed.

What a far cry from South Korea's past, when Roh's precessors became president, if not through the raw power of the military, then through elaborate deals among factions and politicians. South Korea had what political scientists would call "tutelary democracy," with the military performing the tutelage. Both the presidential and the parliamentary elections have seen what is probably better described as rising national pride than anti-Americanism. In that perspective, the alliance to the United States looks very asymmetrical, more appropriate to the 1950s than now. An American still would command Korean forces in wartime, and the Status of Forces Agreement for U.S. troops seems not the equal of those the United States has with other nations, Japan in particular. And the war in Iraq was as unpopular in South Korea as in Spain.

Both Roh and Rodriguez Zapatero now have popular mandates to pursue policies that will provoke discomfort in Washington. In a similar way, now that Taiwan has made the transition from crony, quasi-democracy of the sort South Korea also had, to become a full-fledged democracy, it has acquired more legitimacy. It becomes harder, for good or ill, for the United States to pressure it not to opt for independence.

Yet the discomfort is the fruit of success. One can only hope that eventually China itself will come to see the virtues of real democracy. In the meantime, politics in Spain, South Korea, Taiwan and other countries are rollicking, more than faintly populist, open yet unpredictable - in short, a lot like America's politics. Wishes do come true.

Spencer Kim is a southern California business leader active in local and international civic affairs. Gregory Treverton, former vice chair of the National Intelligence Council, is a senior analyst at the RAND Corporation and associate dean of the Pardee RAND Graduate School.

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