[Interview] Stephen Walt says Korea should preserve ties with US, improve relations in Asia

Posted on : 2022-01-20 18:04 KST Modified on : 2022-01-21 14:09 KST
The Harvard University professor assesses Biden’s first year of foreign policy
Stephen Walt, a professor of international relations at Harvard University’s Kennedy School. (provided by Stephen Walt)
Stephen Walt, a professor of international relations at Harvard University’s Kennedy School. (provided by Stephen Walt)

Stephen Walt, 66, a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School, is a leading scholar in the realist school of international relations. In his 2018 book “The Hell of Good Intentions,” Walt argued that the past 30 years of “liberal hegemony” in which the US has carried out a policy of installing market economies, liberal democracy, and human rights around the world should be replaced with a strategy of offshore balancing. We sat down with him to talk about US foreign policy during Biden's first year in office.

Q: What is your overall assessment of President Biden's foreign policy over the past year?

A: On the whole, Biden has done fairly well in a difficult situation. He inherited a lost war in Afghanistan, and withdrawing was the right decision. There was no prospect for victory, and getting out will allow the US to concentrate on more important problems, such as China and climate change. Biden has also begun to repair the damage that Trump did to US alliances in Asia and in Europe. His performance has not been perfect, but it is a clear improvement over his predecessor.

Q: What do you consider the successes and failures of Biden’s foreign policy, and why?

A: His main success has been to make it clear to key US partners that the United States wants to work with them to achieve common goals. The agreement to crack down on global tax shelters is one example of this, and the united European stance against Russia is another. His biggest mistake was not reentering the nuclear deal with Iran immediately; at this point, resurrecting that deal will be much more difficult. Biden has been unfairly blamed for the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan. In fact, the Afghan government was a house of cards and there was no way to end US involvement there in a neat and painless fashion.

Q: Is Biden's strategy of encircling China with allies in line with what you call offshore balancing?

A: Strengthening Asian alliances to prevent China from dominating is consistent with offshore balancing, and doing this successfully will require the United States to make it a priority and not get distracted by other problems. But it is not the only foreign policy issue that concerns the United States, and there are also some issues — most notably climate change — where the Biden administration knows it needs to cooperate with China as well.

Q: Do you think it is possible for the US and China to compete fiercely and at the same time cooperate with each other on issues such as climate change, public health, Iran, North Korea and so forth?

A: Absolutely. Over the longer term, this is the single greatest foreign policy challenge that Washington and Beijing will face: how do they manage an intense competition in some areas while still cooperating in others, and not stumbling into a war that would do enormous damage to both countries (and the rest of the world).

Q: Biden emphasizes democracy and human rights in his foreign policy. It can also be seen as continuing to wield the “liberal hegemony” you are critical of. Do you think Biden's diplomacy, which values ideology and values so much, can succeed in producing results?

A: Liberal values are still deeply held in the United States, and especially within our foreign policy elite. If Biden tries to make this the most important element of his foreign policy, it will probably fail. He should focus on fixing what’s wrong with democracy here in the United States, in order to set a good example for the rest of the world and in that way encourage other societies to move in this direction on their own.

Q: In the strategic competition between the US and China, Korea is likely to be required to play roles for both sides and is facing hard choices. What sort of strategy do you think Korea should choose?

A: I do not know if the United States would ask Korea to aid in the defense of Taiwan. But I do believe that it is in South Korea’s interest to help maintain a balance of power in Asia and to prevent China from achieving a hegemonic position in the region. If this were to happen, Asian countries would have to defer to Chinese wishes on many issues, and go to great lengths not to anger or annoy Beijing. If South Korea wants to preserve its foreign policy autonomy and continue its economic rise, it should want a robust balance of power in East Asia. Preserving its ties with the United States and working to improve relations with other Asian powers — including Japan — is the best course for South Korea.

Q: Russia has been building up its military force in the region bordering Ukraine. Do you think the US and Europe can succeed in preventing Russia's invasion of Ukraine while at the same time not appearing weak to Russia?

A: This will be an especially difficult problem to resolve. The best outcome would be for Ukraine to be formally neutral, but the United States and NATO do not want to make any concessions to Moscow at the point of a gun. The best outcome would be for Ukrainians to realize that they will suffer the most if war should occur, and for them to say that they are not going to ally with either the United States or Russia.

By Hwang Joon-bum, Washington correspondent

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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