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A Challenge to Renew

November 19, 2008

If we want to maintain a special alliance with the United States under Obama, there is an urgent need to find shared values that both nations want to pursue.

An empire’s decline or fall depends mainly on its capacity for change and innovation. If this becomes paralyzed, the nation falls. The Roman Empire is a prime example. Of course, there are cases in history where defeat in war leads to a nation’s collapse. The end of Hitler’s Third Reich in Germany and the militarized imperial Japanese Empire are the most recent examples.

But even in these cases, they brought disaster upon themselves by institutionalizing inflexibility and uniformity which robbed them of their capacity for self-innovation and renewal. Consequently, they committed national suicide.

Against this backdrop, Senator Barack Obama’s election as the 44th American president is a topic of worldwide significance. It goes beyond U.S. borders.

Not only is President-elect Obama extraordinarily talented, but also the United States, the world’s only remaining superpower and a de facto empire has dramatically demonstrated its capacity for self-renewal. The appearance of the first African American president in U.S. history shows that the country still maintains its capacity to change and redefine itself. This dissolves growing worldwide concern that the United States might have entered a course of decline.

As Obama mentioned in his election night address, we will know whether America’s ability to innovate could indeed succeed only at the end of his presidency.

However, the election has already given America an historic opportunity to engage in national innovation and reform well into the 21st century.

The landscape of global politics has already entered a new era of polarization, and America’s economic superiority has been fluctuating due to the financial turmoil. It is apparent that the determined embrace of change is the fastest way to restore America’s prestige and leadership in the world.

The crisis facing America at this time is not confined to the United States. Practically no country can avoid the fallout from these extraordinarily difficult times due to the globalization of the economy, society, technology and culture.

Today’s nations face a fierce global competition to build their capacity for sustainable self-innovation. In this era, only those who exercise the ability to innovate will survive. America’s choice of Obama has given it a competitive edge.

President-elect Obama enjoys a bigger opportunity than ever to explore new ways to raise his nation’s standing in the world.

First, Obama will be able to conduct a great experiment, transforming the United States’ challenges as a multicultural society with inherent conflicts into strengths based on diversity, creativity and social progress.

Transcending its history of racism, the United States chose Barack Obama to become its new president.  This act alone will have the affect of providing other nations an opportunity to reflect on moral issues, regardless of whether they are developed or developing. This will directly restore America’s global image and Americans’ pride in their country. Patriotism mixed with diversity in a multicultural society will become an extraordinary source of power.

Second, humanity’s common values – freedom, equality, human rights and welfare – which have been a hollow slogan for a long time, will re-emerge as significant policy goals under Obama’s influence. When pragmatism rooted in mature and dispassionate judgment about reality is joined to dreams and ideals, the nation becomes armed with a new growth engine that will lead its development.

Therefore, if we want to maintain a special alliance with the United States under Obama, there is an urgent need to find shared values that both nations want to pursue. Rather than taking the primitive approach of finding personal connections in the Obama administration, we should be wise enough to fly with two wings: pragmatism and idealism.

Many people are deeply concerned that Obama’s appearance will affect current U.S.-North Korean relations and bring adverse effects to South-North relations on the Korean Peninsula.

However, we must understand the historic necessity of the change that allowed Obama’s victory rather than emphasizing methodological problems involved in engaging North Korea. Obama’s selection can be regarded as an opportunity to give this process new life.

If North Korea also shows a capacity for self-innovation, U.S-North Korean relations will be put back on track. That will be in harmony with South Korea’s goal of reunification.

If North and South Korea recognize that there is no future in states that lack the capacity for sustainable innovation, Obama’s victory can be a welcome sign that will further accelerate peace and reunification on the Korean Peninsula.

Dr. Lee Hong-Koo, a former prime minister of Korea, is a trustee to The Asia Foundation, and an advisor to the JoongAng Ilbo. This article is a revised version of the article, first published in Korean in the JoongAng Ilbo.

View all posts by Lee Hong-koo

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