June 23, 2008 — Is the U.S. so caustic that its beef can virtually unravel a foreign ally's government? Over the past month South Korea has experienced tremendous political unrest as President Lee Myung-bak attempts to justify his decision to lift a ban on U.S. beef imports as part of a major free trade agreement (FTA) between Seoul and Washington.
The Korean-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA) has been heralded as the most significant trade deal in the Asia-Pacific and an indication of America's intent to preserve and advance its relevance and influence in East Asia ― stature that many Asian allies believe has been eroding in the post-Afghanistan and Iraq geopolitical environment.
The election of Lee was supposed to usher in an era of stronger South Korea-U.S. ties and broaden the parameters of alliance-based cooperation. Lee ― the South Korean "bulldozer" ― won a landslide election victory and was expected to revitalize a beleaguered bilateral alliance that suffered under the Roh administration.
The populist ``Sunshine Policy" of the previous two administrations had come to be seen as too soft on North Korea and President Roh's somewhat anti-American base crumbled.
Lee's election was seen as repudiation of the anti-U.S. alliance policies. But forces critical of the close South Korea-U.S. alliance were far from dead, and President Lee quickly fell prey to virulent anti-U.S. agitation that caught his new government off guard.
Beef has symbolically represented American greatness. Americans were viewed as ``big and strong" in large part due to their cowboy culture.
But in South Korea, the rugged and trustworthy cowboy has given way to a new perception of greedy American agribusiness willing to poison consumers for profit.
American ranchers are haunted by imagines of sick cows being taken to slaughter, destroying the image of American beef and making it a proxy for bovine diseases, most particularly, mad cow. American beef now represents a caustic symbol of American identity.
The dispute facing President Lee reflects a larger issue of waning American global influence that is increasingly a liability rather than a strength for allies needing to keep their populations happy.
Today, throughout Europe and Asia, American allies are forced to reconcile, maintaining strong relations with America at the expense of public support and in many instances the continued legitimacy of the government.
The beef row led President Lee Myung-bak's entire Cabinet to offer their resignation in order to breathe life back into their leader's political career.
The next president of the United States will be forced to manage two major military operations in the Middle East and a faltering economy.
However, in order to successfully rebalance America's global standing ― the foundation for a strong economy and a prerequisite for success in its military operations ― the next commander-in-chief will have to take dramatic steps to recreate America's standing.
Unfortunately, over the course of the past seven years America's moral credibility has declined. The beef spat represents a major impasse for South Korea's America-friendly leadership.
It should provide a cautionary tale: Beef is just one of many issues capable of derailing American relations with its most important allies. More and more American leaders will be forced to bring back allies in the face of waning international credibility.
The ROK-U.S. alliance is a critical foundation for America's engagement in the Asia-Pacific. America's security interests are enhanced and better protected by a strong alliance. However, popular upheaval in Seoul over the past seven years highlights negative and destabilizing political trends relevant to the future of the alliance.
Thinking constructively about enhancing alliance-based cooperation will be a critical component for the future of American engagement in the region.
U.S. leaders need to recognize how Washington's international reputation is beginning to complicate life for its most stalwart allies around the world.
At some level, this is unavoidable, but the U.S. government should work to minimize credible reasons for popular anger. In this case, America's aim of reviving beef exports without adjusting safety standards and policy is jeopardizing larger strategic interests for both parties.
Taking visible steps to make American beef less caustic overseas will help get more important issues of security and regional stability back on the front burner.
The authors are fellows at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C., specializing in Asian affairs. They are co-directors of a project on the future of U.S.-ROK relations with Dr. Kurt Campbell. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.