Pursuing national interests under the pretense of advancing righteous ideals increases the risk of conflict and decreases chances of compromise, ultimately leading to disaster. At the first video conference between Biden and Xi on Nov. 16, it would be a great outcome if they confirmed each other’s limits on Taiwan and other issues.
South Korean Democratic presidential candidate Lee Jae-myung sparked controversy in his meeting with U.S. Senator Jon Ossoff when he commented that the Taft-Katsura Agreement has contributed to Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula. Some critics argue that Lee has unjustly accused the U.S. of causing a tragedy that stemmed from Koreans’ own incompetence and ignorance of reality. They do so rightly, following the principle of logic.
However, this type of criticism is no different from arguing that the victim of assault is to blame for the injuries they suffered. Korean history education has maintained the view that the Taft-Katsura Agreement was the final seal of approval for Japan’s colonial rule, and that is what I was taught in school as well.
The significance of the “secret agreement” between U.S. War Secretary William Howard Taft and Japanese Prime Minister Katsura Taro in 1905 does not come from recognition by the U.S. of Japanese control of Korea, but Japan’s acknowledgement of American control of the Philippines. At the time, Japan had asserted its position as the most likely victor of the Russo-Japanese War. From an objective standpoint, the Korean Peninsula had already fallen under Japanese influence. The U.S. signed the memorandum as a measure to prevent Japan from leveraging its momentum and extending its influence to the Philippines. It was an informal understanding between high-ranking officials of the two countries.
If there were any country besides Japan responsible for Korean colonial rule, it would be Great Britain, which was a global superpower at the time. Overwhelmed by defending against Russia’s southward expansion in the Far East, Britain gave up its policy of “splendid isolation” and allied with Japan. In the Russo-Japanese War, Britain backed Japan by giving various provisions both directly and indirectly. The 1910 annexation of Korea by Japan, a relative newcomer to industrialization, is also related to Britain. Britain considered Korea a part of the Qing dynasty’s sphere of influence, seeing little economic value in the country. It believed that the status quo was sufficient until Russia launched active attempts to claim the Korean Peninsula. The British quickly devised a solution: blocking Russian expansion by having Japan control Korea.
The Taft-Katsura Agreement was not a defining factor in what unfolded in East Asia during the early 20th century. But Koreans place considerable weight on it and hold the U.S. accountable not only because of their expectations of the U.S., but also the constant ambiguity in U.S. diplomacy.
The U.S. has traditionally disparaged the “balance-of-power realism” that European powers have employed. It perceived its expansion across the continent as its “manifest destiny” to spread the gift of civilization. Its foreign policy opposed direct colonial rule and advocated the idealist concepts of liberty, human rights and independence. This was made possible thanks to an abundance of resources and an expanding market on its mainland. The Open Door Policy, designed to check European powers’ monopolization of trade in East Asia in the 19th century, and the promotion of national self-determination after World War I are representative of idealist influence on American diplomacy.
Circumstances changed after World War II. The U.S. was now a hegemon tasked with the job of defending itself against challengers like the Soviet Union. Idealism prioritizes the propagation of national philosophy; realism sees international balance of power as a zero-sum game and prioritizes the pursuit of national interests. The two inevitably conflict with each other. But the real danger lies in the intersection between idealism and realism. Pursuing national interests under the pretense of advancing righteous ideals increases the risk of conflict and decreases chances of compromise, ultimately leading to disaster. Such was the case in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.
The recent rivalry between the U.S. and China is following the same trend. John Mearsheimer, a professor at the University of Chicago and an offensive realist, vehemently criticized past U.S. administrations for allowing China’s rise through policies of engagement and using abstract values as a cause to impede China’s growth in a Foreign Affairs article titled “The Inevitable Rivalry.” He argued that war becomes less likely “[i]f each side understands what crossing the other side’s redlines would mean,” urging to cast aside pretenses in foreign policy.
Anne-Marie Slaughter, CEO of think tank New America, also criticized the Biden administration’s foreign policy in a New York Times editorial, “It’s Time to Get Honest About the Biden Doctrine.” Slaughter contended that the administration has attempted to appeal to all but pleased none, leaving realists, liberal internationalists and human rights activists alike dissatisfied. She urged for a transition from the 20th century’s “state-centered” paradigm to a “people-centered” paradigm focused on environment and inequality, advocating for the need of U.S.-China cooperation based on this new order.
Mearsheimer calls for confrontation based on realism. Slaughter calls for cooperation based on idealism. Both argue for setting realistic interests and oppose the use of lofty pretenses in pursuing them. On Nov. 16, a virtual summit between Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping will take place. If the two sides could at least recognize each other’s red line regarding the Taiwan issue, that itself would be a great accomplishment.