Sung-Joo Han Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Diplomacy and International Politics: Conversation with Sung-Joo Han, Ambassador of the Republic of Korea; October 30, 2003, by Harry Kreisler

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Theory and Practice in International Politics

You are ideally situated to talk about the nexus between theory and practice in international politics. At Berkeley you studied theories and how those theories come up against the realities of the real world. On the other hand, from your own experience, you're also very sensitive to the ideologies that dominate domestic debates. You were involved in the human rights struggle in your own country, and sometimes that can lead to an idealism that's good internally, but it may not work when you try to apply it internationally. So I'm curious about that.

Can you offer any insights about how theories -- academic theories and ideologies of movement for change -- confront reality? A third example of this would be, in American foreign policy, ideologies about how the U.S. should relate to the world which also come up against reality. Using your metaphor, you come back to the game of Go, so to speak, in how you have to act or any diplomat has to act.

One ability that academics have more of than practitioners is the ability to connect; that is, connect with other cases, connect with history, connect with, possibly, the future. Not that practitioners can't do that, but academics are better equipped to do that. What practitioners have more of is the knowledge and understanding of how things are and how things work, or don't work. It is extremely useful to have been an academic, to be involved in this practice, because you can bring all these connections and it will be very helpful. For example, when I served as foreign minister in Korea, I was considered as more of a moderate dove than most other Koreans. Today, I'm probably considered as someone more ... not really a hawk, but somewhat ... I would like to consider myself as a realist, but ...

Less a dove.

Than many others ... At that time, I was caught between more hawkish South Korea and more dove-ish United States. Right now, the situation is somewhat the other way around. Maybe I didn't change, while the others changed. But at that time, ten years ago, when I was serving as foreign minister, I was looking at the debate and the difference between the moderates and the hardliners in Israel, for example. I was a very good friend of Shimon Peres, and we always talked about how the hardliners think, and they tend to make things worse rather than better. This is, of course, something that the practitioner can do, but an academic will be able to do much better by comparing, by finding a pattern, and finding causes and consequences. And that's where theories actually come from.

So it's very useful, I found, after going back to academia, to have been a practitioner; because then I would know if somebody is making sense or not. Among American academics, I remember Professor Ernie Haas telling me that I tend to be a little too practical to be a theoretician. On other hand, somebody like Joseph Nye, at Harvard, would be both theoretical and practical, but I don't think he would have made the same remark to me that Professor Haas did. So without saying which is a better way to look at things, I think even academics have different balances in how they approach theories and practical realities.

Do you think that the academics or the idealists are better able to see alternative futures than people who are embedded in the realities and trying to come up with a solution in the here and now?

Well, as a neophyte diplomat, I will not give that answer to you.

Okay. What about people who are ideologues within democratic polities? We don't have to necessarily talk about a particular country; ideologues who develop a passion and a view of the way the world should be. This is different than the pure theorist in the academy. How as a diplomat do you find are the best ways to deal with them, so that they come to change their passions and their ideas in the face of the realities of this game of Go, as you called it?

That is the main challenge for practitioners. I don't think there's any other way than "success itself." I don't think you'll be able to argue and win the argument [on persuasion alone]. Again, back in 1993 and '94, those people who were opposed to negotiating with North Korea, the only way to persuade them was to have a successful negotiation. I tried to tell them why we should turn this into a non-zero-sum, win-win game for both of us, and I was not able to do that. Nothing will succeed like success itself.

I guess you're also saying that a bad idea, or a bad ideology, has to fail before the person who is passionate will change his views in the face of reality?

I don't know if even when that belief fails, they will change it. But, certainly, there is less chance that they will be able to take action on the basis of that belief.

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