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December 1, 2021

Old global benchmark

At the end of last century, Paul Kennedy wrote an extremely interesting book (‘Preparing for the XXIst Century- Winners and Losers’) where, using political science tools, shows how states should act in order to place themselves among the winners of the following century. His benchmarks in identifying the ‘winners’ and the ‘losers’ of the century to come were states that had performed or, on the contrary, that had failed to make a historic leap in terms of economic growth and systemic rise in the previous decades. At the time when he wrote his book ‘new Asian dragons’ came handy.South Korea was one of those proposed some decades ago as an example to follow in the following century. After an authoritarian regime lasting decades, at the end of the 1970s, South Korea managed an unprecedented historic economic leap.

From the underdeveloped state it was in the late 1950s, after a devastating war with North Korea that had become iconic for the paradigm of the Cold War, South Korea, under an authoritarian and violent leadership, managed to become a developed state in approximately twenty years, as compared to other state it had taken almost a century to get there. In Kennedy’s view, South Korea was recommended as a winner benchmark – alongside Japan or Germany and Switzerland and Eastern Europe as a whole, as a community – with an excellent system of education, high saving rate, qualified labour force, high rate of productive investment and continuingly growing its share in international trade. Paul Kennedy’s South Korean ‘benchmark’ used in the early 1990s has shown its extraordinary potential. Today, South Korea is the world’s tenth biggest economy, a developed state in the avant-garde of world economic growth, a society that may have its downfalls and tensions, but that is still capable to overcome them and represents a factor of stability in South-East Asia. Of course, this state does have some extraordinarily complex dossiers pending, such as the unification of the whole Korean peninsula or its appropriate positioning in the overall big ‘game’ of the Pacific, opened some years ago, marked by China’s exponential growth and its unbelievable rise in the international system of state, aiming at the top position. These qualities displayed by South Korea in the last few decades as well as its economic performance, combined with the country’s vibrant democratic evolution in the area of social organisation have prompted geo-politicians to consider this new international major power. A recent article published by a well-known British geo-politician, James Rogers, in the latest issue of the prestigious ‘RUSI Journal’ and called ‘The Rise of the Wider North’, does exactly that, revealing the globally relevant stature South Korea has acquired. Rogers shows that, in the coming years – towards the 2040s – global warming will require the opening of a new navigable route of global importance – the one of the Arctic North, that would connect North Atlantic to East Pacific and facilitate, through the savings worth thousand of km of maritime navigation, links between the world’s most dynamic economic regions. Such huge geopolitical slide occurring for the first time in history will have vast consequences on the systemic evolution and opens a window of opportunity to Great Britain to act as a ‘pivot’ of this huge translation.In the summary on his blog, Rogers identifies a few such consequences:  ‘I argue that the United Kingdom – as the strategic gatekeeper of the North Atlantic, and Europe’s pre-eminent power – is ideally suited to act as a ‘pivot state’ in this coming geopolitical saga. I assert that the British government must capitalize on its ‘Nordic drive’ over the coming years to extend its influence to cover other important countries in the Northern proximities, not least Japan and South Korea. By constituting a new geopolitical constellation – and then undergirding it – the United Kingdom could relieve the burden of the United States as its shifts its attention to the Far East. Indeed, a new geostrategic ‘pincer movement’ by the British and Americans, one from the Atlantic West and the other from the Pacific East, locking around Eurasia from Britain’s island citadel and America’s continental homeland, may serve to prevent a future conflagration similar to those in the last century, thus maintaining a peaceful, maritime – and liberal – world order.’It is to be suspected that, in Rogers’ theory, having entered this geopolitical constellation together with Japan, South Korea will have a global role to play in close connection to what is already called the ‘anglosphere’. It would be good to remind of all these facts as, last month, South Korea recorded an all-time premiere – it elected the first lady president in the country’s democratic history. Park Geun-hye, the daughter of Korea’s former authoritarian leader assassinated in 1979, won election after a very tight election campaign, acquiring the highest magistracy in the state hierarchy with 51.6 per cent of the vote, as compared to the other candidate, representing the Democratic United Party, Moon Jae-in (48 per cent). In her victory address, Mrs. Park convincingly said:  ‘I will become a president who improves living standards and always delivers on promises made.’At the end of last year, the major actors in North-East Asia – China and South Korea – changed their respective top leadership. China walked into the era of the fifth generation of leaders since the installation of the communist rule back in 1949, Japan has a new PM who has already announced measures designed to strengthen the role of his country in the region, and South Korea, under its new leadership to settle in at the beginning of February, has to cope with some major challenges, including its systemic positioning commensurate with the size of its international economic importance. In the five years the in-coming conservative administration in South Korea is looking at there is clearly a commitment to carry on current policies ensuring the country’s sustainable growth, combined by measures for the homogenisation of a society stressed by the huge change happening over the last few decades. In other words, in the crucible of the current gigantic transformations in the global system, South Korea asserts its will to continue its systemic rise and play an international role of magnitude.

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