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  • South Korea at the Crossroads: Autonomy and Alliance in an Era of Rival Powers by Scott A. Snyder
  • Min Ye (bio)
South Korea at the Crossroads: Autonomy and Alliance in an Era of Rival Powers by Scott A. Snyder. New York: Columbia University Press, 2017. 355 pages. $35.00 hardcover.

On the eve of the seemingly imminent collapse of the Cold War, John Mearsheimer, in his famous article, Why We Will Soon Miss the Cold War, lamented the "loss of order" and the upcoming "untamed anarchy" in Europe. From hindsight, Mearsheimer might overstate his worries. But such an unnerving mood at the advert of an uncertain era does strike a chord with strategists in South Korea. In the post-Cold War era, South Korea's rapid growth in national capabilities and quick elevation in global status have not, as many would assume, improved its strategic environment. On the contrary, amid a rising China, a nuclearized North Korea, and mounting tension between regional powers, foreign policy decision-makers in Seoul are increasingly fretting about the uncertain prospect in East Asia.

Such a paradox has been keenly captured by Scott Snyder's book South Korea at the Crossroads: Autonomy and Alliance in an Era of Rival Powers. In this book, Snyder insightfully points out that South Korea's strategic dilemma rests on the discrepancy between its increasing capabilities and a deteriorating strategic circumstance. On the one hand, as a typical middle power, South Korea is both capable of and eager to exert more significant influences on issues critical to its security, prosperity, and unification. On the other hand, however, the notoriously complicated great-power politics in this region leaves South Korea little room to balance its political and economic interests, as well as domestic and global objectives. In a sense, current South Korean decision-makers might be envious of their Cold-War counterparts who, with a weaker state that wholly relied on the United States for protection, were relieved of the privilege of any possible strategic adjustments.

This book tries to solve the puzzle in two main steps. First, it offers probably the most comprehensive chronical review of South Korea's foreign policy. From Syngman Rhee to Park Geun-hye, Snyder recounts and analyzes their foreign policies through the lens of a framework that captures the essential tradeoffs all South Korean leaders have to face: (1) autonomy versus alliance with the United States, and (2) parochial nationalism versus internationalism (p. 8). Then, the author concentrates on the three most prominent issues on the current agenda: South Korea's middle power diplomacy, the U.S.-China relations, and the unification issue. All three issues illustrate South Korea's strategic dilemma from different [End Page 208] angles. South Korea's middle power diplomacy is essentially the attempt to utilize South Korea's advantages on specific global issues to improve its strategic environment. However, despite its impressive achievements and leadership position in numerous global problems, Snyder reckons, South Korea still can hardly break "the curse of geography that has sandwiched it between major powers" (p. 194). The relationship between the two most powerful states in the region, the United States and China, is the most crucial external restraint of South Korea's foreign policy. Snyder lays out three determinants of South Korea's strategic choice between them: the two countries' relative power, their intention toward each other, and their attitude toward South Korea. To South Korea, no scenario is more troubled than the parity of power between an aggressive China and an alarmed United States, both of which are competing for South Korea's support. Unfortunately, while the reality has started bearing more resemblances to that scenario, as a junior partner of both powers, moderating the U.S.-China relations is simply beyond South Korea's reach. Finally, the fact that South Korea took initiatives to change the inter-Korean relations shows that South Korea can exert greater influence on the unification issue. Nevertheless, Snyder reckons that because unification is likely to "remains a secondary concern" after its security and prosperity (p. 254), South Korea is still unable to manage the course of unification without the United States' backing and China's acquiescence...


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pp. 208-210
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