Interaction displayed at the Winter Olympics’ luncheon for peace—organized by the President of the Republic of Korea—and the American Vice-President’s actions have made me recall my recent comments in Scale, Magnitude and Power in Geography of Conflict. Of particular importance are the following passages:
When we observe how contemporary humans utilize space, and what kind of conflicts stem from their behavior, it helps us to understand why countries behave in their particular ways. Beware, however, that countries are concepts and cannot behave in any way; humans who run the countries do behave in their particular ways and each of their actions creates a measurable spatial impact. It is the individual action, compounded, through time, with those of their countrymen that forms cultural guidelines for behavior; i.e., the way countries behave in their particular ways.
Persons in power can and do extrapolate their own spatial behavior into their countries’ actions on the global scene. At the same time, this deeply-engraved cultural trait is very difficult to put aside when considering their equivalents in other countries. Misunderstanding of how, and why, individuals from other countries behave in their own space is among the leading causes of conflicts when we act within their sphere of influence.
Decision makers can greatly benefit from learning about how their own personal spatial behavior influences conditions and interactions with others. Such an understanding is among the most important factors in global conflict resolution, should they choose an option of peaceful coexistence rather than conflict.
Enter Mr. Pence and Other Dragons
Spatial interaction is an extremely important aspect of the diplomatic protocol. Everything is carefully prepared ahead of time and nothing is left to chance. The purpose of such decorum is to utilize the environment for political gains, and to minimize potentially negative outcomes. In plain words, no one wants to appear bad; appearances in this context are as important as reality.
Global news agencies and analysts, however, have noted a degree of an exceptionally awkward cultural and spatial interaction at the luncheon and during the Olympic Games opening ceremony. Mr. Pence’s actions were most prominent.
Figure 1 (Source). United States Vice-President, Mike Pence, surrounded with the Koreans at the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang.
In an interesting commentary U.S. Misses Opportunity for Korean Peace at Olympics, the author has raised several issues illustrating the extent of the geography of conflict at a micro scale:
According to Reuters, when Pence arrived late to the reception he told Moon he planned to leave directly after a photo session but Moon asked him to “come and say hello to friends.” Moon was trying to create a dialogue to advance peace but Pence went around the table and shook hands with everyone except Kim Yong Nam of North Korea.
Since Pence arrived at the dinner late the seating plan was shuffled, Pence again missing an opportunity created by Moon.
Pence left the event after five minutes.
At the stadium Pence sat one row in front of the North Koreans, but even with Kim Jong Yo just behind him, he never even turned around to exchange pleasantries – Pence had “no interaction” with her, according to press reports. New York Magazine described it as Pence “avoiding eye contact” with the Korean leader.
At the same moment, South Korean President Moon Jae-in shook hands with Kim Yo Jong, creating a historic moment and a photograph that gave hopes to many for peace between North and South Korea and movement toward unification and an end of hostilities.
At the end of the day, Pence had exemplified the worst of arrogant U.S. foreign policy with his childish behavior.
Off the Cuff Diplomacy
The American Vice-President’s behavior, it can be argued from an analytical geographic viewpoint, was anything but childish. Children act spontaneously and “off the cuff,” then later try to understand the consequences of their actions. It is impossible to imagine that Mr. Pence’s behavior—including his wife’s and his aids along him—was a result of spontaneous free roaming and childish off the cuff diplomacy. His actions were carefully prepared, and likely well-rehearsed, in order to prevent mistakes from occurring.
The question remains “What were the short and long term goals to accomplish?” in Mr. Pence’s Korean odyssey? For whom were they designed to be delivered? Was the focus of his behavior domestic, i.e., for the benefit of Americans, or an international audience? What kind of consequences does the U.S. Government expect to see following this visit to the Republic of Korea?
From a cultural standpoint, the intended target audience could have been domestic or international, but not both at the same time. It is impossible to provide a single message for both audiences at this moment in history and global geopolitical affairs. If the intended target audience was international, then the objective was not met. International observers’ viewpoints have been gradually evolving in a negative direction for years, which I noted in Training Day 16 Years Later, concluding with:
“…The words spoken and actions taken are making our country look laughable in the eyes of foreigners. An approach built on fear and intimidation cannot be changed once it goes too far. It eventually leads to isolation and anger. It also leads to a direct confrontation with the villains who never forget how they were treated in the past.”
Resistance is Futile
Trying to earn respect via bomb diplomacy and intimidation is an ineffective task. Trying to earn respect from adversaries and allies at an official event in the above-described manner is equally futile. But if we accept that all aspects of the current American cultural system are in a state where such actions are perfectly welcome, even preferred, than the Vice-Presidents’ behavior toward the Koreans—North and South—can be understood.
“A recent poll revealed that 76 percent of the Americans fear that the country is on a path of a major war. People feel that something is going in the wrong direction and a major war is inevitable. For the reasons I described in this essay, however, it can be argued that a majority of them—politicians included—would find it difficult if not impossible to explain how the system transitioned to its current state. These reasons may seem trivial to readers who may believe that geographic education and literacy are inconsequential for making proper decisions.”
The entire cultural system of the United States has undergone self-destructive transformation to conditions where “childish” behavior of its leaders and diplomats is not only tolerated at home, but welcomed. Even micro scale geography of conflict illustrates this rather well. Meanwhile, a growing American insularity from the rest of the world—regardless of the extent of the military might—will, paradoxically, continue to perpetuate the exact type of behavior displayed in Mr. Pence’s Korean Odyssey.