George Orwell’s prophecy was right, after all. In his 1949 dystopian novel “1984,” Orwell envisioned a world divided into three totalitarian super-states: Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia. Oceania included the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia. Eurasia referred to continental Europe annexed to the Soviet Union. Eastasia indicated China, South Asian countries and the Japanese islands.
Interestingly, today’s world seems to resemble what Orwell predicted after World War II: For example, the UK has exited the European Union and is now working closely with the US. Russia seems determined to extend its influence in Europe and central Asia. China, too, is pursuing its dream of becoming a mighty empire once again -- especially in Asia.
Unlike Russia and China, the Trump administration in the US pursued a policy of withdrawing from international affairs, at the risk of significantly losing its influence in the world. The reason was that the American people no longer wanted their country to be the police in the international community because they thought they were rewarded only by anti-American sentiment from those countries they had helped at the cost of their soldiers’ lives.
By contrast, Russia and China have considerably expanded their influence in Europe and Asia, while dreaming about restoring their once mighty power and glorious pasts. As a result, both countries rapidly filled in the vacuum created by the withdrawal of America. Today, they are claiming that they are the new global powers, replacing the weakening America.
However, as the Biden administration set sail with the catchphrase, “America is back,” conflicts between the US and the two socialist countries become inevitable. Yet contrary to some people’s viewpoint, it is not simply a power struggle between the US and the two big countries. Once again, it is a clash between liberal democracy and the people’s democracy, or between the free world and the authoritarian world. Consequently, the world is now witnessing a looming second Cold War.
During the Cold War era, people called America “Uncle Sam,” which has the same initials as the United States. The nickname evokes the image of a friendly uncle whom you can depend on when you are in trouble and need help. In fact, that is exactly what the US has been doing since World War II, even though the term first came into use in 1812. Today, however, people no longer call America Uncle Sam. The Trump administration did not want the nickname anymore and thus completely erased it. The Biden administration is trying to revive the image of Uncle Sam, and yet it is no longer the same as the original one.
A big brother is supposed to be generous, taking care of his little brothers. Sometimes, however, a big brother can be domineering and even tyrannical. In “1984,” George Orwell depicted a society where the oppressive Big Brother put people under ruthless surveillance. When he presented Big Brother in “1984,” Orwell had the Stalinist Soviet Union and Hitler’s Nazi Germany in mind. As any great intellectual would do, Orwell hated both the extreme left and the extreme right, represented by Stalin and Hitler. Orwell wrote: “The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just around the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal.”
Orwell poignantly criticizes that those extremists pretend that they represent equality, fairness, and justice. In fact, however, their sole purpose is nothing but power. Those fundamentalists call for social revolution, but the revolution only serves their tyranny. Orwell continues: “We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.”
Metaphorically speaking, today’s South Korea is caught in the crossfire between Uncle Sam and Big Brother. Under the circumstances, our conventional policy of strategic ambiguity is no longer valid and thus we have to choose between an uncle and a brother. Some people worry about the possible retaliation from the abandoned and are reluctant to choose. However, if we do not, we will be under bombardment from both sides.
The American Studies Association of Korea is planning to host a conference this year, commemorating the 140th anniversary of South Korea-US amity. The tentative title of the conference is “The role and influence of America on the development of South Korea.” Such a conference will surely be helpful for our decision because it will provide us with an opportunity to look back upon our relationship with the US in recent history in light of the Korean War, our economic success, and our national security.
Standing between Uncle Sam and Big Brother, we do not need to hesitate.
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.