Declarations vs. Realities



South Korea’s President Yoon Suk Yeol, left, President Joe Biden and Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, right, meet on Fri, Aug. 18, 2023, at Camp David.

The Camp David Paradox

by Nilantha Ilangamuwa

Another Camp David convention has concluded, echoing Prophet Marx’s timeless insight that history perpetually replays itself, transitioning from tragedy to farce. Amidst this era of instability, the Camp David summit’s tone may shift, but its foundational agenda remains unaltered. To sow discord in the West Asia, it’s imperative to unite Japan and South Korea, two historic foes in the Asia-Pacific region, much as Egypt and Israel were bound by a historic “peace agreement.”

At the time of writing, Japan’s contentious release of 7,800 tons of highly radioactive Fukushima Daiichi wastewater into the Pacific Ocean, led by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), has stirred a global outcry. Locals and neighboring nations vehemently oppose this move, highlighting both geopolitical and humanitarian concerns. This contentious decision marks the Kishida administration’s first significant move following the Camp David summit, where the three parties ostensibly committed themselves to upholding the values of international cooperation, the rule of law, and independently guaranteed transparency and accountability.

History serves as an invaluable teacher, offering lessons to avert impending catastrophes. Sadly, humanity consistently shuns these teachings. Camp David, the US presidential sanctuary, boasts a storied legacy within American leadership, bearing witness to pivotal events and negotiations. Originally christened Shangri-La by Franklin D. Roosevelt, it became the stage for critical dialogues and political gatherings. Presidents from Eisenhower to Kennedy and Johnson, blending official duties with leisure, contributed to its legacy. Notably, Nixon and Ford enhanced its facilities, while Jimmy Carter immortalized the Camp David Accords, a landmark moment in Middle East diplomacy.

Ronald Reagan, during his tenure, revitalized the retreat’s natural allure. Subsequent presidents, from George H. W. Bush to Donald Trump, leveraged this venue for important meetings and global summits. In this backdrop, Joe Biden convened the most recent Camp David summit alongside Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, professing their intent to ‘preserve peace’ in the Asia-Pacific region. At its conclusion, they purportedly reached a principled agreement on the trilateral relationship among the United States, Japan, and South Korea.

Throughout its rich history, Camp David has proven an adaptable and indispensable asset for U.S. presidents, facilitating diplomatic negotiations, political deliberations, and moments of personal reprieve. Paradoxically, each instance of U.S. leaders convening there to discuss world peace coincides with the outbreak of various wars elsewhere, seemingly sponsored by the U.S. administration.

Reflecting on the inaugural and most riveting Camp David summit, it’s evident that the peace achieved between Egypt and Israel under the auspices of the Carter administration, despite its fragility, averted further wars between them. However, the region’s conflicts undoubtedly transformed. Jimmy Carter, known variously as Dasher, Deacon, or Lock Master, often hailed as a principled advocate of peaceful solutions, bears a more nuanced legacy when scrutinized through the lens of history’s balance sheets.

Former President Jimmy Carter’s reputation as a champion of human rights and kindness comes under scrutiny when we examine his actions during and after his presidency. While he engaged in commendable activities such as constructing homes for the impoverished and advocating human rights, his foreign policy decisions cast doubt on his commitment to these principles.

Carter covertly supported the genocidal Pol Pot regime in Cambodia, a regime eventually overthrown by Vietnam in 1979, as retribution for Vietnam’s opposition to the United States during the Vietnam War. His unwavering support for the Shah of Iran, despite the Shah’s brutal torture facilitated by the CIA, raises questions about his stance on human rights. Furthermore, Carter’s invasion of East Timor continued to arm Indonesia’s oppressive dictatorship, contributing to one of the most tragic genocides in history. His administration’s backing of Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza and subsequent efforts to intervene on Somoza’s behalf also cast a shadow over his commitment to human rights.

While Carter’s post-presidential activities reflect positive humanitarian efforts, these actions during his presidency underscore a complex legacy where his professed principles occasionally contradicted his foreign policy decisions.

The stark truth about the Camp David summits is that they have consistently fallen short in the pursuit of lasting peace. Instead, they have often served as calculated maneuvers by strategic actors, driven by ambitions to expand their influence. The outcomes of this year’s summit offer little hope for change, serving as an ominous warning of an impending conflict in the Asia-Pacific region, with the aim of countering a ‘designated enemy.’ This is not a time for complacency, but a moment demanding vigilant attention and decisive action.

In their official statement on the Camp David Principles, the leaders emphasize technological cooperation to bolster the Indo-Pacific region’s vibrancy and dynamism, based on mutual trust, adherence to international law, and respect for standards. They aspire to establish common practices and norms among their nations and international organizations to guide the development, use, and transfer of critical and emerging technologies.

Historically, U.S. declarations of intent in the region have often rung hollow, generating justified skepticism. Painful chapters such as the Korean War, the Vietnam conflict, and the bombings in Laos and Cambodia serve as stark reminders of the severe consequences when words and deeds fail to align. The Camp David Principles underscore a commitment to shared values and adherence to international law, a promising stance. However, the world has witnessed instances of U.S. foreign policy selectively applying these principles. History underscores that unwavering consistency in upholding these values is paramount to building trust.

The promise to promote peace and stability echoes familiar rhetoric, yet the historical record reveals U.S. involvement that has at times exacerbated regional instability. Ongoing conflicts not only in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria but also in Ukraine serve as contemporary examples that warrant reflection. While expressing support for ASEAN centrality and unity is commendable, it must transcend mere lip service. Resolving the South China Sea dispute is of utmost importance, as failure to do so jeopardizes regional stability and raises doubts about the sincerity of this commitment.

Although the commitment to denuclearization and dialogue with North Korea deserves praise, history has shown that diplomatic efforts often falter due to shifting priorities or insufficient follow-through. We must demand a sustained and unwavering dedication to this endeavor. Open and equitable economic practices are indispensable, extending beyond select trade partners. The charge of economic protectionism has been leveled against the United States, necessitating concrete actions to demonstrate genuine cooperation and a commitment to fair trade practices.

Cooperation on technology and climate change must transcend mere rhetoric. The world eagerly anticipates concrete actions and authentic collaboration. Additionally, commitments to non-proliferation should translate into tangible disarmament efforts. Noble as they are, commitments to inclusion and human rights must be unwaveringly upheld, both domestically and on the international stage. The United States must not shy away from addressing its own human rights challenges.

Skepticism shrouds the ‘Camp David Principles’ with good reason. The United States must learn from history and translate its professed principles into concrete actions, replacing hypocrisy with stability in the Indo-Pacific. It’s time for deeds, not just words, to shape the region’s future. As the world watches, the U.S. must break the cycle of empty declarations. As they boldly reassert their unyielding commitment to upholding Japan and the Republic of Korea’s ironclad deterrence, bolstered by a formidable array of military might, and wholeheartedly commit to conducting routine trilateral exercises, what possible rationale remains to question the imperative of securing enduring peace and seamless coexistence? While the Camp David statements may hint at confrontation, the present calls for an urgent need for genuine social cooperation, responsibility, mutual respect based on mutual sensitivities, and lasting friendships that transcend blame and the specter of war.