Will two liberal democratic states resort to war over territorial and/or other disputes? In the real world, can we imagine Canada declaring war against the United States, France against Germany or New Zealand against Australia, for some known or unknown irreconcilable feud? How about Britain and Spain over Gibraltar?

Most political pundits, policy analysts and scholars will probably reply in the negative. To wit, between and among free market-oriented liberal democratic states, wars are inconceivable. Nor are they inevitable.

These liberal democratic countries have developed both organizational and operational mechanisms for peaceful conflict resolution. They will not choose war as a viable option in settling their disputes primarily because of two reasons: (1) the majority of the people will realize that war is too costly both in human and economic terms; and (2) unlike those living under misguided autocratic leaders in non-liberal, undemocratic states, they will not be easily fooled by militant jingoism and mesmerizing media manipulation.

The next question is how does a country pass the test of being “liberal” (L) and “democratic” (D)? From the early 6th to the mid-4th century B.C. in ancient Athenian direct democracy, universal suffrage was absent; only adult male citizens took part in the democratic process while slaves, women and resident foreigners were excluded.

Both the United States, the holder of the oldest written constitution for representative democracy, and Britain, the oldest constitutional monarchy with rich democratic tradition, did not implement women’s suffrage until 1920 and 1929, respectively. The de facto voting rights for blacks, especially in the Deep South, did not materialize until the U.S. Congress passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965, over a century after the American Civil War and Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1862. Hence, the ancient Greeks’ direct democracy, America before 1965 and Britain before 1929 may fail the LD test. After all, democracy is a constantly evolving human invention. It is a process, not a fixed final product.

Among some 230 nations in the world today, only 21 countries have kept their constitutions since World War II without extralegal interruption. These countries are in Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand. Only Japan belongs to this exclusive club among non-Western nations.

According to the Freedom House 2005 Annual Global Survey of Political Rights and Civil Liberties, out of 192 countries, 89 are “free,” 54 are “partly free” and 49 are “not free.” Within Northeast Asia, China is designated as an authoritarian regime, North Korea, a totalitarian regime, and five – South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Mongolia and Russia – are categorized as democracy. Among these five, however, Russia is rated “not free” in both political rights and civil liberties.

In another survey, Freedom House examined freedom of the press in 2004. Out of 193 countries, North Korea was rated last (193rd), while China and Russia were also “not free,” ranked 173rd and 148th in the world, respectively. Japan (33rd), Taiwan (50th) and South Korea (68th) were “free,” while Mongolia (80th) was “partly free.”

It is evident from the above that unlike in North America and Europe, democracy has not fully arrived in Northeast Asia. Geographically, historically and culturally, let alone their increasingly deepening and widening economic interdependence, China, South Korea and Japan are the principal regional actors.

Leaving aside the semantic squabble over President Roh Moo-hyun’s vision, South Korea as a “balancer” is a misnomer. These nations plus North Korea comprise members of this region, and Russia, as a Eurasian state, and Mongolia can also claim regional membership.

While the United States has no geographic contiguity in this region, it has been the “balancer” with its large military presence in South Korea, Japan and Okinawa, its bilateral defense treaty with South Korea, security treaty with Japan, and its relatively recent yet dominant political and economic linkages with these countries.

The regional security complexity is further compounded by two fundamental factors. One is a set of unresolved issues such as divided Korea, the China-Taiwan question and the territorial disputes between China, Japan and other Southeast Asian countries over island chains in the East China Sea and South China Sea. The other is the region’s conflict resolution mechanism, in particular, and democratization, in general, both of which are still in their inchoate stage. China is a far cry from democracy despite opening up the country and instituting reforms for the last three decades which have been, by and large, positive. Russia, too, is undergoing democratization but is not yet a democracy. In spite of its attempt to “reform” and opening its doors, North Korea is still the typical autocratic garrison state. Only South Korea and Japan, along with Taiwan, may pass the LD test.

What do these regional security and political complexity signify? They imply that democratic peace has not yet taken firm root in the region. War as an instrument of foreign policy has not disappeared from the region.

What can and should be done? Externally, member nations in the region must expedite the development of both bilateral and multilateral mechanism for peaceful conflict resolution.

Internally, those democracy-deficient or democracy-absent states like China, Russia and North Korea must facilitate further reform, opening and democratization. The United States, the uniquely qualified balancer, must act to reduce tensions in the region.

Escalating tension by playing the balance-of-power game of the bygone era may be beneficial temporarily to special interest groups or to particular segments of the population. But such a divisive and potentially disastrous rent-seeking gambit is not consonant with America’s mid- and long-term national interest. Nor is it consistent with the creed of the American Founding Fathers.

The balancer’s role in this region should be a peacemaker, an impartial arbiter, and, above all, a facilitator of LD.

Dr. Yang Sung-chul, a former Korean ambassador to the United States, is currently a distinguished professor of the Graduate School of International Studies, Korea University.