July 10, 2020

Madison and the Vietnam rapprochement

          WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND

Founded by Drew Pearson 1932

Madison and the Vietnam rapprochement

By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift

WASHINGTON – The meeting at the White House last week between Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang and President Obama received scant attention from a national media that has left Vietnam in the rear view mirror. Yet the historic visit – the first since we fought and lost the war – represents a significant turn not only in our relationship with Vietnam, but also in U.S. foreign policy.

President Clinton normalized relations with Vietnam, traveling to the country where 58,000 Americans and countless more Vietnamese died during the long war. Senator John McCain, R-Ariz., held captive there for five years, accompanied Clinton on the visit, both men’s presence symbolizing the beginning of a new era in U.S.-Vietnamese relations.

In the almost two decades since then, much has happened in foreign policy. The dramatic rise of China to become the world’s second largest economy prompted the Obama administration to launch its pivot to Asia, and two summers ago then Defense Secretary Leon Panetta visited Vietnam to initiate what is now serious discussion about setting up a U.S. fleet there or at least a port of call.

The administration is reaching out to Vietnam out of economic self -interest, and also to build a ring of friendly countries, and potential allies, as a bulwark around China.

This is an extraordinary evolution in U.S. foreign policy from the days of “The Ugly American,” the bestseller published in 1958 that depicts the arrogance of Americans thinking they knew more about Southeast Asia than the indigenous people. The book turned out to be prescient about U.S. involvement in Vietnam, and in 1960, before John F. Kennedy was elected president, he was part of a group of opinion leaders who said they had sent the book to every U.S. senator to convey its message.

During the Cold War, when Kennedy was in the White House, U.S. foreign policy could be summed up with the phrase, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.  A succession of U.S. presidents supported dictators around the world, a vast cry from the days when Woodrow Wilson advocated self-determination for all peoples of the world. Wilson’s vision was embodied in the 1919 Versailles Treaty, which ended World War I, and which was generally rejected as too idealistic.

Not until George W. Bush took office after the contentious 2000 election, and after the 9/11 attacks, did we see a return to the kind of democracy building implicit in Wilson’s vision. Bush took what turned out to be faulty intelligence to justify invading Iraq and replacing its government with what he imagined would be a representative democracy.

Bush operated on the theory that we need only to topple a dictator and let the people vote. The decade since has demonstrated that building a democracy is much more difficult, and that it takes more than just holding an election. Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush, learned his lesson about imposing democracy after the fall of the Soviet Union. Bush worked with Gorbachev’s successor, Boris Yeltsin, as did Clinton when he took office. Decades later, the Russians are still struggling to achieve democracy, and we don’t see Obama significantly ramping up U.S. involvement in any part of the globe with the goal of spreading democracy.

If democratic institutions are to take root, that would be nice, but Obama’s foreign policy is much more practical and hardheaded.  It starts with no boots on the ground. Obama doesn’t want to get pulled into another war like Vietnam. He will deal with any country and any leader who advances U.S. self-interest. It’s an ecumenical foreign policy based on the lessons of the past, and nothing says it better than the emerging alliance between the U.S. and Vietnam, which continues to have a Communist ruled government. Their ideology was once so significant we went to war over it. Now the tiny country, the scene of so much bloodshed, is critical to the U.S. once again in a way that once seemed unimaginable.

His ecumenicalism combines the concept of the enemy of my enemy is my friend with the ideas of the father of our Constitution, James Madison, who opined that the tyranny of the majority is as bad as the tyranny of a dictator, and that a functioning democracy must, therefore, first ensure the rights of the minority. He understood that an educated and economically viable electorate was essential to free and fair elections. This is quite distant from the Wilson-Bush ideas of pure self-determination, which is why Obama works with autocrats while simultaneously encouraging movements toward Madisonian democracies, often using capitalism, free trade, and mutual defense as the openings – hence, the Vietnam rapprochement.

© 2013 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

Distributed by U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

END WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND

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