The Plank

How To Win Friends And Influence Former Enemies

By

Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung met with Bush at the White House yesterday--the
third major Vietnamese leader to be received by the U.S. since diplomatic relations
were normalized between the two countries in 1995. Though the Congressional
Caucus on Vietnam called
for
the White House to address Vietnam's poor human rights record, economic
cooperation came
first
on the administration’s agenda. Why? Because while bilateral trade is
booming
between the two countries, the U.S.
remains far behind China
in terms of its economic and diplomatic leverage in the region. Bush’s fear of
falling even further behind probably led him to skirt human rights concerns
completely and instead
praise Hanoi for its improved tolerance of “religious freedom.”

But he missed a great opportunity to explain to the prime minister that
economic growth can be a direct result of improved governance and a stronger
civil society. Take for example the recent case of two Vietnamese journalists
who were arrested
for uncovering a major corruption scandal in the country's transport ministry.
The arrests have cast serious doubt on the government’s high-profile campaign
against corruption, eliciting an unprecedented outcry from internal groups and weakening
public confidence in the Communist-led government. Bush could have argued that such
bullying tactics don’t only raise the hackles of human rights
groups
, but they also deter long-term economic growth and foreign investors.
Unlike China, Vietnam cannot
compete by virtue of scale alone. As an emerging--and still
precarious--economy, it will have to burnish its image to foreign investors in
other ways, so it can’t afford to harbor so many bad actors.

Of course, I certainly don't believe that all political reform in the
developing world should be motivated by the market. The U.S., moreover,
can’t be expected to give up years of hard-won comity to extol the virtues of an
open society just as ties have begun deepening between the two nations. But given
Vietnam’s
alarming economic crisis--the country is plagued
by
runaway inflation, labor unrest, and the world's worst performing stock
market--its fiscal leaders arrived here in search of answers.

Nguyen Tan Dung plans to meet with Alan Greenspan and Hank Paulson later in
the week. John McCain and Barack Obama, too. Perhaps one of these men--and with
any luck, more than one--will try to impress upon the prime minister that he
can get his country out of its economic tailspin while also improving the lives
of its citizens. Whether he takes it to heart is a different story, but
shouldn’t diplomatic visits such as this one be about more than getting your
picture taken?  

--Suzy Khimm

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