It has been announced, rather unsurprisingly it must be said, that the USA is to fully lift an historic arms embargo on Vietnam. Speaking in Hanoi, President Obama declared that America could once more sell lethal weapons to the Vietnamese, in the process removing a ‘lingering vestige of the Cold War’.
More than 58,000 US soldiers died during the Vietnam War and yet their sacrifice did not prevent a communist takeover of the southern part of the country. It is the descendants of Ho Chi Minh and his comrades that continue to rule Vietnam in a decidedly authoritarian manner, a confirmation of one of the greatest failures of American interventionism.
Obama’s decision is likely to provoke complaints from Vietnam war veterans, just as his slated visit to Hiroshima has drawn the ire of survivors of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. The Vietnam War continues to exercise a powerful hold over the American soul, a psychological wound that, despite its longevity, is unlikely to be mirrored by the War in Afghanistan.
The timing of the decision is understandable. China continues to act with increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea, threatening American geostrategic interests in the Asia-Pacific region. As another claimant in the complex territorial dispute that dominates this part of the world, Vietnam could act as a contributory balancing partner for Washington should events turn sour.
There is also the added factor of Russia, once more a serious global rival to the USA. As a result of the Soviet legacy, Moscow is still the chief supplier of arms to Vietnam. The Americans can disrupt, if not entirely supplant, this profitable flow of capital into the Kremlin’s vaults.
Many of President Obama’s critics, and even some of his supporters, have found serious fault with his foreign policy. In particular, his apparent desire to appease all of America’s enemies, both past and present, has not always been well received. Perhaps he does not fully appreciate the significance of American history and its ramifications for generations of its citizens? Or so the argument goes.
This blog has frequently argued that history should not be an impediment to the future, though unfortunately it often is. Obama is certainly acting opportunistically by removing the arms embargo to Vietnam now but his principals – i.e. burying old enmities and looking forward – must be applauded. Vietnam was a deeply contentious and, ultimately, unpopular war, but to allow its haunting memory to obstruct a crucial bilateral relationship is to do a disservice to those who fought for a cause – however flawed – that sought peace.
More questionable is the current Vietnamese government’s human rights record, which is quite frankly appalling. The White House has stated that any arms deal between Washington and Hanoi will be dependent upon the latter’s improved respect for human rights but such sentiments have not stopped US manufacturers from selling weapons to other violators of these norms (Saudi Arabia for instance).
If President Obama has acted with indecision when confronted by several treacherous foreign policy challenges during his tenure in office (his red line with regards to Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Syria being a particular case in point), he will be remembered for his efforts to try and improve relations between Washington and states with which it has been left a bitter legacy.
By combining this consistent philosophy with geostrategic calculations – such as hedging against a more militaristic China – Obama is leaving his successor with a less dispiriting outlook when confronting the foreign policy objectives of the near future.