The Asian Wall Street Journal via Dow Jones

SAIGON – We live in an ironic world. A generation ago, the United States government wanted to send Bill Clinton here and he wouldn’t go. Now Mr. Clinton himself is the head of that government and plans to come to Vietnam tomorrow in that capacity. So now the tables have turned; many Americans who thought Mr. Clinton should have gone off to war wish he would stay home.

It is probably no consolation to Americans that the government of Vietnam is also split along these lines. Clearly, there are those who hope Mr. Clinton will use his visit to underscore their own interpretation of the Vietnam War: a war of colonialism America was wrong to fight. But also among this group are those who fear what might come after such an acknowledgement, especially if that means trade and the inevitable liberalizing effects it will have on the social and political order.

Twenty-five years after the last U.S. soldiers were helicoptered off the U.S. embassy rooftop here, Vietnam is a changed place. Not the least of the tragedy of the prolonged Vietnam War was to see communism triumph here, just as – as Ronald Reagan put it six years afterwards in his famous Notre Dame speech – the world was getting ready to “dismiss it as a sad, bizarre chapter in human history, whose last pages are even now being written.”

After the collapse of the Berlin Wall, Vietnam was not unaffected. It lost the patronage of the Soviet Union. For revolutionaries, a far more devastating consequence of this sea change was that it stripped socialism of any pretense of idealism. In 1975, when the tanks rolled into South Vietnam, the talk was of “dominoes” and the inevitable intimidation and fall of our neighbors. In fact, our neighbors knew better than we. Having embraced the market earlier, they had brought hope and prosperity to their peoples while our revolutionary government brought slogans and de-industrialization.

As the Prussia of Southeast Asia, which engaged and defeated three much larger powers – France, the U.S. and China – Vietnam entrusted its future to its strength of arms. But today Vietnam is weak because in the global world order that has been evolving since World War II, arms are no longer enough. The only chance for real independence, autonomy and dignity depends on participation in the global marketplace. Again, we don’t have to look that far for examples: South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand and even China.

That is because only a people open to the possibilities of trade can acquire the knowledge that exists outside their own borders, and eventually the wealth they desire. There is no way to tap into and exploit this knowledge without first opening the country to it. I am sure this will be part of Mr. Clinton’s message. And given Vietnam’s situation, it is hard to imagine him visiting here without personally meeting at least some of the Vietnamese outside the government who are pushing for the kind of multi-party democracy Americans already enjoy.

But it would be a mistake – for the U.S. and Vietnam – for Mr. Clinton to focus his energies on the political. The war is too recent, the wounds too fresh, for there to be much agreement. For the moment, politics is a subject best left to history.

What can’t be left to history are the urgent needs of the Vietnamese people.

Any comparisons of Vietnam to its neighbors show that we Vietnamese remain well behind our potential. True, some investment has trickled in and there are many Americans in Vietnam who would like to bring more. And if Vietnam’s millions are to have hope for a better tomorrow, they too need the foreign investment that brings them jobs and opportunity.

But an honest look at the problem would show that, for all their faults and shortcomings, the real problem does not lie with the global community. The global market is knocking at Vietnam’s door. We have incredible natural resources. We are a resilient, resourceful people, which Americans have learned twice: first as competitors on the field of battle; second watching the Vietnamese boat people transform themselves from pitiful refugees into prosperous citizens in their adopted land.

The major problem, if we are honest, is the obsolete Vietnamese bureaucracy that acts as a drag on enterprise and that discourages precisely the people we need to attract.

This year’s bilateral trade agreement between Washington and Hanoi is a case in point. Vietnam, which benefits the most from the pact, has put off signing it several times. Why? The answer is that the fear of losing its privileged status is more important to the ruling bureaucracy than the re-industrialization and modernization of the country.

We see the signs of this mindset everywhere. Foreign business publications like The Asian Wall Street Journal regularly chronicle horror stories about investors who come here with all sorts of dreams and leave in bitterness, their plans thwarted by a bureaucracy stuck in 1975. As for those enterprises that survive, we hear reports about all sorts of abuses, from forced overtime and arbitrary firings to child labor and sexual abuse. Why is it that we see this kind of thing in Vietnam and not Hong Kong?

The reason is that until people have alternatives they are hostage to the status quo, which is based on force and monopoly and not consent and competition. A worker who has only his labor to sell needs to have enterprises compete for that labor. Otherwise he is completely at their mercy, and all the fine constitutional and legal guarantees mean nothing. In contrast, people who live in countries that are integrated into the world market have such choices. And when this process of market competition is tempered by increased political accountability, it means privileges are earned by merit rather than based on political power.

I do not pretend to know enough of American politics to know what Mr. Clinton’s visit will mean for the healing of his country’s war wounds. Already there are unfortunate hints here that much has not changed, notwithstanding that Mr. Clinton will be the first U.S. president to visit a unified Vietnam and the first to step foot on Vietnamese soil since President Nixon traveled to Saigon in 1969. With Vietnam’s human rights a topic of debate in America, voices in Vietnam are trying to raise the issue of war compensation-no doubt in an effort to persuade Mr. Clinton to drop human rights concerns from his visit agenda.

The greatest service Mr. Clinton can do, for both the U.S. and Vietnam, is to meet these concerns head on and speak frankly about today’s realities. That doesn’t mean lecturing his hosts about their shortcomings, but pointing out the dominant truth of today’s global village: In a world linked by instant communications, the violation of fundamental rights is no longer a mere domestic concern. The Chinese found that out in 1989 at Tiananmen Square.

Like it or not, this heightened interest in what might have once been a purely “internal affair” is simply the tail side of the globalization coin. The closer the world becomes, the harder it is for governments to draw a curtain over the way they treat their own citizens. The sooner Vietnam’s government bureaucracy accepts that this dynamic is a fact of life in the new world – and one almost all of the rest of Asia has recognized – and not some dastardly Western plot, the better we all will be.

President Clinton cannot change Vietnam’s past even if he wanted to. But he has an opportunity no American president has had before: Point out that it is Vietnam that needs the world far more than the world needs Vietnam.

Dr. Que is a physician and head of the Non-Violent Movement for Human Rights in Vietnam. He has spent 19 of the last 21 years in Vietnamese prisons for his beliefs.

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