President Obama’s decision this week to lift the arms embargo on Vietnam has been a long time coming. The U.S. government has steadily improved relations with Vietnam, normalizing them in 1995, and over the past few years has made exceptions to the arms embargo for maritime security. Completely ending the ban, however, had depended—supposedly, at least—on improvements in Vietnam’s human rights performance. “We can’t lift the ban absent significant progress on human rights,” current U.S. Ambassador to Hanoi Ted Osius said in his 2014 confirmation hearing, adding, “We’ve been quite clear on what we expect in terms of progress on human rights.”
So what have we been expecting? Not much, it now appears. By the time of the President’s visit there were few if any signs of improvement. One political prisoner was released shortly before Obama’s arrival, while as many as a hundred remain in prison. The President also happened to arrive in Hanoi the day after bogus “elections” to the National Assembly. Candidates not acceptable to the ruling Communist Party were screened out. One of them, Nguyen Quang A, was among the dissidents detained and prevented from attending a meeting with President Obama.
The President took it all in stride. With U.S.-Vietnam relations already chugging along, lifting the embargo was the only flashy, big-ticket item left to a President driven to personally remake U.S. relations with dictatorships. The President’s remarks in Hanoi reinforced the impression. He said he acted not to deter increasingly expansive expressions of Chinese nationalism, which threaten Vietnam, but “to complete what has been a lengthy process of moving toward normalization.” There is no longer any “ideological division” to justify the ban on arms sales, he claimed, waiving away Vietnam’s one-party Communist dictatorship in just a few words.
Certainly, it was obvious to Vietnam’s communist rulers that “significant progress” on human rights was not necessary to attract the American President to Hanoi. Its leaders have seen President Obama transform America’s relationships with Cuba and Iran without human rights improvements or political reform. In the Cuban case, dissidents have experienced greater persecution since the U.S. government took the step of restoring full diplomatic relations without even attempting to attach any human rights Basket-Three type obligations on Havana’s side. As to Iran, the Administration has since admitted that it was determined to reach a nuclear deal regardless of whether a less hardline government eventually took office (although it was perfectly happy to pretend otherwise when that suited the Administration’s sales strategy).
Even in Burma, where the democratic opposition was finally able to take office in February this year after decades of persecution, the future is clouded by the Burmese military’s structural entrenchment in politics. And again, this was evident before the U.S. government restored full diplomatic relations and began lifting sanctions.
From now on, the Administration says, decisions on U.S. arms sales to Vietnam will be made on a case-by-case basis. The hopeful interpretation is that Washington will use discrete sales to leverage improvements in political and human rights in Vietnam. Don’t count on it, at least in the short term. The Obama Administration is no more likely to hold up an arms sale over a concession on human rights than it is to avoid a presidential visit.
Obviously, the relationship the United States will have with Vietnam will be qualitatively different from that with allies like Japan, Australia, South Korea, and even Taiwan. That’s as it should be. Commitment to our democratic allies and an appreciation of Asia’s past and current struggles for democracy were supposed to be central pillars of the “pivot” to Asia. “Even more than our military might or the size of our economy,” Secretary Clinton wrote in launching the policy in 2011, “our most potent asset as a nation is the power of our values—in particular, our steadfast support for democracy and human rights. This speaks to our deepest national character and is at the heart of our foreign policy, including our strategic turn to the Asia-Pacific region.” In other words, security and values should be seen as mutually reinforcing, not an “either/or” proposition.
The President has devalued this “most potent asset.” Saying one thing—that America’s security interests in Asia depend on principle—and doing another will have long-term consequences. He has made the United States vulnerable to the lesser power’s leverage even though it is by far the more powerful state and the Vietnamese need us strategically more than we need them. Suppose, for example, that we are near some agreement in principle on U.S. access to the deep-water port at Cam Ranh Bay; one can easily imagine Hanoi marketing individual ship calls to allay any temptation on our part to bring pressure on behalf of free elections, political prisoner releases, or other rights.
The U.S. government was already collaborating with Vietnam on security issues. The President had a choice about how to deal with a regime being pressed by China in a region of strategic importance, and where America’s strength depends, as everywhere, on its capacity to project power in support of its commitment to complementary objectives: peace, freedom of navigation, an open trading environment, and the promotion of the rule of law, human rights, and democracy.
The President didn’t need to go to Vietnam to upgrade the military relationship, or to break his promise on human rights. However, he did need to go to Vietnam to continue his dictatorship tour. The embrace of a dictatorship is so much more powerful when it’s returned by a slap in the face.