Can US prod countries like Vietnam toward change?


When U.S. President Barack Obama met with Vietnamese civil society members during his recently concluded official visit to the Communist Party-led country, half of the chairs at the appointed venue were empty. Hours before the scheduled meeting staged to symbolically show U.S. solidarity with the country’s grassroots democrats, security officials preemptively detained three of the invited participants, including a blogger, journalist and aspirant opposition politician, analyst Shawn Crispin writes for The Diplomat:

While Obama claimed the former battlefield adversaries had buried “ideological differences” by ending the ban on lethal weaponry sales, the reality is that his administration chose to reward one of Asia’s least democratic regimes, with one of the region’s worst rights records, without notable progress on freedoms and liberties. Obama made the announcement alongside newly appointed President Tran Dai Quang, who until recently oversaw Vietnam’s fearsome Ministry of Public Security, the lead agency responsible for squelching dissent and jailing pro-democracy activists.

But is the United States still able to promote democratic change against the wishes of recalcitrant regimes?

One does not have to look much further back than the Cold War for an example of how U.S. engagement helped usher in an era of democracy, VOA reports:

Combining soft and hard power — the old carrot and stick method — was ultimately effective, Georgetown University diplomacy professor Cynthia Schneider said. And don’t discount the impact of cultural envoys, who fed an appetite for freedom in those living behind the Iron Curtain.

“Whether it was jazz music or rock ‘n’ roll, it kept their hope of freedom alive and kept them applying pressure to their own leaders,” Schneider said. “I think it was a brilliant combination of the two, and I would say the last time we have done that.”

In Myanmar, the United States was able to get on the side of change at a time when the Southeast Asian country’s military regime was already moving toward reform, said Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“We shouldn’t think of engagement per se as a lever that opens up societies,” Carothers told VOA. “It’s at best a compliment to a domestic process that is usually driven for other reasons.”

“It can be lip service if there is no real follow through and it’s clearly just a symbolic measure to appease critics back home and possibly abroad,” Carothers said. “It can also be part of a more sustained engagement in which one comes back to these issues time and again with the government and really presses hard.” RTWT

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