Protests ensure Vietnam still in public eye

Freedom New Mexico

There were protests at the White House last month, and they were appropriate.

The Socialist Republic of Vietnam is still a long way from having an acceptable record on human rights and especially on religious freedom. It is helpful to remind the leaders of that country that people are still watching.

Nonetheless, it was also appropriate for President Bush to meet with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung in the Oval Office to speak of closer ties between the two countries.

President Bush was more effusive than he had to be about the baby steps Vietnam is taking in the direction of permitting a tiny bit of religious freedom.

After all, religion is still controlled by the state in that primarily Buddhist country, and even if state control is loosened a bit to allow more religious congregations to register with the state, that’s a long, long way from the ideal of having the state exercise no control at all over religious practices and activities.

Although the State Department two years ago took Vietnam off its list of countries that systematically violate religious liberty, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent body chartered by the U.S. government, has urged the State Department to put Vietnam back on that list based on recent history.

While it is legitimate for U.S. leaders to urge the leaders of other countries to respect freedom more consistently, in the international system it is not the U.S. government’s job to enforce its standards on other countries, and most efforts to do so are costlier and less effective than one might hope.

In a sensible world diplomatic recognition is not a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval of another regime; if it were and the standards were enforced rigorously we might not have relations with more than a dozen or so countries.

Diplomatic recognition simply acknowledges that a particular government, for better and for worse, has effective control over a piece of territory.

It is also the case that permitting trade with other countries is one of the best ways to promote more liberty, although the pace of such progress (see China) can be halting and unpredictable. But trade, even though it begins under strict state supervision, helps to open up countries that have been isolated from the outside world and in the long run is profoundly subversive of state control.

Vietnamese-Americans and other Americans are correct to complain, in their capacity as citizens, about Vietnam’s continuing shortcomings. But expanding trade and other relations is one way to put effective pressure on the regime to loosen up.