Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Winning the Vietnam War

Last September I put up a post with the deliberately provocative title "Has Wall Street Finally Won the Vietnam War?" It was based on a New York Times report by Seth Mydans on the apparent embrace of a globalized market economy by Vietnamese culture. The title I selected was elaborated in the following passage from my post:

… when it comes to appreciating the consequences of globalization, Mydans found one Vietnamese woman who seems to have swallowed an entire pitcher of the Kool-Aid and is willing to talk about how she now feels. The woman is Do Thanh Huong; and she committed to a three-fold embrace of globalization. She has two shops in Hanoi, one for fabrics and the other a clothing boutique, and also runs an export business. What she has to say is valid on all three of those fronts:

When people don’t buy in New York, we feel the effects in the village here.

Reading those words in the context that Mydans created for them, I suddenly realized that the financial sector of the United States managed to do to Vietnam what our military forces never succeeded in doing. Decades after the fighting ended, the embassy was evacuated, and peace was concluded, Wall Street won the Vietnam War for us.

I found myself thinking about these words this morning while reading Jonathan Mirsky's review for The New York Review of BBC reporter Bill Hayton's new book, Vietnam: Rising Dragon. It began when the following quote from Hayton's text caught my eye:

… many Vietnamese who fought the war find themselves trapped in voiceless rage. They know why they fought, they know what they and their fellows suffered, they know how unjust it felt—but they're banned from expressing any of it in public because the Party has decided that the country needs the support and resources of the United States.

I realized that I had encountered the dark side of an argument I had previously suggested that ideological differences could be resolved through simple acts of doing business. At the time I was writing about Barack Obama deciding to raise the issue of "universal rights" in a question-and-answer session with Chinese students in Shanghai. I suggested that it was unlikely that this (or any other) act could lead to any "shared agreement" between China and the United States on a human rights policy and that seeking such an agreement might be counterproductive. I proposed an alternative approach:

Yet business goes on, because business runs through negotiations, rather than agreements to accept universal truths. Those who succeed in business tend to be those who succeed in communicating; and communication involves engaging with a wide variety of interests (suppliers, partners, customers, competitors, etc.), each of which requires different communicative strategies, tactics, and actions. Like it or not, worldviews and value systems differ; and we probably understand more about how the diversity of life forms has evolved than we do about the emergence of such differing views of humanity itself. We should definitely see to our own interests and values, but that is likely to involve negotiation with those who do not share them. Negotiation, in turn, is more about being able to get things done, rather than whether or not one worldview can "win" over another. To a great extent the history of the world is a chronicle at just how poor we have been at such negotiation. Can we look back at our track record for getting it wrong and start thinking about getting it right for a change?

While I may still accept the validity of this argument, it has interesting social implications. Most important is Hayton's observation that the Vietnamese Communist Party has only one priority, which is staying in power. When you think about it, this is also the priority of any large business: Controlling a market is simply a euphemistic way to describe controlling a population. In both Vietnam and China we have a Communist Party that sees great value doing business with the United States, regardless of any fundamental Marxist ideologies about businesses and markets, while on this side of the equation we have a government ideology that what is good for Wall Street (including those businesses that are "too big to fail") is good for the country as a whole.

Yes, we do not have to talk about moral values when we talk about business; and it would be simplistic to reduce this to asking whether or not this is "a good thing." The problem is that we run the risk of accepting the corollary that nothing is to be gained from talking about values at all. I see this as a sacrifice of our "American identity" (assuming that we have not sacrificed it already); so I suppose the conclusion is that we need to be more aware that negotiation does not have to entail giving up such an identity for the sake of doing better business. On the other hand the reason I inserted that parenthesis is that it may be too late to accept this conclusion. We may have already given up our identity while under the influence of the Kool-Aid of globalization, and we may now discover that recovering it is no easy matter.

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