Opinion: Vietnam's Democratic Future
“If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” wrote the American revolutionary patriots Alexander Hamilton and James Madison in the Federalist Papers. And right now, the Vietnamese government must make a choice of what kind of government it wants. No angels will bring it. Squeezed between China and the United States, Vietnam is mired in a state of uncertainty. It can formally ally with its neighbor to the north—the primary antagonist in the South China Sea maritime and territorial disputes—or the US.
The Vietnamese people have expressed their opposition to China while the Communist government struggles to keep the peace with their neighbor. If the government is to base its decision on politics, the answer becomes muddled in short-term gains, self-interested parties, and self-preservation.
But if the decision is based on, say, the long-term well-being of the people and the country, the answer becomes a little bit clearer. First where does Vietnam expect to be in the future? And two, what can it do to achieve its objective? As an interested observer with deep ties to Vietnam, I believe any decision must take into account the future liberty, peace, and prosperity of the Vietnamese people.
As such, I believe Vietnam must look towards the US for assistance and support going into the future.
Challenges from within
Formally embracing the US, however, may not prove easy or acceptable, either to China or the Vietnamese Communists, both for different reasons.
For China, the concern is simple and fairly reasonable: a Western-oriented Vietnam would be perceived in Beijing as being nothing more than a foothold for US activities and interests in East Asia, an encroachment into China’s backyard. Chinese sentiments would likely match those in the US during the Cold War when Cuba aligned with the Soviet Union. Yet it is unlikely that China will abandon diplomatic relations with Vietnam, regardless of the latter’s list of friends. Rather, the real obstacle in this affair will not be China but the government of Vietnam itself.
In a single-party state, the status quo as it relates to governance is always preferred. Economic policies can change, but there is little reason to change and upset the establishment. Democracy as principle, however, doesn’t simply require change; it embraces change. It allows the people to take command of their future by voting into office they believe are best capable of representing their interests, and provides for the voting out of those politicians who cannot or have failed. For Vietnam to be a truly prosperous and free nation, it must change; and this change cannot come about until the status quo—a single-party state governing a nation under the ideology of a few—is abolished.
Is this radical? Why yes, indeed it is, but only the idea.
Political reform, however, needn’t be radical. It needn’t occur overnight (and if it did, such change would be unlikely to endure). But reform does need to occur. Whether next week, next month, or next year, there needs to be a plan for change. Unfortunately, there are some who people don’t want to change.
Under the single-party rule of the Communist Party of Vietnam, the free will of citizens is arbitrarily limited by an institution that is accountable to no one but itself. Talk of democracy or criticizing the government on human rights issues can be met with jail or unreasonable fines. The people are not the masters of their destiny, at least not within such an oppressive environment. In the West, words like “freedom” and “liberty” are used as punch lines. In countries like Vietnam, these words have very real meaning.
However, short of a revolution, under the current regime it’s unlikely that the Vietnamese people will ever truly experience liberty.
Again, it doesn’t have to be this way, and there are practical reasons why the Vietnamese government should consider changing. While a single-party state has the advantage of being able to act or react quickly, as it does not need to consult its citizens or opposition parties on the matter, it is at a disadvantage when adapting to fluid situations.
Where leaders in a democracy can obtain and act upon the advice of different viewpoints from different ideologies, single-party leaders are almost always restricted to the limited diversity within their group, all adhering to the same ideology. It might be easier to reach a consensus in a one-party state, but it lacks the flexibility to prepare for and adapt to a diversity of challenges.
If the Vietnamese government truly believes China to be a threat to its national security—recent military purchases and upgrades to defense technologies seem to suggest that this is true—then it will benefit from consulting a multitude of different minds rather than working with a limited, likeminded pool of advisors. In any conflict, predictability is never a good thing.
Democracy is in the best interest of the Vietnamese people, and who better to assist a transitional Vietnam than the United States. While the US does offer a certain security umbrella against foreign threats, it is instead the wealth of experience in maintaining a democracy that Vietnam should seek.
The US offers a glimpse into the difficulties of operating a democratic government. We need only look at the current dysfunction in the US Congress to see that democracy, while beautiful, can also be quite ugly. Having many voices all speaking at once, all demanding to be heard, and all insisting that they are right, can be problematic when these voices refuse to cooperate, thereby jeopardizing not only the future of the country but the lives of its citizens.
But Vietnam can avoid all of this, using the US as guide regarding what to do and not do. The US government has offered numerous examples where a democratic government has succeeded and failed. Drawing from these lessons, Vietnam can properly establish a democratic form of government and constitution that is equipped to deal with these problems. They needn’t copy the US form of government word for word; rather, they could improve upon it. Here is a chance to take what can be great and make it even better.
By learning from those who have gone before, Vietnam has the benefit of instituting a democracy with all the necessary safeguards, checks and balances, and provisions for the creation of an efficient and effective government. As was once stated by former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”
For these changes to occur, however, the current government must be ready and willing. When borders between countries are increasingly blurred in this Internet age, the Vietnamese people are no longer isolated from their global brothers and sisters. They have seen what they can and cannot have, and the improprieties and failures of their government. One need only look at the Arab Spring to see the effects of such realizations.
In time, there will be change in Vietnam. The Communist Party can be a part of this change, or it can be left behind. It is time for the leaders of Vietnam to take command of their destiny. What kind of Vietnam do they wish to live in, and are they prepared to make the necessary sacrifices?
(Khanh VU DUC is a Vietnamese Canadian lawyer in Ottawa, focusing on various areas of law. He researches on International Relations and International Law. He serves as President of the VDK Law Office and the VDK Investment Consulting Group.)