What is foreign policy? Example: Vietnam

23 Nov 1961 --- President Kennedy gives a press conference on the situation in Southeast Asia.  He stands at a podium next to a large map of Vietnam showing the areas held by communist rebels. --- Image by © CORBIS

23 Nov 1961 — President Kennedy gives a press conference on the situation in Southeast Asia. He stands at a podium next to a large map of Vietnam showing the areas held by communist rebels. — Image by © CORBIS

Do you know what foreign policy is? If you do, you might not want to read … or you will because I’m entertaining.

Why write about this? Because debates about foreign policy are all over the place, and, I would say, it’s useful to know what’s going on beyond domestic borders; and eventually the policy has an impact on what happens in the economy, with the military, and on the news.

Hammer time:


Foreign policy, an explanation:

OK, so you know the difference between domestic and international politics because I wrote about it. … or you already know. There is a difference, and the difference is that there is generally a lack of order in the international system, and thus international politics is in a condition of anarchy.

Foreign policy is the strategy (not tactic **) used to achieve national-interest goals.

And what are the goals of the United States? To secure life, liberty, property (domestically speaking), and to promote trade internationally (because free trade is the key to prosperity). However, these goals CAN change according to the leadership (the president and administration), and they have.


** Strategy is a set of goals to achieve something (with relation to foreign policy, it’s the preservation of national interests). By contrast, tactics are the things you do or implement to achieve those goals. Strategy is the longer-term plan, and tactics are the tools to achieve the plan.


So how can you achieve foreign policy goals? Lots of ways. You can set trade tariffs, have wars, maintain and develop diplomatic correspondence, write treaties, make gentleman’s agreements, implement sanctions, conduct overt or covert actions, intervene during times of crisis if needed, and a whole lot of other stuff. The real goal in foreign policy is to trace it back to the national interest.

If a foreign policy is effective, then the tactics (actions) should theoretically progress some interest of the United States? … Although sometimes the theory doesn’t match what happens in the real world.


VIETNAM WAR: an example of foreign policy

The Vietnam War is an example of evolving American foreign policy between administrations:

Why was there a war in Vietnam?

The war’s justification was to stop a “domino” effect in Indochina.

The fear was that once Vietnam became a Communist government, the rest of the countries in the region would fall as well. This, in turn, would be a Chinese/Soviet victory if you look at the larger picture.

And what would happen if there were more Communist countries? Less trade — that’s for sure. Why? Because Communist economies are command economies (economies centrally planned by the government). Also, Communist economies are in direct opposition to free-trade principles, and these economies are tightly controlled as opposed to being relatively free. So the worry was that once Indochina fell to Communism, that would give greater momentum for the greater Communist global victory.

Foreign policy options:

So it’s in the national interest to stop Communism from spreading. Great, now how do you stop it?

Well, you could have diplomatically tried to resolve the situation and put someone in power who was western-friendly. Ho Chi Minh was a dude who wanted a Vietnam that was free of colonial rule (the French finally left in ’49 after a Communist-backed revolution in the north). He was educated in France, and booted them French out!

1) Back Ho Chi Mihn:

Ho liked the US Constitutional language, and was pretty inspired.

Regardless, the US wasn’t about to side with him to kick out the French (an ally of the US, PLUS everyone agreed that Vietnam belonged to the French after WWII), so Ho went with the Communist (Chinese) option — after all, you needed support (money, weapons, training) to beat the FRENCH.

So the United States COULD have prevented a Communist state, but couldn’t when considering the alliance problems. It was safe to say that the diplomatic option wouldn’t work, because he was already allied with the Communists anyway.

2) Help the French defeat Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh:

OK, so no backing Minh. Now what?

What ended up happening was the Minh’s communist-backed forces (the Viet Minh) took control of the north, and the southern government was backed by Great Britain and the US.

So there was a standoff, and president Eisenhower started sending money and weapons to the south to help the French. Eventually a warship with a few tactical nuclear weapons was sent to the Gulf of Tonkin to cool things down.

So the foreign policy at this time was to back the south and make credible threats to the north — because diplomacy wouldn’t work (there was a war already), and the US didn’t want to commit ground troops (the Korean War was going down).

3) Concession: Create a Communist north and democratic south (17th parallel):

Vietnam was split in half, and a formal border was created at the 17th parallel. Citizens had a few hundred days to choose a side.

North: Up north there was a “land reform,” and lots of landlords were executed (because everything belonged to the state now). Then Ho Chi Minh reduced rent for the poor people and made communal villages in the countryside.

South: The guy in charge in the south (Diem) was pretty mean as well — he sent the military to religious opposition groups and eliminated any opposition (he was Catholic), and he also rigged elections. Diem also eliminated any communists in the south.

So things were rough around this time. But around this time US foreign policy supported the south as opposed to the Communist north.

… complications …

BUT, there were angry people in the south, and they organized as a rebel group. They called themselves the National Liberation Front, but the other name is the VietCong (VC). The north caught wind of this insurgency, and supported, trained, funded, and strategically planned for a southern takeover.

… Eventually the formal northern army invaded the south.

4) Fortify southern villages, and let them fight the northern Communists:

Man. This sucks.

Now Kennedy is president, and he is dealing with the Korean war, AND he failed to overthrow Castro at the Bay of Pigs. He needed a PR boost, and the US needed an edge over the Communists.

What is the policy? Support Diem fully, and hopefully he defeats the northern army (VietMihn) as well as the VietCong rebels. So Diem and the US had the idea to fortify and arm all the villages so that the north couldn’t even get to them (this was called the Strategic Hamlet Program).

Eventually people got mad with Diem, and southern military generals contacted the CIA to ask if they could get help removing Diem from office.

There were lots of messages, but what ended up happening is Diem and his brother were overthrown and executed in a CIA-backed coup. Kennedy was mad because he didn’t authorize an execution. Then the CIA advised Kennedy that the VietCong controlled most of the south.

Kennedy was shot shortly after all this. Lyndon Johnson takes over.

5) Commit troops to Vietnam:

One of those boats in the Gulf of Tonkin allegedly was attacked (now debated) … this is what changed the United State’s foreign policy in Vietnam.

Congress gave approval for Johnson to take actions without formally declaring war (this is why it can be done today *cough* Bush).

Foreign policy finally called for military action (although CIA “advisers” had been in the area for quite some time). It started with 2,000 troops or so, and ballooned over the years to hundreds of thousands. The military strategy was heavy on bombing campaigns as well as covert action (Operation Phoenix). While around 60,000 US troops died, around 1-3 million civilians died.


Evolution of foreign policy:

After that history lesson, we can see the evolution of how policy changes.

First, the United States took a hands-off position — mostly because the US wanted to end the Korean War (which technically is still going on). However, this position changed once the US and Britain assumed that Communist intentions were to take the whole of Indochina.

But, what were the goals? Through all of this, you have to keep in mind the core goals of the policy. What does ensuring Vietnam have elections and private property rights allow?

First, it allows free trade, which is what the US really wants all over the place. Second, it allows classical liberal ideas of life, liberty, and property to spread; as opposed to community and command economy ideas. Ultimately, a democratic Vietnam is good for them as well as us … according to the logic.

So was there a clear enough logic to justify an escalating ground war with US involvement? That’s what’s always debated. Was the war in line with the United States’ interests? That’s always the debate within foreign policy — does this actually help achieve what the US actually wants in the world? Also, more importantly, does it protect the United States itself?

This is why the second Iraq war is so controversial. The logic is pretty obscure when looking at Iraq in 2003.

How did invading Iraq help secure the United States’ interests of free trade?

I would say that the Bush logic is similar to Bill Clinton’s view of American foreign policy. In this view, it isn’t what matters to the United States that’s most important; rather, the question becomes: What should the wealthiest, most-powerful country in the world be expected to do for others? Is the United States only responsible for itself, or should it try and make the world better in other regions and countries? After all, no country in the world has ever had as much wealth as the United States.

So just like Bill Clinton’s (failed) humanitarian interventions in Somalia and the Yugoslav wars, George Bush saw a case where he could both help the US position (oil, free trade) and liberate people. Bush wanted to enhance the US position in the Middle East while (after the fact) promoting democracy, and Bill Clinton tried to stop mass human disasters.

Obama by and large takes a hands-off approach. Instead of intervening or invading, Obama prefers sanctions and diplomacy to enhance the US position (this is called “soft power” sometimes because it isn’t concrete force). Also, he favors drone strikes to boots-on-ground troops when combating terrorist groups (although there are creeping numbers of troops going to Iraq — and probably more if the Iraqis can’t get a hold of the ISIS situation).


FYI: Sanctions are aimed at targeting high-profile people’s foreign assets, or altering (restricting) trade. The idea is that if you can induce pressure stemming from high-profile people, and citizens, then leaders will change policy stances. Does it work? Eh, mixed results. I don’t think Putin cares what restrictions or pressures the US exerts.


At the end of the day, the foreign policy (the strategy to secure national interests) is largely set by the president (but Senate can do stuff too). Also, foreign policy tactics are crafted by economists, military, the state department, the CIA (and intelligence community), contractors, and whoever else has input on foreign affairs. The president can in turn use these options as tools for his (or her?) strategy in foreign policy.

Also, increasingly, there are more organizations and ideas that shape foreign policy. Now, transnational corporations have say in foreign policy — because they’re entrenched in so many countries. Also, there are human rights groups and other NGOs who give information to decision makers every day.

Well, I think this post has been a bit different than some my others, but hopefully the ideas transferred reasonably well.

CHEERS!

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6 thoughts on “What is foreign policy? Example: Vietnam

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