Review: Nothing Is Impossible

Nothing is Impossible: America’s Reconciliation with Vietnam, Ted Osius, Foreword John Kerry. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2021.

Summary: A memoir by former U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam, Ted Osius, describing how a former enemy became one of America’s strongest international partners, and the important role diplomacy played to bring that about.

The story begins with a conversation between two Vietnam veterans on a flight to Kuwait. John McCain, a prisoner of war in Vietnam for six years was sitting with John Kerry, a swift boat captain, highly decorated for his actions in an ambush and later reviled for his testimony questioning America’s war aims. Senators from two different parties began talking about getting accounting of POW/MIA servicemen and the restoration of relations with Vietnam that would facilitate that accounting. Their collaboration led to the passage of a measure re-establishing formal relations during the Clinton administration.

That was just the beginning of rebuilding the trust between these two countries shattered by war. This memoir by former U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam, Ted Osius, gives an account of the diplomatic work that has led to Vietnam now being a strong international partner of the United States, resulting in the recovery of remains of many of those missing in action, cleanup of dioxin sites, honoring of the dead who fought with the U.S. as well as establishing vital trade, defense, and environmental collaboration..

Ted Osius was working in the State Department when the mission was established in Vietnam that preceded full diplomatic relations, working with charge’ d’affaires Desaix Anderson as a junior political officer. His work involved establishing everything from military exchanges to assisting Americans in Vietnam when they needed help. He learned the language of Vietnam, and as a cycling enthusiast, toured the country on bicycle, a practice he continued as ambassador, for the access it gave him to ordinary people. His friendship with John Kerry began when they toured part of the country on bikes. When Pete Peterson, a former POW, became ambassador, he told the team: “You’ll get it right 98 percent of the time. As for the other 2 percent, I’ll eat it!” He urged them to take risks and build a new relationship with Vietnam.

A big part of his work, and a theme running through his efforts, was working with the Vietnamese to establish U.S. and global trade relationships. This involved delicate and ongoing negotiations about labor conditions (a major breakthrough came with reforms at a Nike factory) and human rights. They also began the effort to addressing POW/MIA accounting, and for the Vietnamese, the cleanup of dioxin sites, dioxin a chemical used to clear brush that caused numerous birth defects and other health problems. Another theme was developing a collaboration to counter China’s growing regional influence.

Later, in the Bush administration, he served as a science officer, helping with environmental issues on the Mekong River, with disease prevention (including SARS, which led to Vietnam’s strong public health response to COVID-19). His return to the U.S. brought him in contact with other U.S diplomats who were gay including his husband Clayton Bond. When the ambassador role to Vietnam came open in 2012, around the time of the Obama administration’s shift on marriage equality, it became a serious option to pursue the appointment to Vietnam, the country he had come to love. It took until 2014 but he was appointed.

The latter part of the book describes his bicycle diplomacy and the trust that was built through respecting Vietnamese cultural traditions including releasing carp on the Day of the Kitchen Gods. He worked with the country and U.S. experts in clearing unexploded ordinance from the war and on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. One of the major efforts was to negotiate with Vietnam’s leadership for TPP membership, which would open up the country to global trade. He helped arrange a visit of the party secretary to Washington, and an eventual visit of President Obama to Vietnam, as well as a visit of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. He participated in the establishment of a Fulbright University in Vietnam. And he was able to find a way to renovate the Bien Hoa Cemetery, where many South Vietnamese soldiers were bury in a neglected burial ground, an important desire of Vietnamese-American ex-pats, but politically sensitive.

He stayed into the early Trump administration, when his advice differed from administration priorities, resulting in a sudden replacement. Shortly afterwards, Osius retired from the State Department.

The memoir is an education in the work of an effective ambassador, both representing American policy with due diligence, supporting American business interests and caring for American citizens in country while building respect and trust in the host country. Osius’s willingness to learn the language, cycle the country, honor cultural practices and places, and listen carefully to high officials led to working on military, economic, environmental, and human rights issues. Vietnam became an important partner as both the U.S. and Vietnam faced a growing Chinese presence in the South China Sea. Osius learned and respected the David and Goliath history of Vietnam, that included its defeat of the U.S. in conflict. He learned that we get farther honoring David than reprising Goliath.

Vietnam still honors human rights in the breach but Osius could point to progress. The government is Communist, a single party dominating the government. But during the twenty-year period the book covers, one sees how two former adversaries could develop amicable relations while remaining different. They could work on common interests and try to persuade the other where they differ, while benefiting the people of both countries. That is diplomatic work at its best. Would that it were so everywhere!

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book via Edelweiss from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: American Diplomacy

American Diplomacy, Expanded Edition, George Kennan. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984. (Link is to in-print 60th anniversary edition, 2012).

Summary: A compilation of Kennan’s six Charles R. Walgreen lectures, two articles on US-Soviet relations originally from Foreign Affairs, and two Grinnell lectures.

George F. Kennan (1904-2005) was one of the foremost thinkers, and at times, shapers of American foreign policy. He is perhaps most famous for the “long telegram” in 1946 from Moscow to the American Secretary of State, on how the U.S. should relate to post-war Stalinist Soviet Union. This telegram and two subsequent articles in Foreign Affairs which appear in this volume, served as the intellectual basis of the American policy of containment which prevailed until the end of the former Soviet Union in 1989.

This work actually consist of three parts. The first reviews American diplomacy from the Spanish-American War through World War 2 in six lectures sponsored by the Charles R. Walgreen Foundation. The second part reprints the two Foreign Affairs articles, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” and “America and the Russian Future.” The third part consists of two Grinnell lectures given in 1984, one a retrospective of the Walgreen lectures, and the other a review of American foreign policy in Korea and Vietnam and our present military-industrial complex.

One of the basic threads that runs through the Walgreen lectures is that our diplomacy flowed out of “legalistic-moralistic” foundations or situational, politically shaped responses that lacked “any accepted, enduring doctrine for relating military strength to political policy, and a persistent tendency to fashion our policy toward others with a view to feeding a pleasing image of ourselves rather than to achieving real, and desperately needed results in our relations with others. The lectures start with our war with Spain launched without any clear policy but shaped by popular mood. The second focuses on the “Open Door” policy with China where what appeared to be noble foreign policy poorly apprehended the material interests of the other powers involved. The third lecture looked at our pre-Maoist diplomacy with China and Japan, over-sentimentalizing China, over-vilifying Japan, and failing to work toward a balance of powers between Russia, China, and Japan that may have averted war, and possibly the rise of Communist China (I doubt this, given the corruption of the Chiang Kai-shek government).

In the fourth lecture, he observes the irony of our entering World War 1 because of the violation of our neutrality, and then rationalizing it as a great fight for the values of civilization when in fact we acceded to the gutting of Germany which led to the second war. With the second war, we allowed ourselves to begin at a place of weakness that created the necessity of dependency on Russia and then adopted an idealized vision of the post war future that failed to realistically face the price Russia would exact for its alliance. He concludes for a diplomacy of professionalism and realism rather than a moralistic-legalistic effort to project American ideals.

Part two reflects the working out of Kennan’s ideas in relation to the Soviet Union. He argues that it is vitally important to understand the ideology of the communist conflict with capitalism, the infallibility of the Kremlin and the concordant concentration of power in what amount to a dictatorship. It is here, that recognizing the difficulties of relating to Soviet power, that he contends for a policy of disciplined “containment.” He writes:

“In these circumstances it is clear that the main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies. It is important to note, however, that such a policy has nothing to do with outward histrionics: with threats or blustering or superfluous gestures of outward ‘toughness’ ” (p. 119).

The second article he argues that America should not directly challenge the Soviet Union, but allow it to decay from within, a consequence we watched unfold in the 1980’s.

The first of the Grinnell lectures basically reprises the Walgreen lectures and then considers Korea and Vietnam. He contends that our assessment of Communist global expansionist ambitions to be flawed, especially in Vietnam where he assessed Ho to first of all be a nationalist. In Korea, we failed to reckon with how our military presence in Japan, shutting out the Soviet Union, would be perceived as a threat warranting “consolidation of its military-political position in Korea, with all our efforts costing 54,000 casualties to achieve merely the status quo ante. I find this a bit troubling as he seems to infer that it would be fine if all of the Korean peninsula were communist. I don’t suspect today’s South Koreans, as much as they would like to see the reunification of Korea, would prefer communist rule. But there is an interesting question of whether a different settlement was possible if we had settled things differently with Japan, a historic enemy of Russia.

The second lecture argues that the large scale militarization of the U.S. in the post war reflected mistaken notions of Soviet global conquest and the folly of the nuclear arms race. He argues that having made these dispositions we cannot walk back commitments either to Japan or to NATO. His call is simply for a greater humility in our diplomacy, and that example is more powerful than demand. He hoped a budget of over $250 billion for our military would not be necessary. (Now it is over $750 billion).

I am writing this on the eve of what may be a massive Russian invasion of Ukraine, once part of the former Soviet Union. I cannot help but think of Kennan’s observations about both the communist mindset in Russia, humiliated in 1989, but hardly extinguished, and our lack of steady, professional diplomacy in the years since while the Putin government has been an implacable constant. I’m troubled by the corrosion from within, not of Russia but our own country, and the danger that this could further undermine a steady realism in our foreign policy.

A larger issue that Kennan raises is whether it is possible to have a “moral” diplomacy. One the one hand we may often be deceived by our own claims to morality or blind to other factors in international situations. Yet humility is a moral virtue. The recognition of human dignity inherent in our commitments to democracy is moral. Perhaps this compact volume was not the place to unpack whether a moral, if not moralistic diplomacy is possible. Perhaps we need to turn to his spiritual mentor, Reinhold Niebuhr, to explore these arguments, elaborated in Moral Man and Immoral Society and other works. Whatever we might conclude, Kennan’s call for a professional, unpoliticized and unmilitarized diplomacy that takes develops a long term approach to American diplomacy is worth considering.