If you’ve been listening this week, you’ve heard the echo of past U.S. wars in Asia, and also — when you boil it down to its essence — an argument about how to avoid them in the future.
Forty years ago today, the Vietnam War ended. The trauma continued long afterwards for many Americans, Vietnamese, Hmong, Cambodians and Laotians. For far too many, it still does today. But the fighting was over on April 30, 1975, and the U.S. was left to search its soul about a war of choice that it lost at huge cost.
If you need any reminder, there have been an ample number of television specials this week. Briefly, you also can look at the BBC gallery built from an exhibit of Associated Press photography currently on display in London. Several of the images are among the most iconic war photos of all time. Decades later, they still have the power to shock.
On Wednesday, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe addressed a joint session of Congress, an event that would have seemed preposterous 70 years ago in the closing months of World War II. Abe expressed “profound respect” and “eternal condolences” for U.S. troops who died in the war, and acknowledged Japan’s responsibility for Asia’s suffering during the conflict. But he did not satisfy critics who were looking for a more direct apology for the enslavement of Asian “comfort women” by Japanese soldiers.
(As if that isn’t enough war history, today is also the 70th anniversary of Hitler’s suicide in the closing days of the war in Europe.)
While the U.S. and its allies clearly triumphed in World War II and established an order that would hold for decades, there long has been an interesting debate about the legacy of Vietnam. As this Economist column points out, President Ford was quite right to say in April 1975 that events in Vietnam didn’t amount to “the end of the world, or America’s leadership in the world.”
Other Asian “dominoes” didn’t fall. Perhaps they never really were in danger. But the same analysis quotes the late leader of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, as saying the U.S. was in Vietnam long enough to allow other Asia countries to build the capability to withstand communism on their own.
Today, the issues are China and trade, which puts the focus on something more prosaic than war – the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, a proposed trade agreement among the U.S. and 11 other Asia-Pacific countries. Among them are Vietnam and Japan – testament to regional worries about China’s growing power and America’s ability to make friends of former enemies (remember this when it come to Iran and Cuba). Abe, the Japanese prime minister, was in Washington this week to argue for it.
As The Glean pointed out Wednesday, this is a hugely controversial deal, with organized labor opposed because of the potential for job losses, and business largely in favor. Many Democrats are angry about how hard President Obama is pressing ahead with it despite their opposition.
It might very well be true that some Americans will lose their jobs if TPP is approved. But there also is another way to look at it.
China appears intent on supplanting the U.S. over time as the strongest power in the Pacific, a development that would have its own unpleasant consequences – economic and otherwise. The U.S. does not have a great track record in recognizing and reacting to such challenges. Few in an isolationist and economically depressed era really thought Japan would attack, bringing the United States into World War II. On the other hand, The U.S. overreacted to the threat of communism in the 1960s and plunged headlong into Vietnam.
Since diplomacy is almost always preferable to war, one way of looking at the Trans-Pacific Partnership is as an effort to reach U.S. goals in the region by find a middle ground between isolation and aggressiveness — both of which failed in the past.
It’s the political argument rather than the economics of the deal that New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman finds particularly compelling. In this analysis, he argues that the world needs the stability such agreements provide, and that it’s U.S., Japan and their allies – not China and Russia – who need to be setting the global ground rules.
As the debate on the Trans-Pacific Partnership heats up, there will quite rightly be plenty of debate about its impact on U.S. workers. But it’s also worth judging whether it meets what could be called the Goldilocks standard of foreign policy – one that is neither too soft nor too hard, but will position the U.S. for the 21st century in the Asia-Pacific region.