Biden’s Emphasis On Soft Power And What It Means For Vietnam’s Democracy Movement

Dan Nguyen
Dan Nguyen

President Joe Biden has repeatedly emphasised “soft power” in his foreign policy speeches. Will this policy work in Vietnam? And how will it affect Vietnam’s democracy movement?

Biden’s emphasis on soft power: what’s in store for Vietnam and should one believe it?

It’s almost a year into Joe Biden’s presidency. Throughout his tenure, two keywords, “relentless diplomacy” and “soft power,” have echoed in every corner where US foreign policy is concerned: from the ending of the “forever war” in Afghanistan to the reorganisation of trans-Atlantic relations, and to engagement with Asia. The challenges for which President Biden will implement his “relentless diplomacy” and “soft power” approach are, in short, the covid pandemic, climate change, and China[1].

Vietnamese readers can be assured of Biden’s serious interest in Asia by, amongst others, the appointment of a competent expert Kurt Campbell [2] as the White House coordinator for the Indo-Pacific region, US support for Taiwan and its alliance with Japan, vaccine donations, and, most recently, Vice President Kamala Harris’ visit to the region and Vietnam specifically.

Regarding China, Biden’s promise [3] of “fighting corruption, defending against authoritarianism, and advancing human rights” will be arguably the most effective tool for the United States in the realm of soft power. Economic and military strength notwithstanding, the Chinese regime is infamous for its authoritarian governance and long record of human rights violations. Ironically, China’s military strength, as observed in its actions in the South China Sea, makes its draconian image even more despicable.

By contrast, the era of Pax Americana, despite criticisms of US imperialism, has built an overall image of the United States as a promoter of human rights and democracy. Although the recent Afghanistan debacle has damaged the reputation of the United States, Biden has been quick to assert [4] that the new era of US foreign policy will be about “lifting people up around the world” and “renewing and defending democracy”.

Speaking of Pax Americana, Biden’s emphasis on “soft power” and “relentless diplomacy” happens in a context different than that of American leaders of the past who boasted about a US “moral imperative” and “doing the right thing” only to turn a cold shoulder to their allies when the tide of geopolitics turned. In the post-Americana era, despite Biden’s denial/rejection [5] of the imminent “China-US Cold War”,  it is widely recognised (as indicated by the US “pivot to Asia”[6]) that US national interests depend on whether or not the United States can counter China’s plays in Asia. As such, one can expect Biden’s words to have substance rather than just simply paying lip service.

Biden’s “soft power” in Vietnam: the state-versus-people conundrum

When it comes to China and human rights, there is a clear distinction between the perspectives of the Vietnamese state and the Vietnamese people. At the most basic level, Vietnamese leaders have little to no concern for the interests of their people because their positions are not determined by voters. Vietnam’s election is well known for being a farce [7].

The divergence between the Vietnamese public and the Vietnamese government on China could not be clearer. When the government approved a bauxite project related to China in 2009, the Vietnamese people signed a petition to oppose it. When the people took to the streets in the early years of the 2010s to oppose China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, the government cracked down on these protests and detained several protesters. When the Special Economic Zone bill was announced, it was perceived by the Vietnamese public as giving questionable privileges to China and also was seen as a threat to Vietnam’s national security. As a result, massive protests broke out in the streets in 2018 and the bill was shelved as a result.

Most recently, the use of China’s COVID vaccines in Vietnam has been met with public resistance and fierce criticism of the government. Anti-China protesters’ shouts of, “Coward to the enemy, cruel to the people!” (“Hèn với giặc, ác với dân!”), is precisely the Vietnamese people’s attitude towards their government on China.

At this point, one may argue: “But the Vietnamese government has also spoken up against China many times, so it cannot be as pro-China as the above-mentioned events indicate.” This is true and quite a few analyses [8] have highlighted the stake for the Vietnamese government in playing US-China politics wisely instead of simply bowing to China. However, it is important to understand that when Vietnamese leaders do stand up to China, it is often “all bark and no bite.”[9] More importantly, whether Vietnamese leaders shake hands with Biden or with Xi, or play the superpowers off against each other, they do so first and foremost based on their, or the Communist Party’s, own interest [10], rather than on the interests of the country and the people.

Thus, it is highly unlikely that the United States will find a true ally in the Vietnamese government in its state-to-state diplomacy against China. Because of this, the US will also find it difficult to tap into the Vietnamese public’s anti-China sentiment. Hanoi has shown little to no concern about how Vietnamese citizens feel or about what they want, and it has unreservedly deployed force to quell anti-China protests and online dissent in the past.

The road to promoting human rights in Vietnam does not seem promising either, especially the rights to free speech, peaceful assembly, association, and fair trial. The promise of US leaders to “respect Vietnam’s political system” [11] seems rather odd because the very existence and stability of Vietnam’s political system rest on the suppression of exactly those rights. The relentless arrests of people who speak critically of the government on their Facebook pages and of those who ran as independent candidates in the lead-up to the May 2021 national election are just some examples.

What has played out so far in the field of human rights does not show much innovation. State-to-state talks about the situation of human rights in the country, assistance for specific high-profile activists who have been arrested and who are on trial, and US leaders holding meetings with local activists are all par for the course. It remains to be seen if Biden’s administration will open a new chapter of human rights promotion through public diplomacy or if it will lead to more of the same: the worsening of human rights and democratic freedoms in Vietnam.

Public diplomacy and soft power: a look into the books

The term “public diplomacy” was first coined in 1965 by Edmund Gullion, founder of the Edward R. Murrow Center of Public Diplomacy at Tufts University (Cull, 2009) [12]. Definitions vary but all agree that public diplomacy is a foreign policy practice entailing nation A engaging with the public of nation B in order to influence B’s foreign policy through bottom-up pressure to A’s advantage (Bettie, 2014) [13]. In short, it is about image projection and national branding, which is distinctly different from traditional diplomacy which consists of state-to-state engagement.

In the work of historian Nicholas J. Cull (2008) [14], activities that count as public diplomacy include (1) presenting new policy ideas to the foreign public (i.e., advocacy), (2) exportation of culture to foreign countries as well as two-way cultural exchanges, and (3) international broadcasting (i.e., reaching a foreign public through mass media).

While public diplomacy can be understood as a channel of persuasion, soft power is the content that gives a nation the power to persuade the foreign public. Prominent soft power scholar, Joseph S. Nye Jr., defines soft power as the attractiveness of a nation that lies in its culture, including its language, arts, cuisine, institutions, brands, and moral values (Nye, 2008) [15]. Soft power goes hand-in-hand with public diplomacy, as “public diplomacy tries to attract by drawing attention to these potential resources through broadcasting, subsidizing cultural exports, arranging exchanges, and so forth” (Nye, 2008, p. 95) [16].

Soft power may also be drawn from hard power. The presence of US military forces in the South China Sea to aid countries bullied by China communicates certain moral values to the people of those countries. However, underlying such a presence in the more complex and pragmatic interests of the United States than simply a normative or moral stance.

Using the above discussion on public diplomacy and soft power, how would President Biden’s plans for Vietnam measure up? What would his roadmap navigating the state-versus-people conundrum in the country look like?

Evaluating Biden’s diplomacy and navigating Vietnam’s state-versus-people conundrum

Biden’s words promise a new era of US diplomacy, but his actions so far still seem to be following classic state-to-state diplomacy and militaristic intervention more than what is prescribed for public diplomacy and soft power.

Furthermore, public diplomacy has always been a component in US foreign policy in previous administrations through supporting local registered civil society organisations and non-formal oppositional actors. Thus, with Biden’s emphasis on “soft power,” his administration will disappoint if over the next few years it rehashes many or most of the previous administrations’ actions; this old approach is effectively circumscribed by the state-versus-people conundrum mentioned earlier.

However, the good news for the United States is that despite the disastrous presidency of Donald Trump and the many upheavals in US politics and society, public opinion [17] in Vietnam is still in favour of the United States, especially when compared to China. The soft power is already there.

As Vietnamese people have grown increasingly more concerned about Hong Kong and Taiwan, their opinion will also be shaped by how the United States intervenes in the Taiwan – China situation. The collapse of Hong Kong has done serious damage to the image of the West, but it is still looking good on the Taiwan front. In addition, the story of Taiwan is not just about standing up to China; it is also about nation-building and the nationalistic pride of a people who chose democracy over dictatorship.

In summary, US soft power in/over Vietnam will come from the stories of human rights, democracy of the US itself, and its defence of Taiwan against China. This soft power will come across even stronger if US public diplomacy also promotes Taiwan as the protagonist in the region, as a counter to Chinese politics, and as an inspiring story of Asian democratisation. These narratives will further widen the gap between Vietnamese hearts and minds and China, while simultaneously raising aspirations for democratisation amongst the Vietnamese people. In doing so, the United States will also not give a reason for the Vietnamese state-owned media to be hostile towards democratisation and the Vietnamese democracy movement. State propaganda cannot accuse America of imposing Western political ideas and values, nor of hypocrisy and one-upmanship if the US approaches the issue in this way.

Having said earlier that the Vietnamese government has shown little to no concern about the Vietnamese people’s anti-China sentiments and that it uses brute force against human rights and democracy activists, what is the point of raising aspirations for democratisation and being critical of China? The point to be made is precisely about the kind of mass awareness and feeling of efficacy that will translate into the political agency and oppositional collective action. Old school public diplomacy has come short of this task and has failed to help the Vietnam democracy movement gain strength in numbers.

My conversations with prominent activists in Vietnam’s human rights and democracy movement show that the seemingly invincible power of the Vietnamese government to repress dissent, the crackdown on protests, and carry on with unpopular policies, comes from the fact that the human rights and democracy movement is small in number and that the majority of the public lack the theoretical scaffolding to help them translate their discontent with the government and nationalistic sentiment into coherent and organised demand for democratisation.

This article, written from my perspective as a Vietnamese, a scholar, and a supporter of collective action towards democracy for Vietnam, has suggested a few ways for American diplomats and foreign policy experts to walk President Biden’s talk.

Meanwhile, Luat Khoa Tap Chi, a well-respected independent news outlet that serves Vietnamese readers, has already beefed up its column on Taiwan as an inspiring example of democracy for the Vietnamese. The comrades of Luat Khoa are also planning their next step, with Taiwan and mass awareness at the core of their strategy. The Biden administration, with the aim of utilizing soft power, should not miss this opportunity to work with them.

Bibliography:

  1. Ash, T., G. (2020, 7 Nov). What will President Biden’s United States look like to the rest of the world? The Guardian.
  2. Green, M., J. (2021, 13 Jan). Biden makes his first bold move on Asia. The Guardian.
  3. Tran, B., T. (2021, 3 Jun). No Trade-off: Biden can both Deepen US-Vietnam Ties and Promote Human Rights. United States: Center for Strategic and International Studies.
  4. Borger, J. (2021, 21 Sep). Biden promises end to ‘relentless war’ and start of ‘relentless diplomacy’. The Guardian.
  5. ibid.
  6. ibid.
  7. Vu, A. & Gerin, R. (2021, 21 May). Vietnam goes to the polls with state-approved candidates offering little choice. Radio Free Asia.
  8. Nguyen, T., T., Q. (2021, 30 Sep). Trans-Pacific partner membership and the love triangle of Vietnam – Taiwan – China. The Vietnamese.
  9. Reed, A. (2021, 14 Mar). The enemy of my enemy: tensions between the US, China, and Vietnam. The Vietnamese.
  10. ibid.
  11. Tran, B., T. (2021, 3 Jun). No Trade-off: Biden can both Deepen US-Vietnam Ties and Promote Human Rights. United States: Center for Strategic and International Studies.
  12. Cull, N. (2009). Public Diplomacy Before Gullion: the Evolution of a Phrase. In: Snow, N. and Taylor, P. (eds). Routledge Handbook of Public Diplomacy (pp. 19-23). Tayler & Francis.
  13. Bettie, M., L. (2014). The Fulbright program and American public diplomacy (unpublished doctoral thesis). The University of Leeds, Leeds, United Kingdom.
  14. Cull, N. (2008). The Cold War and the United States Information Agency. Cambridge:Cambridge University Press.
  15. Nye, J. (2008). Public diplomacy and soft power. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 616, pp. 94-109.
  16. ibid.
  17. Seah, S. et al., (2021). The state of Southeast Asia: 2021. Singapore: ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute.
Opinion-SectionHuman RightsPoliticsdemocracyVietnam

Dan Nguyen

Dan is currently a researcher based in Scotland and supported by European Commission's Horizon 2020 Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions grant. Dan's academic and activism interests are centred on civil soc