Goodbye Saigon!

30 april 2005

It’s 30 years since a North Vietnamese tank crashed through the gates of the Presidential Palace in Saigon in what was then South Vietnam.

It was the symbolic end of a long and painful war, and a humiliation in the extreme for the United States. That war had cost the US armed forces 58 000 dead, but its opponent had lost 1,4 million men, and its South Vietnamese allies 250 000 dead.

Who was right and who was wrong in that war that dominated so much of the discussions in the West during the 1960s’s and early 1970’s?

In one fundamental sense, it is obvious that the United States misread the entire situation.

Looking through the lenses of the day, they saw the Communist insurgence in the South of the divided Vietnam as an expression of a wave of monolithic Communist domination that would risk sweeping through Southeast Asia and beyond if not stopped.

These were the days of containment, and that strategy made it necessary to take a stand wherever what was seen to be an expression of either Soviet or Communist Chinese power tried to advance.

In a way, the escalating involvement in Vietnam was the concrete expression of the famous words of John Kennedy in his inaugural speech 1961 that the United States was ready to ”pay any price, bear any burden… support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty.”

In retrospect, it is obvious that the United States was up against the forces of indigenous nationalism far more than the forces of creeping communist imperialism.

Since the fall of Saigon in 1975, Communism hasn’t made any advances in the region. On the contrary, we have seen the policies of capitalism creeping into the societies that once proclaimed that they were going to do something entirely different.

When visiting Saigon – everyone said Saigon, hardly anyone Ho Chi Minh City – a decade ago I sometimes wondered who really had won the war. It was a bustling city, eager to open up to the world, commercial in the extreme and certainly looking for its models and ideals in the United States more than anywhere else.

But if the United States turned out to be wrong in warning for the dangers of dominoes falling to Communism all over the region, the propaganda from the other side looks equally hollow with the distance of the decades.

Those marching the streets of the West in those days declared their support for a democratic South Vietnam, said it had nothing to do with Communism and denied there was any direction or involvement from Hanoi.

But in the end it was the divisions of the regular North Vietnamese army that in its rapid offensive in the spring of 1975 caused the sudden collapse of the regime in Saigon. No less than 13 divisions of the NVA took part in the final assualt on Saigon.

And immediately after taking power, it was obvious that it was Hanoi that was in command, that democracy was distinctly not on the agenda, that a unification under the leadership of the North was going to be enforced and that a Communist dictatorship should be extended over the entire country.

It did not last long until we started to see the boats with desperate people trying to flee the repression and poverty of the Vietnam. Suddenly, the Communist take-over presented the world with a huge refugee crisis as people did whatever they could to get away from ”re-education camps”, repression and economic collapse that followed the imposition of socialist policies in the South.

In the immediate years after 1975, approximately one million people risked the dangereous waters of the South China Sea to seek a new future in other parts of the world.

At the same time as a million people fled, those faces of the former National Front for Liberation that had been so active in drumming up support in the outside world disappeared. There was no room for the democrats of the South when the communists of the North took over.

Vietnam remains a Communist dictatorship today, although hardly one trying to extend its reach. Its regime still struggles with the question of far it dares to reform and open up, but at the end of the day knows that it hasn’t much of an alternative.

A period of reform in between 1985 and 1996 has been followed by a period in which the more dogmatic forces have called the tune. The old men in Hanoi are still trying to restrict the forces of reform, thereby significantly reducing the possibilities of the talented and charming people of Vietnam to reach its potential.

Communism has been a tragedy in Vietnam – North and South – in the same way as it has been in the rest of the world.

The United States is looking back on the war in Vietnam as a gigantic mistake, driven by the logic of the Cold War.

But those that marched in the streets of the West during the years of the war – speaking about their support for liberation, national self-determination and democracy – were in many ways equally misguided and mistaken.

Putin and the History and Future of Russia

27 april 2005

President of Russia

I’m sitting high over a sunny Siberia – on my way from from Beijing to Vilnius – reading the speech that Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered to the Federal Assembly in Moscow April 25. It was his annual policy address – rather like the State of the Union speech in the United States.

It is – as usual – an interesting document. It contains much that is both good and sensible and needed. In important respects, it is undeniably a reform document.

But the problem is that the credibility of what’s good in the speech is undermined by a number of statements that just flies in the face of the truth, and others which reveal a mind-set that has too many Soviet remains to be entirely comfortable.

He sets out by saying that “we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century.”

Well, others certainly see that somewhat different.

Ask the Poles or the Lithuanians or the Georgians or the Ukrainians or the Germans or – for that matter – all those Russians that had to do imperial service in countries were they were not welcome.

Somewhat later in the speech, he naturally addresses the upcoming celebration of the 60th anniversary of the final defeat of Hitler’s Germany.

That this defeat was a result to a very large degree of an enormous sacrifice by the people of Russia is a clear a fact as it is that Hitler was able to launch his war on the rest of Europe due to his infamous Pact with Stalin in August of 1939.

Putin describes what happened 60 years ago like this:

“Very soon, on May 9, we shall celebrate the 60th anniversary of victory. This day can deservedly be called the day of civilisations triumph over fascism. Our common victory enabled us to defend the principles of freedom, independence and equality between all peoples and nations.”

This is a bit rich, to put it mildly.

The Soviet armies that rolled into Tallinn, Warsaw, Budapest or Berlin certainly drove the armies of Hitler away and ended Nazi tyranny. But they were certainly not the armies of the principles of freedom, independence and equality between all peoples and nations.

For these nations and other nations, these armies represented the transition from one nightmare to another. One regime of repression and occupation was replaced by another regime of repression and occupation.

It is when one reads phrases like this that one understands the debate that the question of participation in the May 9th celebrations have caused, for example in the Baltic countries.

They don’t want to see their own painful history violated. And it is surprising that Vladimir Putin and his staff isn’t more sensitive to both historical truth and national feelings among peoples that did suffer gravely under the booth of Soviet power.

The incomprehension that I’m certain will meet these parts of the speech might be magnified by another attempt by Putin to do a rather major rewriting of Russian history:

“Above all else Russia is and will, of course, be a major European power. Achieved through much suffering by European culture, the ideals of freedom, human rights, justice sand democracy have for many centuries between our society’s determining values.”

Freedom? For many centuries? Russia’s determining value?

Wasn’t there this Joseph Stalin? And for all the achievements of the Imperial Russia under the Tsar’s, to say that freedom and human rights were the determining value of Russia under them flies in the face of almost everything.

The Russian peasants laboured with hardly even the right to their own lives for centuries. Serfdom was the reality for much of Russian even through most of the 19th century.

And even a great reformer and great European like Peter the Great is extremely difficult to describe in terms of democracy and human rights.

One might say that it doesn’t make much of a difference what Putin has to say – everyone knows what history was really like.

But what’s disturbing with phrases like this is that they indicate that words that for us have a very real meaning have nothing of the sort for the Kremlin.

And when Putin then says that he considers “the development of Russia as a free and democratic state to be the main political and economic goal”, it is unavoidable that his use of important words like freedom and democracy here is judged in the light of how he uses them in relation to history.

He reduces – even eliminates, I’m sure some would say – his credibility.

Of some contemporary significance is also a phrase that follows shortly after his radical reinterpretation of centuries of Russian history:

“Also certain is that Russia should continue its civilizing mission on the Eurasian continent. This mission consists in ensuring that democratic values, combined with national interests, enrich and strengthen our historic community.”

Now, here some clarifications would clearly be in order.

Who is it that today needs to be civilized by Russia on the Eurasian continent? And which are the steps have the Putin regime taken in this direction?

Could the blatant and failed attempts to manipulate the Ukrainian election be part of this civilizing mission? Is the effort to share up the Lukashenko dictatorship in Belarus part of it? Or is it just the war in Chechnya that should be seen as an expression of this civilizing mission?

In other sections of the speech, Putin shows real awareness of the challenges Russia is facing and the policies that are necessary in order to address them.

That concerns in particular the need to rein in a tax police that is actively harassing many businessmen and to necessity of creating a climate in which also foreign investment can contribute to the necessary development of the country in the decades ahead.

As I’m passing over the low mountain ridge over the Urals, thus leaving Asia, I’m certainly agreeing with Putin when he’s sating that Russia has always been and remains an important part of Europe.

We Europeans all have an enormous interest in the success of its reforms and its integration with the rest of the world.

Then it’s a pity that a speech as important as this is so loaded with phrases and thoughts that are leading away in completely different directions.

Spend more, dare more, do more

27 april 2005

Spend more, dare more, do more

We have to take the debate about the competitiveness of the European economy more seriously than what still seems to be the case in many circles.

The world is changing – fast! – and we need to do the same.

In the International Herald Tribune today I argued for a change in many of the policies we are pursuing at the moment.

Most Important Visit since Richard Nixon

26 april 2005

People’s Daily Online — KMT chairman arrives in Nanjing for mainland visit

Today, the Chairman of the Kuomintang party in Taiwan Lien Chan, heading a 70-person delegation, started an 8 day long visit to mainland China.

In my opinion, it’s the most important visit here – I’m in Beijing at the moment – since Richard Nixon came here in 1972 and broke the ice in the relations between the United States and the People’s Republic of China.

I have spent the last few days in Chongqing – then Chunking – where the last meeting between the leaders of the Communist Party and Kuomintang took place in 1945. When Lien Chan comes to Beijing to meet the today leaders of the Communist Party, it will be the first meeting since then.

The meeting in 1945 did not succeed in averting a civil war. That the Nationalist lost that war was – in retrospect – hardly surprising. They were seen as corrupt and had seriously mismanaged the economy. Hyperinflation destroyed them as much as the Soviet-armed peasant armies of Mao Tsetung did.

Chiang Kai-Shek and the Nationalist army had to flee to Taiwan in 1949, and since then the civil war was been continued, although with political and diplomatic means rather than military.

But both parties have changed profoundly. Since 1978, the Communist Party has lead China on a path that most would see as far more capitalist than communist, although it remains a solid one-party dictatorship.

And Kuomintang was the key force in taking Taiwan from a military-dominated dictatorship to what today is a vibrant Chinese democracy – in addition, of course, to the spectacular economic success of Taiwan.

Both parties agree strongly on one subject – there is only one China. They disagree, however, on who should run it, and how it should be run.

I have been surprised over the years by the discreet respect for the KMT that can be found around ”Red China”. They are the standard-bearers of the 1910 revolution that started the process of modernising China and of introducing Western ideas in a very old-fasioned society. Sun Yat-Sen, who’s mausoleum Lien Chan vill visit tomorrow, is honored by Nationalist and Communsts alike.

If the Communist and Nationalist parties – the two dominating political forces in the past century of China – can now start talking it will be the true end of the civil war and the start of something profoundly new.

It will be most interesting to watch the amount and type of coverage the visit is given by the Chinese media during the coming 8 days. One can be certain that this is something that will be decided at the very top of the pyramid in Beijing. It will be an important signal for the future.

My belief is that we will be seeing eight days that will change the politics of this region in nearly the same way as Richard Nixons historic visit did.

On a different note I might just add that this comment of mine in all probability will have no readers at all in China. This blog belongs to the part of the Internet that is being blocked by the authorities in China. For some reason one way of posting messages to the blog had however not be blocked.

There are always ways around the restrictions on freedom.

Go East! – or, as an exception, West!

22 april 2005

Normally, my message is – Go East, that’s were the action in the decades to come is likely to be.

The East of Europe and the East of Asia. That’s were the European and global economy is being reshaped.

But in the next few days my message will be Go West!. But it’s the West of China that is at the centre of this.

In Chongqing by the mighty Yangtse river in the the very southwest of China there will be a major meetings of central and regional government officials as well as foreign investors of different sorts in order to highlight the potential of western China.

The motives are numerous. One is to try to relieve some of the overheating in the crowded coastal and southern cities. What is developing there is starting to look like a classical bubble economy.

Another motive is of course to offer better possibilities to the less developed inner regions of China. This is important in order to prevent different social and political tensions from building up too strongly.

Chongqing and the app 30 million people that live in that region already has an impressive industrial record. I’m told – but has yet to check – that most of the Japan-branded motorcycles we see around the world actually have their origin there. And I would not be surprised to find a couple of Swedish brands among the producers there as well.

But there are also major problems. Pollution from old heavy industries is one. The shortage of different raw materials and consequential upwards pressure on prices another. Add to this all the uncertainties of corruption and lack of the clear rule of the law that remains one of the hallmarks of China.

I’ll be there to speak about the role of China in the rapid changes we are now seeing in the global economy.

And from there I return to my more familiar slogan Go East.

Then I’m heading to Vilnius in Lithuania to speak about the transformation of the three Baltic countries from slaves under Soviet occupation to tigers in the changing new European economy.

Visions from Vilnius

22 april 2005

The New York Times > International > Europe > At NATO Talks, Accord and Discord for U.S. and Russia

More or less on the doorstep of Sweden, NATO has just held the spring meeting of its foreign ministerns in Vilnius in Lithuania.

It was an important event in that it marked the careful upgrading of the relationship between NATO and Ukraine following the profound changes in that important country.

”Intensified dialogue” is the official phrase for the new phase the relationship has now entered.

That doesn’t mean that the door is wide open for Ukraine to enter NATO immediately. Such a step would have profound implications in a number of areas, and neither NATO nor the Ukraine is yet ready for it.

But the signal from Vilnius is that a movement in that direction has been initated. That’s important in itself.

US Secretary of State Condolezza Rice ame to Vilnius directly from her talks in Moscow, and she made a point in meeting in Lithuania with the opposition leaders from ”Europe´s last dictatorship” in neighbouring Belarus.

That’s important. The Lukashenko dictatorship is an embarrasement to all of Europe and an aggression to the peoples of Belarus itself. After the changes in Kiev, there is certainly a need to put the question of democratic change in Belarus on the international political agenda.

The NATO meeting in Vilnius contributed to this. Excellent.

The Soap Opera of Sweden

21 april 2005

Coming home to Stockholm after more than a week on the other side of the Atlantic is coming home to something that more and more resembles a soap opera.

It’s all centered on the ruling Social Democrats and its Prime Minister Göran Persson. But it also covers the ethical standards of the way in which that party has been fostering its coming elites.

The Persson story is the daily story of it, when and how he intends to resign.

And it really is a daily story. One day the PM is saying that he doesn’t really know, but it might by this autumn. The next day the same PM is saying that he certainly does not intend to resign, and anyhow certainly not now.

He alludes to ”powerful interests” that are interested in the continuation of the soap opera over the issue, but abstains from naming them.

Wisely so – everyone knows that practically everyone else in the Social Democrat party is plotting different schemes to secure a change in the leadership prior to the September elections next year.

The crux is, of course, that there is no successor in sight.

European Commissioner Margot Wallström has – correctly – said that she can not be a candidate since she has an important position that she can’t just simply abandon. The position as European Commissioner must never be seen as a holding position awaiting the outcome of some domestic battles.

But increasingly she is the dream of all the plotters. She seems to be everything that Persson is not – and they seem to want something that is as different as possible. Whether that is enough as a criteria for political leadership is a matter that isn’t even discussed.

With her firmly in Brussels, it’s only the junior minions of the Persson immediate entourage available on the scene. And most of them are obviously seen to be in the same class of attractiveness as the average East German local party hacks used to be. Not a good way to electoral success in the age of media politics.

To all this should be added the rolling scandal of how the different functionaries in the Social Democratic youth organisation seems to have falsified membership numbers over the years in order to get more subsidies from the state.

This now involved a substantial part of the members of the government, including the Finance Minister. There are now no fewer than seven different police investigations against differents parts of SSU for different degrees of fraud.

It’s of course very bad in itself, but even worse as an illustration of the ethnics that is implanted in those being trained to lead the Social Democratic party. They seems to treat the state as theirs – to be cheated in order to get more money.

So it’s not only a soap opera that seems to just go on and on. It’s also a deeply troubling story about ethics in politics and morality in public office.

Bad. Very bad.