Toward a New Foreign Policy

By Wells-Dang, Andrew | Foreign Policy in Focus, July 30, 2001 | Go to article overview
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Toward a New Foreign Policy

Wells-Dang, Andrew, Foreign Policy in Focus

Key Recommendations

* Congress should pass the U.S.-Vietnam and U.S.-Lao bilateral trade agreements without delay and without additional conditions.

* The U.S., in collaboration with other countries, should work cooperatively with the Vietnamese and Lao governments to improve human and labor rights and to protect the environment.

* The U.S. should increase the humanitarian assistance it gives to Vietnam and Laos, particularly in areas directly related to the legacy of war.

Normalization of relations with Vietnam and Laos has taken place partly due to the support of a remarkable coalition of religious organizations, development and advocacy groups, veterans, business constituencies, and a handful of moderate Asian-Americans, groups which otherwise have little contact with each other. More recently, the emergence of a minority of Lao- and Vietnamese-American groups willing to endure the wrath of their hard-line leaders has been particularly impressive.

The ratification of bilateral trade agreements deserves to be viewed in a different light than the expansion of free trade areas (such as Free Trade Area of the Americas or free trade agreements with countries such as Singapore and Jordan) or the establishment of various regional and global trading arrangements (such as Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation-APEC or the World Trade Organization). The BTAs establish trade relations for the first time; the others deepen commercial ties through a process of corporate globalization. Unlike more complex agreements that seek to impose uniform rules or establish special relationships between countries, normal trade relations are a basic building block of international relations, akin to exchanging ambassadors. U.S. trade negotiator Joseph Damond agrees that the agreements are "the first step in relations, not the last word." After granting NTR to Vietnam and Laos, the U.S. should then proceed to negotiate separate agreements on development cooperation, human rights dialogue, and other issues.

The drive among certain congressional Democrats, labor unions, and citizen groups to attach labor and environmental standards to normal trade relations is well-intentioned but fails to grasp the distinctions between NTR and other agreements. This appears to the Vietnamese and Lao to be an extension of the same unfair treatment they have received from the U.S. for decades. None of the older BTAS with most other countries in the world include environmental or labor clauses. Moreover, the Vietnamese and Lao agreements have already been negotiated and signed and are waiting to be implemented; the Vietnamese have even begun carrying out certain provisions of the BTA prior to ratification, since they do not want the delay to slow down other aspects of their economic reform program.

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