Changing Worlds: Vietnam's Transition from Cold War to Globalization

Changing Worlds: Vietnam's Transition from Cold War to Globalization

Changing Worlds: Vietnam's Transition from Cold War to Globalization

Changing Worlds: Vietnam's Transition from Cold War to Globalization


Throughout the entire Cold War era, Vietnam served as a grim symbol of the ideological polarity that permeated international politics. But when the Cold War ended in 1989, Vietnam faced the difficult task of adjusting to a new world without the benefactors it had come to rely on. In Changing Worlds, David W. P. Elliott, who has spent the past half century studying modern Vietnam, chronicles the evolution of the Vietnamese state from the end of the Cold War to the present. When the communist regimes of Eastern Europe collapsed, so did Vietnam's model for analyzing and engaging with the outside world. Fearing that committing fully to globalization would lead to the collapse of its own system, the Vietnamese political elite at first resisted extensive engagement with the larger international community. Over the next decade, though, China's rapid economic growth and the success of the Asian "tiger economies," along with a complex realignment of regional and global international relations reshaped Vietnamese leaders' views. In 1995 Vietnam joined the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), its former adversary, and completed the normalization of relations with the United States. By 2000, Vietnam had "taken the plunge" and opted for greater participation in the global economic system. Vietnam finally joined the World Trade Organization in 2006.

Elliott contends that Vietnam's political elite ultimately concluded that if the conservatives who opposed opening up to the outside world had triumphed, Vietnam would have been condemned to a permanent state of underdevelopment. Partial reform starting in the mid-1980s produced some success, but eventually the reformers' argument that Vietnam's economic potential could not be fully exploited in a highly competitive world unless it opted for deep integration into the rapidly globalizing world economy prevailed. Remarkably, deep integration occurred without Vietnam losing its unique political identity. It remains an authoritarian state, but offers far more breathing space to its citizens than in the pre-reform era. Far from being absorbed into a Western-inspired development model, globalization has reinforced Vietnam's distinctive identity rather than eradicating it. The market economy led to a revival of localism and familism which has challenged the capacity of the state to impose its preferences and maintain the wartime narrative of monolithic unity. Although it would be premature to talk of a genuine civil society, today's Vietnam is an increasingly pluralistic community. Drawing from a vast body of Vietnamese language sources, Changing Worlds is the definitive account of how this highly vulnerable Communist state remade itself amidst the challenges of the post-Cold War era.


Although I wrote my graduate-school dissertation on the political system of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam), which focused largely on the decade between 1954 and 1964—that is from the division of Vietnam at the end of the First Indochina War to the escalation into direct US military action in the Second Indochina War—I would be the fi rst to admit the limits of my understanding of the subject, even after extensive documentary research and interviews with a number of people who had lived in North Vietnam during this period. So what led to the foolhardy decision to proceed with a second attempt to understand the notoriously secretive political system of communist Vietnam?

In part, it was due to a gradual opening up of Vietnam to the outside world and the fascination of watching what amounted to a Vietnamese version of glasnost, as more and more veils of secrecy fell to the ground. In addition, as the process unfolded, the expanded range of public issues, life choices, and diversity of opinion at all levels of society made the study of Vietnam infinitely more interesting. Between my first visit to unified Vietnam in 1982, and my last substantial research trip, from December 2006 to January 2007, extraordinary change occurred.

My 1982 visit was to a country still paranoid about foreigners and external threats, and was marked by several tense encounters with the public security branch and police, despite my status as an official guest of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. On the street, I was routinely addressed as dong chi (comrade) because it was inconceivable to most Vietnamese at the time that a foreign visitor would not be from a fraternal socialist country. Even those who suspected that I was something different were at a loss as to the . . .

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