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Lessons from the Vietnam War: part 2

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In fear of China: then and now

Lessons from the Vietnam War: part 2

Barry Naughten (2153 words

An important lesson from the Vietnam War has been held to be that before Australia commits itself to support of U.S. foreign policies it must insist upon a place in the ruling councils of the U.S.  This case was argued in part 1 of this comment, which focused on the limitations or weaknesses of the counter-insurgency paradigm.

This is misplaced emphasis. Far more important is that Australia do its own ‘due diligence’ on foreign policy questions and that it maintain its sovereign independence as far as possible. Being in the ruling councils of other states such as the U.S is at best only one means to this end, and at worst either utopian or about the cooptation of our foreign policy decision-makers.

Part 2 of the comment focuses on a second potential lesson from the Vietnam experience for Australian foreign policy making. The case is that Australian foreign policy at the time was ill-informed, blinkered by ideology and distorted by electoral opportunism.

Resonating with some of today’s preoccupations, its focus was on keeping the U.S. involved in Asia, especially vis-à-vis the then much feared China, even if took a prolonged and bloody land-war to do so.

Foreign policy realism and national interests: of our state and others

National interest and power are the touch-stones of realist approaches to foreign policy. Hence, like the first, this second comment must focus on questions of national interest.

The Australian government at the time thought it was pursuing a realist foreign policy based on national interest, based variously on notions of ‘forward defence’ or an ‘insurance policy’ vis-à-vis the U.S. alliance.

However, this policy was seriously flawed because it was ill-informed, notably about the national interests of the other major players. Defining Australia’s national interest as an input to a realist foreign policy also requires us to consider the national interests of the other major players, not just their actual policies and capabilities.

Accordingly, let us consider the actual compared with the realist foreign policies not only of the U.S., but those of Vietnam and of China as they were at the time.

As previously argued, in respect of its involvement in the Vietnam War, the U.S. was not rationally pursuing its national self-interest. Such a negative case had been argued by leading U.S. foreign policy realist scholars both at the time (Hans Morgenthau and Kenneth Waltz) and retrospectively (John Mearsheimer). These realist scholars did not go along with framing the war as one of counter-insurgency. Not only did they deny the applicability of Cold War logic that was prevalent at the time, they also framed the war as it empirically was: for the Vietnamese a legitimate one of national resistance; for the U.S. a tragic and unnecessary war. Only on that recognition could a reasonable U.S. foreign policy be formulated.

Until the end, U.S. foreign policy-makers on the other hand were not able to understand and follow this advice. This was so in part because they (especially President Johnson but then Nixon) saw themselves as ‘committed’ to continuing a course of action even after it had become evident that the strategy stood no chance of achieving its purported objectives — a good example of the ‘sunk costs’ fallacy. In the case of the Iraq war (2003), George W Bush presented the world with another example of this fallacy. (This is far from asserting that immediate withdrawal is the only rational strategy, much less denying the need to overcome inevitable setbacks in a necessary war such as WWII.)

Another factor underlined by critical realist foreign policy analysts like George Kennan contested the wisdom of U.S. pursuit of a global primacist role. Such a role has never been quite sustained despite apparent ‘unipolar moments’ in 1991 and 2002. By 2012 long-term prospects were instead favouring an increasingly multipolar world.

Conjointly with the economic crisis of 1971 caused in large part by the Vietnam involvement, the U.S. leadership appeared to sense this reality — hence Nixon’s historic visit to Beijing in 1972. Supported by Kissinger’s advice, Nixon had decided to form an alliance of convenience with China against the USSR, while also opening up China to the world. Less than ten years earlier foreign policy hawks had been calling for the U.S. to ‘surgically’ denuclearize a China that saw itself as existentially threatened by both super-powers.

The rapprochement meant that China could then be ‘contained’, in large part through increased economic interdependence, rather than continuing with the failed U.S. policy of its enforced isolation (which was breaking down anyway).

Nixon’s balance-of-power policy with respect to China and the USSR could thus be viewed as a rational response to a setback to U.S. global primacy aspirations subject to Paul Kennedy’s ‘imperial over-stretch’. Today, such a setback has followed the Iraq war, 10 years of conspicuous failure in Afghanistan and the apparently intractible situation vis-à-vis Iran. Hugh White (and here) is just one analyst contrasting Nixon’s successful diplomatic re-engagement with China with the long-standing but recently tightened U.S. policy of globally isolating Iran. This risks cataclysmic war in the Middle East and loss of other mutual benefits. Once again (as in China’s case) foreign policy hawks are calling for war based on Iran’s alleged (but as yet unconsummated) nuclear aspirations.

40 years ago, Vietnam (then caricatured by the U.S. as ‘Hanoi’) was pursuing its national interests by resisting foreign control of its territory. At tremendous human cost, this was an ultimately successful struggle unparalleled in 20th century history. That this ‘security’ goal was paramount against all aggressors became evident when Vietnam expelled Chinese invading forces in 1979, consistent with a pattern of resistance to Chinese suzerainty that had been in place over the centuries, if not millennia.

Turn now to the case of China and its national interests at that time. This was an under-developed China that had suffered a vicious occupation at the hands of imperial Japan in the 1930s and 40s, and before that, regional de facto occupations at the hands of the European powers. China’s provision of material support to Vietnam in its long struggle, first against returning French colonialism and then against the U.S., made sense. The People’s Republic of China was implicitly threatened by any future Vietnamese entity that would have been a client state of its historical adversary the U.S. In the words of C.P. Fitzgerald, this ‘white peril’ would have been a dagger poised at the heart of China. Secondarily, China would have had similar ‘encirclement’ concerns should the USSR have become the only great power successfully protective of Vietnamese national independence.

As just noted, China later saw its national interests in an expedient strategic alliance and agreement with the U.S. Through this, it gained not only support against its rival and territorial aggressor the USSR but also a commitment by the U.S. to end support for its puppet government in Saigon, removing the threat from the south.

Getting it right about China: then and now

The designers of Australian foreign policy at the time wanted to be realist but were badly ill-informed, not least in understanding the national interests of these other players. The main particulars of one critique thereof had been set out in 1967-68 by the young Gregory Clark in a series of public interventions following his conscientious resignation from the then Department of External Affairs. Clark’s resignation was in the company also of his colleague Stephen Fitzgerald, who went on to become Australia’s first Ambassador to China and remains an important commentator.

Clark’s major contribution was his definitive 1968 book In Fear of China. This was the subject of an important review by the eminent Australian historian of China, the aforementioned ANU Professor C.P. Fitzgerald. Of the latter’s older generation of scholars, respected figures such as Peter Russo and W. McMahon Ball had also been among the influential dissenters. Given this background from leading intellectuals, Opposition Leader Gough Whitlam’s ‘official’ visit to Beijing in July 1971 was not so remarkable, though ironic indeed that this occurred contemporaneously with the highly secret preparatory visit of Henry Kissinger, as Nixon’s chief National Security advisor.

The power of Clark’s critique of the Coalition Government and its supporters was not diminished by the fact that was a son of the world renowned economist and prominent Catholic layman Professor Colin Clark. This was especially so given that the strongest current of support for the Vietnam War was from the organised right-wing of the Catholic politics, including such figures as Colonel ‘Ted’ Serong, and the young Gerard Henderson, both of whose roles were noted in part 1 of this comment.

The essentials of In Fear of China included the following.

  • Australia’s foreign policy was dominated by fears of a ‘downward thrust’ of China, a paranoid perspective shared by many Australians, and hence a formula also good for winning elections (as the Coalition resoundingly did in 1966).
  • The Vietnamese national independence struggle was viewed in the Cold war terms that framed debate at the time. Being ignorant of Asian history, official foreign policy advisors (notably Greg Clark’s former colleagues) viewed a united and strong Vietnam as essentially a channel for Chinese power, instead of being part of a process (in a sense) of ‘containing’ China, as became evident in 1979 and still is the case.
  • As a corollary, the then Australian Coalition Government’s foreign policy was hawkish in the terms of the U.S. debate, being centred on keeping the U.S. involved in a land war in Asia for as long as it took, and against U.S. national interests in the sense argued above.

More than four decades latter, with China’s GDP now second only to the U.S. and having become our largest trading partner and the main reason for our economy escaping the worst of the GFC, the relationship remains problematic. But as Professor Hugh White and others have noted, the central concern remains about how that evolving bilateral relationship fits with that involving the U.S. Since White’s intervention, concerns have mounted as a result of the Gillard Labor Government having permitted the U.S. extended basing rights in the Northern Territory. Richard Tanter of the Melbourne-based Nautilus Institute provides an account of silent growth in Australian defence commitments to the U.S. over the past decade.

Australia’s foreign policy: avoiding a dichotomy of false extremes

In the 1960s the ‘insurance policy’ argument was that support for the hegemonic power (‘right or wrong’) would ensure its support in the hour of need. If this were the sole plank of policy then what would be the purpose of foreign policy being ‘well-informed’?

Such an ‘insurance policy’, based on over-simple assumptions of reciprocity, would not seem to conform to the usual criteria of foreign policy realism. In assessing Australia’s grand strategic options over the long-term George Friedman argues the contrary but he sets up a dichotomy of false extremes:

[Australia’s] options are to align with the United States and accept the military burdens that entails, or to commit to Asia in general and China in particular.

The argument here is instead that Australia has served neither its own interests nor even those of the U.S. by its sometimes costly support for the latter’s unnecessary wars.

As to the Iraq war (2003), Australia’s uncritical membership of the U.S. ‘coalition of the willing’ amounted to a repeat performance three decades on, demonstrating the point.

As Geoffrey Wheatcroft suggests, a foreign policy based largely on ‘your country right or wrong’, whether understood in a realist or ethical sense, does not seem wise. None other than the conservative British historian Niall Ferguson made a similar observation. Both comments referred to the so-called ‘special relationship’ between the UK and the U.S. Wheatcroft questions its real substance. As such, his comments about UK foreign policy may not be without relevance to Australia’s situation vis-à-vis the U.S.

The more general lessons

Despite the discredited ‘insurance policy’, the core arguments put in the late 1960s by Gregory Clark and C. P. Fitzgerald still hold true, namely that a sovereign Australian foreign policy needs to be based on sound analysis and good evidence.

Admission to U.S. supreme councils is not an end in itself.

Diplomatically, it is more important to engage closely with all nationstates having a bearing on our security and prosperity. This is partly because security requires insight into both perceived and actual national interests as well as the capabilities (‘power’) of other states, including potential adversaries as well as allies and hegemons.

Militarily, we need to be wary of involvement in the ill-judged and ill-informed wars of others — wars often based on deviations even from the national interests of those other would be allied Great Powers or states, a case well demonstrated by the Vietnam war.

Educationally, we need to move on from cultural dependence, whether British or U.S. Teaching of Asian languages has shown little progress since the 1950s. Similarly, available documentation (2009) indicates precious little focus on the teaching of 20th century Asian history. Again, this compares unfavourably with the 1950s, at least in Victoria (years 9-10), built around excellent texts such as Max Crawford’s Ourselves and the Pacific

It was clear that by 2003, and indeed by 2012, neither the U.S. nor Australian foreign policy has yet fully absorbed the lessons of Vietnam, or those of Iraq (2003-).

Barry Naughten bio

Barry Naughten, PhD, MAIR, MEc, BSc is a Departmental Visitor in the Centre of Arab and Islamic Studies, ANU, where he is completing a book on U.S. foreign energy policy in the Middle East. He was formerly a Senior Economist in ABARE, the Commonwealth Government economic research agency, where he specialised in energy economics. He has published journal articles and book-chapters in these and related fields.

He is contactable on and on






Written by Barry Naughten

August 23, 2012 at 11:39 am

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