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Buddhistdoor View: Mending Old Wounds – US and Vietnam Seek Friendship in a Complex World

US President Joe Biden shakes hands with Vietnamese President Vo Van Thuong. From time.com

Will the world always be filled with conflict and war? Can former enemies become partners as our collective human species faces longstanding crises such as disease and famine, as well as newer dangers like artificial intelligence and climate change? Can we nurture secure and lasting peace?

This week, these questions were taken up when Joe Biden, the president of the United States, met with the president of Vietnam, Vo Van Thuong, and the general secretary of the Communist Party of the Vietnam Central Committee, Nguyen Phu Trong. Leaders from the two nations took up talks that continued ongoing efforts to “contribute to peace, stability, cooperation, and prosperity in the region and in the world.” (White House) In fact, in a joint statement issued by the White House, the term “peace” appears 14 times, “stability” appears eight times, “cooperation” an astounding 36 times, and “prosperity” (or “prosperous”) appears six times.

The language used here was careful, expressing both respect and caution. The US-Vietnam joint statement continued:

In the ten years since President Truong Tan Sang and President Barack Obama formed the Vietnam–U.S. Comprehensive Partnership, the two countries have made remarkable strides in increasing mutual understanding, building mutual trust, and strengthening cooperation across all areas of the Comprehensive Partnership. 

(White House)

During Biden’s visit, Vietnam surprised many political experts by raising Washington’s diplomatic status up two levels, from the lowest level of diplomatic ties to the highest.

“It is a very remarkable event because we all know that Vietnamese foreign policy is very cautious,” said Nguyen Khac Giang, a visiting fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, noting that ordinarily, changes in diplomatic status are made just one step at a time. (New York Times)

In a swiftly changing world, such “remarkable” moves toward better relations could become more common. After all, scientists continue to warn us that our alteration of the atmosphere is leading to an increasingly unstable climate. This means some areas will experience more hurricanes and typhoons and heavier rains and flooding, while other areas see higher temperature and droughts leading to more frequent and violent wildfires. Meanwhile, this may also lead vectors of rare disease to have contact with humans, possibly spurring yet another major pandemic. Humanity may be slowly awakening to our greatest common threat: the ecosystem that we ourselves have damaged.

As Buddhists, we have a word for what people everywhere might now be realizing: our interconnectedness. Most people understand some level of interconnectedness—our reliance on our parents and friends, our need for meaningful work and supportive colleagues, even recognizing that our food and the items around us must pass through many other peoples’ hands. But we also face many forms of separation—nationalism and a dislike for outsiders, religious discrimination, ethnic divisions, and more.

President Biden acknowledged the wide gulf that once separating the US and Vietnam, as well as the work done to bridge it over the last 50 years. “We can trace a 50-year arc of progress between our nations, from conflict to normalization, to this new elevated status,” he said. (Reuters)

We know that narratives of division can lead to great suffering. Thus, when political leaders help to reshape historical narratives toward cooperation and connections, we might pause for celebration and praise.

At the same time, we can accept some geopolitical ambiguity. That is, we can note our own ignorance about the many forces at play behind such positive language and the trade deals and other benefits. Certainly, the friendship might be little more than a convenience at a time when both nations feel threatened. If the offering of peace is not extended yet further, then the new spirit of cooperation between these countries may be short-lived. And if the benefits of trade do not spread widely through the nations, instead accruing to only a few, then citizens of both countries will easily turn their backs on peace.

Like the mending of any historical feud, caution is warranted. For those working for sustained friendship, this is only the beginning of a long road ahead. The future of this friendship depends a great deal on the future of the people in each country. How will lives change? Will they improve? Will new leaders find reason to end the current agreements?

As former US senator George Mitchell, former president Obama’s choice for Middle East envoy, stated: “There is no such thing as a conflict that can’t be ended. . . . Conflicts are created, conducted, and sustained by human beings. They can be ended by human beings.” (Council on Foreign Relations)

While the conflict may have passed, the underlying causes of that conflict persist. Greed, aversion, and ignorance continue to this day. However, with the wisdom of hindsight and the study of war and politics around the world, we might hope that these statesmen may have a little less ignorance than before. And perhaps we can note our gratitude for the internet and social media, ensuring that any events that take place on one side of the world are known almost immediately on the others side. For this ensures that those who seek to do evil or commit injustice will be cast into the light of the global media.

Inequality has lessened as well. While the second half of the 20th century did not have multi-billionaires such as Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg, it did have extreme poverty. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the global population facing extreme poverty in 1955 had just fallen below 50 per cent. By 1977, it was at 40 per cent. In 1997, it fell below 30 per cent, and had dropped another 10 per cent by 2005. With basic needs met, aversion is more easily subdued.

From oecd-ilibrary.org

For our part, we can hope that continued cooperation leads to a continuing decline in poverty and continuing growth in mutual understanding. With this, citizens of one country will not be turned against the citizens of another in yet another foolish war.

As His Holiness the Dalai Lama said:

Ultimately, humanity is one and this small planet is our only home, If we are to protect this home of ours, each of us needs to experience a vivid sense of universal altruism. It is only this feeling that can remove the self-centered motives that cause people to deceive and misuse one another.

If you have a sincere and open heart, you naturally feel self-worth and confidence, and there is no need to be fearful of others.

I believe that at every level of society – familial, tribal, national and international – the key to a happier and more successful world is the growth of compassion. We do not need to become religious, nor do we need to believe in an ideology. All that is necessary is for each of us to develop our good human qualities.

(His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet)

See more

Joint Leaders’ Statement: Elevating United States-Vietnam Relations To A Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (White House)
US and Vietnam ink historic partnership in Biden visit, with eyes on China (Reuters)
Global extreme poverty: Present and past since 1820 (OECD iLibrary)
Excerpt: How Enemies Become Friends (Council on Foreign Relations)
Compassion and the Individual (His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet)

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