Mending fences: Why normalization matters

In a historic first, Vietnamese General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong (left) meets with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office. White House photo by Pete Souza.
In a historic first, Vietnamese General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong (left) meets with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office. White House photo by Pete Souza.
This week, President Barack Obama and Vietnamese General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong met in the Oval Office as their countries marked a significant anniversary – 20 years of normalized diplomatic relations.

     On July 11, 1995, President Bill Clinton announced the normalization of diplomatic relations with Vietnam. Many could still remember the events of April 1975, when U.S. troops scurried to leave Saigon as Communist forces closed in, ending a war that had divided Americans.
     Normalization doesn't necessarily mean that all issues between the two countries had been resolved, but it does signal a desire to calm turbulent waters.
     One of the most well-known examples of normalization began in 1972 when President Richard Nixon visited Communist China. Full diplomatic relations between China and the U.S. took place in 1979 when Jimmy Carter was president. 
     More recently, Obama came under fire after announcing normalization of relations with Cuba – a move met with both praise and criticism within the Cuban-American community.
     In a nationally televised address on Dec. 17, 2014, Obama explained, “We will end an outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our interests, and instead we will begin to normalize relations between our two countries. Through these changes, we intend to create more opportunities for the American and Cuban people and begin a new chapter among the nations of the Americas.”
     But how, in effect, does normalization change the dynamics between two countries?  Here is a rundown:
  • Diplomatic relations: In January 1995, the U.S opened a liaison office in Hanoi, and Vietnam opened a liaison office in Washington. Soon after Clinton’s announcement, both nations upgraded those offices to embassy status, according to the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi.
  • Trade: Trade deals can benefit American businesses. In announcing normalization of relations with Cuba, Obama said thatU.S. financial institutions will be allowed to open accounts at Cuban financial institutions. And it will be easier for U.S. exporters to sell goods in Cuba.”
  • Human rights: Normalized relations could potentially give once-isolated activists a foothold to improve the human rights conditions in a country. But this can be an uphill battle. In June, the State Department’s report on human rights violations in Cuba stated: “The principal human rights abuses included those involving the abridgement of the ability of citizens to change the government and the use of government threats, extrajudicial physical assault, intimidation, violent government-organized counter-protests against peaceful dissent, and harassment and detentions to prevent free expression and peaceful assembly.” (See more on the State Department's website.)
  • Travel: The United States-Vietnam joint vision statement released July 7 said that both countriesexpect to consider visa facilitation measures to encourage greater numbers of tourists, students, and business visitors.”
  • Security: Through diplomacy, former enemies can work together on security issues. In Asia, for example, a maritime dispute threatens to erupt, as countries haggle over rights to resources in the South China Sea. The United States-Vietnam joint vision statement outlined concerns about recent developments in the South China Sea that have increased tensions, eroded trust, and threatened to undermine peace, security, and stability. They recognize the imperative of upholding the internationally-recognized freedoms of navigation and overflight; unimpeded lawful commerce, maritime security and safety; refraining from actions that raise tensions; ensuring that all actions and activities taken comply with international law; and rejecting coercion, intimidation, and the use or threat of force.” 
  • Global threats: Diplomatic relations can facilitate efforts to tackle global issues such as climate change. Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping in November 2014 announced a joint plan to curb carbon emissions. (See details on the White House website.)



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