Vietnam, to our generation, was about the Vietnamese struggle against the Americans, the epic of a small Third World country fighting the world’s superpower.
It was a globally inspiring scene. Although America’s Vietnam War began in the mid-1960s, the apex of its ferocity, of the heroic resistance of the Vietnamese people and of the atrocious massacres perpetrated by the Americans, came at a time when we, in the Arab world, were suffering the repercussions of the defeat in June 1967.
Vietnam was giving the Arabs lessons in steadfastness while it gave the US the idea that maybe it could succeed in the Middle East where it failed in Southeast Asia.
In one of her most forceful poems, the Palestinian poet Fadwa Tuqan prayed that a wind from the east would blow a million Vietnamese fighters towards the Arab desert to bless it with “a million Qahtani young”, referring to ancient warring tribes from the Arabian Peninsula.
It was a prayer for the Vietnamese struggle to reach Palestine. This was before the October 1973 War. Arab political thought at the time swung between sustaining the resistance and searching for a solution to a cause that defied solutions.
More than four decades have passed since then. Today, Vietnam, and its symbolic capital Hanoi, is once again headline news.
It is to host the second US-North Korea summit a year after Singapore hosted the first that ended in an agreement in accordance with which North Korea would relinquish its nuclear weapons and the US would lift sanctions against Pyongyang and reduce its military presence in South Korea.
Hanoi is at the centre of international diplomacy. Its selection as the venue for the summit was far from random.
It was chosen because it presents a kind of orientation for the sensitive forthcoming negotiations which have less to do with a military/security deal related to peace and security in Southeast Asia than they have to do with the course North Korea could take in order to realise peace with the US and with South Korea.
And, who knows? Maybe economic development in the northern Korean Peninsula could become the driving force for the unification of the two Koreas.
Perhaps capitalism could serve as the bond instead of the socialist compulsory annexation that was used between north and south Vietnam.
The Vietnamese model is no longer one that spurs struggle and resistance or pride in the state that sustained four million dead and six million wounded between 1945 and 1975.
Nor is it the model associated with Ho Chi Minh, the father of the Vietnamese state who led the war against French colonialism and, after ousting the French, the war against US forces until they were defeated, too, after which he became prime minister and then president of North Vietnam until his death in 1969.
Vietnam is no longer that marginal, densely populated country, classed as economically socialist, politically communist and one of the poorest countries in the world.
Vietnam has changed completely.
In 1986, Vietnam adopted economic reforms, shifted to a market economy and encouraged foreign investment. In the framework of the Doi Moi (renovation) programme, as it was called, new laws and regulations were introduced to deregulate the economy and enable market forces to become the prime determinant of prices and production.
In 2000, the stock exchange was established.This inspired a new trend in Western and Asian writings which hailed “modern Vietnam”, the “Paris of the East”, the “Vietnamese ascendancy”, the “Vietnamese dragon” and the “Vietnamese model” and stressed the need to study this model in order to understand how such a poor country that had been economically shattered from intermittent wars succeeded in becoming an emergent regional power and a prime example of the ability to transcend the past, an ability that is associated with some important aspects of Vietnamese culture such as a strong work ethic, a spirit of discipline and an emphasis on education.
It may be worthwhile to return to the “Vietnamese experience” another time, but our point, here, is that Hanoi as a choice of venue reflects the horizons of the forthcoming talks.
Although the Singapore summit generated large waves of optimism pinned on the agreement between Washington and Pyongyang and, perhaps, a final end the Korean War sealed by a peace treaty between the two Koreas and between North Korea and the US.
But none of this happened, even if relations between the two Koreas have definitely warmed and the sabre rattling has ceased.
What has become clear is that the question is much more complex than expected. Eliminating a nuclear arsenal is not easy and lifting sanctions is something that cannot be done from one day to the next without guarantees that the other side will fulfil its obligations.
Other dimensions of the problem have to do with the domestic fronts in North Korea and the US. The former is ideologically founded on the “defence of the ancestral land” and loyalty to the Kim Il Sung dynasty, making it the only “communist” royal house in the world.
The current successor of this dynasty, Kim Jong-Un, cannot relinquish his nuclear umbrella until he is assured that he will not end up like Muammar Gaddafi and without having to enter the capitalist paradise. Vietnam offers a precedent and a destination.
Despite the vast difference between the North Korean and American domestic fronts, the one in the US is no less complex.
President Donald Trump has made reaching an agreement with North Korea the cornerstone of his foreign policy, which he hopes will enter him into the annals of history.
At a time when domestic political conflict rages between the president and the Democratic Party in the House of Representatives, especially over Trump’s role in Russian tampering in the US presidential elections in 2016, Trump is working to lay the foundations for his campaign in the 2020 presidential elections and also wants to use the negotiations with Jong-Un to showcase his flare for driving a hard bargain and coming out ahead each time.
Trump, who has been called erratic, incapable of formulating a coherent foreign policy and fundamentally isolationist, has designed a personal “software” that he boots up when dealing with other countries.
The programme opens with threats and intimidation, then he ups the stakes, after which he cracks open the door to talks which, he imagines, will culminate in the greatest possible gains for the US.
He claims that this sets him apart from all other previous presidents (Obama above all) who “let down” the American people. In addition to North Korea, Trump has applied this approach with China and Russia, and he may apply it with Iran as well.
For the moment, however, Trump has his sights set on Hanoi, which he hopes will conclude with a final deal and a declaration of victory.
The same applies Jung-Un. The technical details involved could keep them both from getting what they want. Still, they are both determined to come out with an element of success that will serve them on their home fronts.
*The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 February, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Hanoi summit