Politics & Policy

Davos Journal, Part V

Here are the previous parts: I, II, III, and IV. And shall we continue with the prime minister of Vietnam? He is Nguyen Tan Dung, and he meets with about four of us journalists, on a snowy Swiss morning. It seems a long way from Vietnam; then again, Davos seems a long way from everything.

Before we begin the session, formally, a South African journalist notes to Nguyen that Vietnam played a key role in the development of South Africa — in this way. When Nelson Mandela got out of prison, he was Communist-minded. But when he attended Davos in the early ’90s, he met the prime minister of Vietnam — one of Nguyen’s predecessors — and that PM convinced Mandela to eschew Communism and follow a market path. So, says the South African journalist to Nguyen, “on behalf of my country, I thank you.”

(Isn’t it nice that a journalist — from anywhere — is glad to have avoided Communism?)

Nguyen has been prime minister for six months, having been deputy prime minister for about ten years. The World Economic Forum official who introduces him says that he is “the first leader born after the revolution in 1945.” Nguyen is continually smiling — smiling and smiling. An amazing performance. And he has brought along many subministers: He has what looks like the cabinet around him.

He tells us that Vietnam went from a “planned economy” to “market mechanisms.” Exports constitute 60 percent of GDP, he says. There are 8,000 foreign-investment projects in his country. And, boy, is Vietnam happy to be in the World Trade Organization. The economy is going great guns, he avers.

At one point, he describes Vietnam as “a log-cabin state.” Come again? You mean, Vietnam is filled with gay Republicans? No: It is “a log-cabin state, of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

This is an amazing evocation of America — and our best man — from the prime minister of Vietnam.

By the way, Nguyen is still smiling — smiling and smiling. I don’t know how he can smile that long, and that broad. My face would hurt, simply as a physical matter. And after he has said something — after he has made a point — he will issue a murmur. It is a kind of affirmative murmur, sounding like “mmh, mmh.”

Now and then, he turns to his minister of trade, asking him to answer a question. The trade minister closes his eyes when he talks, and nods all the while — rather interesting. He notes a “paradox”: that “rich nations expect poor nations to remove subsidies,” while the rich protect their own. Therefore, “the rich are unfair,” says the trade minister.

Nguyen is asked about the rise of China, and whether this poses problems to Vietnam and others. He says no: “China’s strong development will not threaten the world,” and “we enjoy good neighborliness.” (Incidentally, the PM — like the trade minister — speaks through a translator.) Nguyen talks about the “interconnectedness” of the world, and how nations depend on one another. There is no more walling off and hunkering down.

After hearing so much classical liberalism — I could be at the American Enterprise Institute — I am moved to ask the following: What elements of Communism still appeal to the ruling elites of Vietnam? And what about religious and press freedoms?

On hearing my questions, Nguyen smiles just a little less. Before, he has been crisply confident, and now he is slightly hesitant. “May I reassure you,” he says, “that we are a socialist government, and that we continue to pursue the goal of socialism.” I love that “may I reassure you”! He says that “socialism in Vietnam can be characterized as follows: rich people in a strong country with a just, civilized, and advanced society.” He says that, “in Vietnam, the Communist party is the party to lead the country, and socialism is our purpose. This is the historic choice of the Vietnamese people. We have chosen this path on a voluntary basis.”

I can’t help writing in my notes: “BIG LIE.”

Nguyen goes on to say that the United States has recently removed Vietnam from its list of “countries of concern” — formerly known as “rogue states.” This is because Washington has “recognized the reality of Vietnam.” And Nguyen is fresh from the Vatican, where the pope gave Vietnam a clean bill of health, freedom-of-religion-wise.

So there.

There is no doubt that, for Vietnam, as for many countries, this is both an interesting and a hopeful time. The grip of oppression is still in place, but it is looser.

‐The World Economic Forum sends us all a bulletin, via our WEF e-mail accounts: “Climate Change: Make Davos Greenhouse Gas Neutral.” The notice goes on to say,

Climate Change is at the centre of our discussions, and you can act now. Please consider compensating your greenhouse gas emissions related to participating in the Annual Meeting in Davos.

This is possible with 1 click at any kiosk or at the Davos Climate Alliance desk.

Many thanks for your help.

Don’t be emittin’ without remittin’! Replace your carbon footprint with cash! At least, I think that’s how it goes . . .

‐We next sit down with Mohamed ElBaradei, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. In 2005, Dr. ElBaradei — they’re all doctor, aren’t they? — won the Nobel Peace Prize. I wrote about this in an article called “How Low Can They Go?” (NR, 11/7/05). As you might guess, it is none too friendly.

ElBaradei tells the gathered journos that we are in “a cynical environment.” There is no serious talk about nuclear disarmament; there is only talk about nuclear nonproliferation. Disarmament has been essentially given up on. The big boys are even wide-eyed for new weapons: bunker-busters.

The director-general says that MAD — Mutual Assured Destruction — has “no relevance” for extremist groups; they are undeterrable. And that is indisputably true.

He further observes that he is dealing with “two hot potatoes” (ElBaradei’s English is extremely idiomatic). Those are North Korea and Iran. Whether the North Korean program can be “reversed,” he says, is “a matter of debate.” We have no choice except “dialogue.” North Korean nukes, like other nukes, stem from “insecurity.”

About the Iranian program, says ElBaradei, there is “a lot of hype.” Back in the U.S., John Negroponte has said that Iran is three to eight years from a nuclear bomb. Therefore, we have time. Sanctions, says ElBaradei, lead to escalation, and that is no good. He notes that he has to report to the Security Council in late February whether the Iranians are in compliance. And if they are not, the Security Council will probably respond, and we will have more escalation, which is a very, very bad thing.

I can’t help wondering, as I sit in my seat: Does this view influence how the director-general reports?

Addressing the Iranian situation, ElBaradei speaks the pure language of moral equivalence. (His defenders might say that he is merely practical.) You have “the international community” on one hand, and Iran on the other. ElBaradei calls for a “simultaneous timeout”: Iran stops its enrichment, and the international community stops it sanctions. We have had “enough flexing muscles” — does this refer to the American aircraft carrier? — and “enough calling names” (is that Ahmadinejad, Bush, or both?).

By the way, I have heard plenty of moral equivalence between Iran and the United States. An equivalence between “the international community” and Iran is new to me.

ElBaradei says that a military strike on Iran would be “absolutely bonkers.” If you attack Iran, you only “strengthen the hand of the hardliners” and “encourage the extremists.” They have fresh justification, and they go underground.

Besides which, “you can’t bomb knowledge.” ElBaradei says this more than once: “You can’t bomb knowledge.” Once the know-how is gained — that’s it.

Yes, I think, but you can bomb the facilities that threaten your very existence, and you can do it again — you must do it again — if those facilities are rebuilt. No?

ElBaradei points out how terrible nuclear weapons are, and he cites Ronald Reagan to back him up. Grinning, he notes that Reagan “was not a card-carrying member of the ACLU,” and was “not a softie.”

I can’t help wondering what the ACLU has to do with it. You can be a card-carrying member of that group and know perfectly well that a nuclear deterrent is necessary. Just as Reagan knew, much as he hated this technology that had been unleashed on the world.

Anyway . . .

The journalists ask their questions, and the thrust is, “Why can’t the Americans compromise more, why can’t they be more flexible?” ElBaradei is happy to go along. He says that “a self-righteous approach will get us nowhere.” And he contends that any belligerent moves toward Iran would accelerate the mullahs’ acquisition of a weapon: because belligerence gives them impetus.

Seems like they’re motivated enough, but perhaps that is just me.

On the subject of Libya, ElBaradei says that that regime pursued WMDs because (his friend) Reagan bombed them in the mid-1980s. And the subject of Israel comes up, too. A reporter wants to know why we’re not talking about their program, while we talk about North Korea, Iran, and others.

ElBaradei, fortunately, does not pretend that Israeli nukes threaten any well-intentioned neighbor. At least, I don’t catch any such pretending.

And out we go . . .

‐You’ve heard about John Kerry, haven’t you? During a session with Mullah Khatami, our almost-president said, “When we walk away from global warming — Kyoto — when we are irresponsibly slow in moving toward AIDS in Africa, when we don’t advance and live up to our own rhetoric and standards, we send a terrible message of duplicity and hypocrisy.”

(Incidentally, the Bush administration is fantastic on AIDS in Africa, and won’t trumpet its record.)

More JFK: “So we have a crisis of confidence in the Middle East — in the world, really. I’ve never seen our country as isolated, as much as a sort of international pariah, for a number of reasons, as it is today.”

The senator also knocked the “unfortunate habit” of us americanos to see the world “exclusively through an American lens.”

It would be just like a jingo Ziocon like me to say, “Oy, vey!”

‐I’ll tell you how to spell relief: NRCoS. As in previous years, I fall into the arms of the National Review Club of Switzerland. We meet at a cozy inn for dinner — fondue, of course. NRCoS is a band of readers who get together every now and then for fellowship, cheer, and consolation. (Switzerland is not exactly a National Review-ish country; and Europe is not exactly a National Review-ish continent.) This is not a big group — but what sterling, treasurable people. None better, and an inspiration all around.

If you would like to join NRCoS, or are merely interested, please write me at the e-mail address given at the top of this column (where it says “E-mail Author”).

And I’ll see you tomorrow, for King Abdullah, Tony Blair, John McCain, and a fond farewell.

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