You don’t have to be too terribly old to have believed this day would never come. The United States announced that it would be resuming full diplomatic relations with Libya after 26 years and almost simultaneously announced agreement on a trade deal with Vietnam, clearing the way for the nation to join the World Trade Organization.
Both announcements were accompanied by suitably high-minded official boilerplate.
Said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in welcoming Libya to the “mainstream” of the international community: “Today marks the opening of a new era in U.S.-Libyan relations that will benefit Americans and Libyans alike.”
U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman, congratulating Vietnam on taking an essential step toward “integration into the global economy,” said the deal “signals an historic step in our bilateral relationship.”
For eight years, U.S. combat troops in Vietnam fought communist guerrillas and the communist north. South Vietnam collapsed in 1975, two years after U.S. withdrawal. Since then, relations between Washington and Hanoi have been painstakingly rebuilt.
The trade agreement lowers Vietnamese tariffs on U.S. manufactured and farm goods and lowers barriers to U.S. workers and investments in Vietnam. The trade is relatively modest, $1.2 billion in U.S. exports and $6.5 million in Vietnamese exports, but Vietnam does have 84 million people and one of the world’s fastest-growing economies.
The United States had no worse relations in the 1980s than those with Libya, and especially its leader, Moammar Gadhafi, whom the Reagan administration tried to kill in 1986 in response to repeated Libyan-sponsored terrorist attacks. After Libya owned up to the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, a U.N.-U.S. embargo was gradually lifted and relations slowly thawed.
In 2003 — some believe because of the invasion of Iraq — Gadhafi renounced both terrorism and his nuclear-weapons program, turning over his nuclear material to the United States for safekeeping.
Full diplomatic relations will give the United States access to Libya’s vast oil reserves and give Libya access to the investment it needs to revitalize its oil fields.
Critics say that neither arrangement will improve the bleak human-rights situation in Vietnam and Libya. Maybe not immediately, but with engagement comes hope for the long term, not something anyone would have likely predicted in the 1970s and 1980s.