Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung met with Bush at the White House yesterday--the third major Vietnamese leader to be received by the U.S. since diplomatic relations were normalized between the two countries in 1995. Though the Congressional Caucus on Vietnam called for the White House to address Vietnam's poor human rights record, economic cooperation came first on the administration’s agenda. Why? Because while bilateral trade is booming between the two countries, the U.S. remains far behind China in terms of its economic and diplomatic leverage in the region. Bush’s fear of falling even further behind probably led him to skirt human rights concerns completely and instead praise Hanoi for its improved tolerance of “religious freedom.”

But he missed a great opportunity to explain to the prime minister that economic growth can be a direct result of improved governance and a stronger civil society. Take for example the recent case of two Vietnamese journalists who were arrested for uncovering a major corruption scandal in the country's transport ministry. The arrests have cast serious doubt on the government’s high-profile campaign against corruption, eliciting an unprecedented outcry from internal groups and weakening public confidence in the Communist-led government. Bush could have argued that such bullying tactics don’t only raise the hackles of human rights groups, but they also deter long-term economic growth and foreign investors. Unlike China, Vietnam cannot compete by virtue of scale alone. As an emerging--and still precarious--economy, it will have to burnish its image to foreign investors in other ways, so it can’t afford to harbor so many bad actors.

Of course, I certainly don't believe that all political reform in the developing world should be motivated by the market. The U.S., moreover, can’t be expected to give up years of hard-won comity to extol the virtues of an open society just as ties have begun deepening between the two nations. But given Vietnam’s alarming economic crisis--the country is plagued by runaway inflation, labor unrest, and the world's worst performing stock market--its fiscal leaders arrived here in search of answers.

Nguyen Tan Dung plans to meet with Alan Greenspan and Hank Paulson later in the week. John McCain and Barack Obama, too. Perhaps one of these men--and with any luck, more than one--will try to impress upon the prime minister that he can get his country out of its economic tailspin while also improving the lives of its citizens. Whether he takes it to heart is a different story, but shouldn’t diplomatic visits such as this one be about more than getting your picture taken?  

--Suzy Khimm