Negotiating Face in Vietnam: American Neorealism and Face-Negotiation Theory
November 28, 2009
by Kimberly Ruff
Since the fall of Saigon in 1975, communication scholars and political scientists continue to ask themselves, "how could Vietnam happen?" Although much research has been done on the failures of US military strategy, both in terms of actions abroad as well as maintaining public support at home, very few studies have explored how the cultural differences between the United States and Vietnam factored heavily into shaping and executing incompatible foreign policy goals. In this essay, I explore this issue.
For communication scholars and political scientists alike, the Vietnam War is a subject of great interest. Beginning with the first advisors sent under Eisenhower and lasting until the fall of Saigon in 1975, the Vietnam War lasted twenty years in real time, but continues to dominant the American narrative as a prime example of a “bad war.” The first major defeat of US military forces at the hands of a poorly-defined enemy that failed to manifest in a signed and honored peace treaty, the Vietnam War lacked all the associated elements of a legitimate war. On the home front, it was neither called a war, nor treated as such, as public officials frequently referred to it as a “conflict” and Congress never officially declared it thus. Yet by the 1960s, with the military-industrial complex in full swing and the body count reaching unprecedented highs, it was impossible to deny: America was entrenched in a war in a small Southeast Asian country and there appeared to be no end in sight. Public sentiment turned against the war, its civilian commanders, and the soldiers in the front; by the early 1970s, it became increasingly obvious that while successful abroad, at home the war was lost. In April of 1975, the capital of South Vietnam, Saigon, fell and less than a year later, South and North Vietnam unified.
Despite the Vietnam War ending over thirty years ago, scholars continue to ask the question that has plagued Americans since the 1970s: how could Vietnam happen? (Thomson, 2004). Although much research has been done on the failures of US military strategy, both in terms of actions abroad as well as maintaining public support at home (Thomson, 2004; Khong, 2004), very few studies have explored how the cultural differences between the United States and Vietnam factored heavily into shaping and executing incompatible foreign policy goals. It is my belief that, in addition to the strategic failures of the United States military, American public officials, working from a decidedly western-individualist framework, failed to adequately assess and understand the eastern-collectivist mindset of their Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian counterparts, and were thus ill-prepared to handle, much less resolve, an intercultural conflict on such a grand scale. To understand my reasoning, I will first discuss the factors that influenced American foreign policy during the Cold War, focusing primarily on Neorealism, the international relations theory that undergirded foreign policy decision-making. Next, I will synthesize existing research on intercultural conflict and the fundamental differences between individualist and collectivist cultures. Finally, I will examine and apply Ting-Toomey’s Facework Negotiation theory to the Vietnam War to assess the extent to which American foreign policy actions during the Vietnam War were damaging to face and thus, the possibility of victory.
Containing the Threat: American Foreign Policy During the Cold War
Before discussing American foreign policy during the Cold War, we must understand the purpose of American foreign policy. Since the founding of our country, our foreign policy goals have primarily focused on promoting national security and prosperity (Schlesinger, 1997). During the first half of our country’s development, these goals were relatively easy to achieve. Isolated from the rest of the world by two large oceans and situated on a land mass high in natural resources, securing ourselves from foreign threats while building our national wealth required nothing more than a foreign policy approach of traditionalist-unilateralism (Ruggie, 1996). Traditionalist-unilateralism is tantamount to isolationism; it is the understanding that we will be responsible for solving our own problems and abstain from involving ourselves in the problems of others (Ruggie, 1996). During the turn of the 20th Century when our global community grew closer together and aggressions abroad brought conflicts to our door, however, ensuring our survival and continued prosperity demanded our involvement in foreign affairs and our grand strategy changed to one of internationalist-multilateralism (Ruggie, 1996). This approach highlighted our role in the global community; we could no longer afford to take a non-interventionist approach to foreign affairs (Schlesinger, 1984; Leffler, 1984; Ruggie, 1996). Initially proposed by Wilson at the conclusion of WWI with the League of Nations, internationalist-multilateralism is the precise grand strategy that Franklin Roosevelt turned to after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and became the rationale that guided our actions during WWII and manifested in the establishment of the United Nations, and other economic and political alliances (Schlesinger, 1984).
With the conclusion of WWII, two comparable powers emerged victorious, the United States and the Soviet Union, but the warmth of victory quickly cooled as we settled into a long, tense relationship of mutual suspicion and competition (Leffler, 1984; Ruggie, 1996). Focusing on the ideological differences that divided the democratic United States from the communist Soviet Union, leaders of both nations ignored the tenuous alliance that allowed them to decimate Hitler’s Nazi Regime and Hirohito’s Japanese Empire and focused primarily on curbing the influence the other had in the global arena (Leffler, 1984). For its part, the United States encouraged economic growth in Europe through the North Atlantic Trade Organization (NATO), set up satellite bases in strategic locations on the periphery of US territory, and ramped up their nuclear arms program, space program, and involvement in foreign affairs to balance every check made by the USSR (Leffler, 1984; Waltz, 1990). This was our policy of containment; if the Soviet threat was not properly contained, we risked the possibility of another world war (Leffler, 1984; Brzezinski, 1994).
Indeed, there were times during the Cold War in which the possibility of the icy tension between the United States and the Soviet Union turning into heated conflict was an imminent one (Brzezinski, 1994). The Cuban Missile Crisis is a prime example; had Kennedy and Khrushchev not come to an agreement, there is no doubt that tensions would have reached a boiling point (Brzezinski, 1994). Yet despite the periodic eruptions in the day-to-day of living under the mantle of the Cold War, there was no utterance of “we’re enemies”, no direct reference to the perpetual deadlock these two world powers found themselves in. It was simply understood that if either nation-state failed to keep an ever-vigilant eye trained upon each other, they would lose the race for the coveted title of “global hegemon.” Without the explicit message, however, what made it possible for both to implicitly understand the rules that guided their actions?
A Hobbesian World: Neorealism and Foreign Policy Making
Although most nation-states have the same general foreign policy goals of national security and prosperity, the strategies they employ are guided by theories of international relations (Weber, 2005). International relations theories function similarly to other social scientific theories: observing the behavior of certain actors on the international stage, political scientists use inductive reasoning to form an adequate theory of international relations that serves to not only to explain current or past events, but to also predict future ones (Weber, 2005). These theories are built on certain assumptions about the nature of humans and their behavior in our world, and are incredibly powerful; their predictive capabilities directly influence foreign policymaking (Weber, 2005). This can have both positive and negative effects. If the predictions of the chosen theory hold true, the actions of foreign policymakers were wise. If, however, foreign policymakers were functioning on erroneous assumptions, their actions could have disastrous consequences. Thus, accuracy is key when it comes to devising international relations theories and formulating a foreign policy grand strategy (Weber, 2005).
During the Cold War, American foreign policy was built on the international relations theory of Neorealism (Waltz, 1967). First argued by Waltz in 1954, Neorealism is a modernist adaptation of realism, which argues that anarchy exists at the international level in the absence of a sovereign ruler, nation-states, in their quest for power, were prone to conflict (Badie, 2001; Waltz, 1988). Neorealism, however, suggests that rather than power being the prime mover for nation-states, it’s survival (Waltz, 1988). Power is still a significant factor, but it functions more as a signal for other nation-states, who gauge the size of threat posed based on the presence or absence of a comfortable level of power in competing nation-states (Waltz, 1988). Nation-states with too little power are perceived as weak and open for attack, while nation-states with too much power are perceived as a threat, prompting increased arms production, intelligence gathering, coalition-building, and military strategizing (Waltz, 1988). In effect, Neorealism is a systemic theory, arguing that the anarchic nature of international society permits nation-states within it to engage in an unceasing struggle for survival, whereby peace is only achieved when a balance of power is present among the strongest actors, and war is imminent when there is not (Waltz, 1988; Badie, 2001; Braumoeller, 2008).
The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, lasting from 1945 until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1991, is a prime example of what Waltz terms a “bipolar world” (Waltz, 1964). Two major powers are engaged in a perpetual security dilemma; the rise in power of one power is perceived as a threat to the survival of the other, who engages in similar power-accruing tactics to achieve an equilibrium. In a bipolar world, there are no peripheries (Waltz, 1964). As the Soviet Union had the capability to inflict damage on our country in a manner unrivaled by any other power, their actions were of the utmost interest to us, and vice versa (Waltz, 1964). According to Waltz, “any event in the world that involves the fortunes of the Soviet Union or the United States automatically elicits the other” (Waltz, 1964, p. 882). The Korean War is a prime example of this phenomenon; with the Soviet Union backing the North Koreans, the United States, who previously had no interest or concern with this region of the world, backed the South (Waltz, 1964). Furthermore, the make-up of a bipolar world increases the range of factors included in the competition between the two powers (Waltz, 1964). Not only was the United States concerned with the Soviet’s political influence on the rest of the world, it harbored great anxiety over the economic success and scientific and technological growth of the USSR (Waltz, 1964, 1988).
It has often been suggested by American politicians and pundits that the reason for the Cold War was the incompatibility of two competing ideologies. While little doubt exists that the political and economic goals of communism and liberal-capitalism cannot successfully coexist within the same nation-state (Ball & Dagger, 2009), it does not mean that they cannot coexist within the same international system. Soviet Communism, kept within the confines of its own country, was not a threat to the American way of life; Soviet aggression coupled with nuclear armaments however, was (Waltz, 1990). It was imperative Americans kept the size and scope of the Soviet sphere of influence limited. Thus, the entire foreign policy approach during the Cold War was to contain the Soviet threat, and the primary concern in Vietnam was that if even one Southeast Asian nation-state fell under their influence, auxiliary nation-states would all fall like a line of dominos (Waltz, 1967, 1990).
Individualism v. Collectivism: The United States and Vietnam
For the same reason that there are a myriad of political ideologies and international relations theories shaping the foreign policy approaches of nation-states, there are a myriad of cultures within any given region of the world: not everyone agrees on the fundamental issues of human nature and social, political, and economic relationships. Culture, according to Hall (1997, as cited in Weber, 2005), is “not so much a set of things…as a process, a set of practices; it is the production and the exchange of meanings…between members of a society or group” (p. 3). In addition to the obvious trappings of culture – language, art, cuisine, and fashion – cultures vary significantly in how they view themselves individually and as a group. Known as cultural individualism-collectivism (I-C), members within a given culture share the same general set of beliefs, attitudes, and values about the world and their role in it; it influences the type of goals they give themselves and drive their actions (Oeztel & Ting-Toomey, 2003). Individualist cultures “consist of loosely linked individuals who view themselves as independent of collectives and who give priority to their personal goals over the goals of others.” (Oeztel & Ting-Toomey, 2003, p. 602). Collectivist cultures, on the other hand, consist “of closely linked individuals who see themselves as part of one or more collectives (family, coworkers, tribe, nation) and are willing to give priority to the goals of these collectives over their own personal goals” (Oeztel & Ting-Toomey, 2003, p. 602). By definition, the United States constitutes an “individualist” culture, while Vietnam constitutes a “collectivist” culture.
Cultural I-C has a central role in how individuals and groups within a given culture manage conflict. Conflict, defined by Oeztel & Ting-Toomey (2003), is the “perceived and/or incompatibility of values, expectations, processes, or outcomes between two or more parties over substantive and/or relational issues” (p. 599). Individualist cultures are more likely to engage in direct communication and employ dominating or integrating strategies to handle conflict than collectivist cultures (Oetzel & Ting-Toomey, 2003). Collectivist cultures, on the other hand, are more likely to engage in indirect communication and employ more avoiding strategies than individualists (Oetzel & Ting-Toomey, 2003).
Saving Face: Facework Negotiation Theory & Vietnam
Every culture, to some degree or another, negotiates face. Defined as an “individual’s claimed sense of positive image in the context of social interaction (Ting-Toomey, 1988, as cited in Oetzel & Ting-Toomey, 2001, p. 235), face concerns have a significant impact on the conflict styles of different cultures. Broken into three types, face concerns can either be self, other, or mutual (Oetzel & Ting-Toomey, 2001). Self-face is one’s concern for their own image, other-face is one’s concern for the image of someone else, and mutual-face is concern for the face of both parties in an interaction (Oeztel & Ting-Toomey, 2001). When conflict threatens one of these three types of face, individuals and groups within conflict engage in facework (Oetzel & Ting-Toomey, 2000, 2001, 2003). Facework is the “actions taken to deal with the face-wants of one and/or the other” (Lim, 1994, as cited in Oetzel & Ting-Toomey, 2000). In effect, facework are the conflict strategies and tactics employed by individuals or groups engaged in conflict to help protect, or save, face (Oetzel & Ting-Toomey, 2000, 2001, 2003).
Cultural I-C has a direct impact on the type of facework individuals within a given culture engage in (Oetzel & Ting-Toomey, 2000). According to Oetzel & Ting-Toomey (2000), “collectivist tend to use other-oriented face-saving strategies such as avoiding and obliging to maintain relational harmony, and individualists tend to use direct face-saving strategies such as integrating and then dominating” (p. 402). Within the context of interpersonal relationships, conflicting styles of conflict management without a solid understanding of the framework each party is working from can oftentimes create uncomfortable situations and prolong the conflict. Applying it to the aggregate, (i.e. conflict between entire cultures as represented by their respective nation-states) suggests misunderstandings of sizable proportions that can have disastrous consequences.
Although it would be foolish to suggest that threats to, and losses of, face were the central reasoning behind the prolonged, devastating conflict between the USSR-backed North Vietnamese and the US-backed South Vietnamese, it would similarly be foolish to ignore the very real impact face concerns have in the theater of war. As previously illustrated, the primary concern of the United States going into Vietnam had little to do with interest in either the Vietnamese people or the country of Vietnam, itself. Rather, the United States was concerned with saving self-face in light of the face-threatening behavior of the Soviet Union, and Vietnam was nothing more than an extension of the Soviet threat (Khong, 2004; Thomson, 2004). Functioning on the neorealist assumption of politics as a zero-sum game in which the success of one actor meant the failure of another, the United States could not allow the USSR the upper hand. Thus, the United States became involved. It began in earnest when military advisors were sent to aid the French in the early fifties and escalated into the full-scale deployment of US troops and armaments to support the South Vietnamese government by the fifteen year mark.
How can one argue the butterfly effect? In terms of the Vietnam War, one cannot suggest that had one of the thousands of factors involved been different, the whole outcome would have been different. What can be suggested, however, is that whenever we engage in conflict, particularly on as grand a scale as a war, we need to be more cognizant of the face concerns of all parties. We cannot view the situation through an ethnocentric lens and presume to know the intentions of others without making a careful study of their culture and its accompanying needs. In the case of the Vietnam War, the two major actors – Vietnam and the United States – were not merely two nation-states, but two different cultures, entrenched in a military conflict. The US had its goal of containing the Soviet threat, but cared little as to the goals of the Vietnamese. Illustrative of the differences in perception between the two cultures comes in the name each group has given the conflict: Americans refer to it as the “Vietnam War”, but the Vietnamese refer to it as the “Resistance War Against America.”
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