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A woman in Vietnam

The Brief: Vietnam syndrome

The Brief  is a breakdown of the forces driving the headlines, and what you can do to make a difference

Catch-up Just to clear this up – Vietnam syndrome is not an actual disease. Marvin Kalb, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute – an international affairs think tank in Washington D.C – defines it as a ‘fundamental reluctance to commit American military power anywhere in the world’.

While Kalb’s definition refers to American military power, it’s relevant to the western democracies in general. The definition comes from the period following the Vietnam war, where popular opinion in the United States was heavily weighted against any kind of foreign intervention. In some ways, this was a logical reaction to a war that resulted in unimaginable tragedy, but it begins to become dangerous when it morphs into isolationism.

Why does it matter The modern day parallel is clear. People who supported and opposed the Iraq war will agree that the outcome was tragic. Yet despite the record breaking protests, the war was relatively popular in its early stages, only becoming significantly unpopular with hindsight. 54 per cent of people at the time believed it was the right decision, but in 2015 only 37 per cent of people told pollsters that they believed it was the right decision back in 2003. This is collective Vietnam syndrome in action.

This slide towards isolationism can have dangerous consequences. The post-war liberal world order is currently in the balance, with Russia and China on the rise, the United States in retreat, and the fracturing of European alliances. Our collective inaction when Vladimir Putin made the decision to annex Crimea has only emboldened him. Since then we’ve had assassinations on British soil, interference in elections worldwide and mass-slaughter of innocent civilians in Syria.

Learning the mistakes from Vietnam and Iraq is important – but knowing when to stand up to a bully is also important. This doesn’t mean a rush to arms, but it means acknowledging that we have a responsibility to protect the post-war order that we have worked so hard to build.

People are saying Jack Clayton for the Progress website: ‘The near-success of the Bernie Sanders campaign for the Democratic nomination in 2016 showed that the effects of this new Vietnam syndrome are particularly pertinent on the left. We’re also seeing it on our doorstep here in the UK. Jeremy Corbyn was one of the first – and most vocal – critics of the Iraq war, drawing significant support for this position. However, one of the most dangerous symptoms of Vietnam syndrome is comparing all of the diverse and distinct foreign policy challenges to Iraq. This is simplistic at best; at worst it’s ignorant. One shouldn’t justify going to war simply because Kosovo was successful or argue against it because Iraq went wrong.’

Put it on your reading list ‘The world as it is’ by President Obama’s deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes. It gives first-hand insight into a White House that tried to balance America’s role in the world without rushing to war.

Watch this President Obama speaks to Vox on ‘the state of the world’ and his foreign policy approach.


Stefan Rollnick is the editorial assistant at Progress. He tweets @StefanRollnick


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