Last week, Vietnam abstained from the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA)’s latest resolution condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the fifth time the country has done so since the invasion in February of last year. Although Vietnam’s Ambassador to the U.N. Dang Hoang Giang called for all parties to end the conflict and resume negotiations towards a peaceful settlement as a matter of urgency, Vietnam’s abstention triggered some criticism from several Vietnam watchers, who worried that the country’s outright refusal to condemn the Russian invasion might undermine its growing cooperation with the West and weaken global support for Vietnam if China invades it in the future. Some watchers are also concerned about the morality of Hanoi’s abstention, suggesting that not condemning the “war criminal” Vladimir Putin was tantamount to siding with him.
However, while these observers have the right to be concerned, they need to be aware of the differences between “is” and “ought,” and especially the concept of “morality” in international politics. In any attempt to understand politics, analysts should see the world as it is, not as they want it to be. Understanding Vietnam’s abstention not from a perspective of any universal moral values but as an outgrowth of the country’s own historical and geopolitical context will tell us that the country’s abstention was a rational move in a circumstance in which it had no better options. It is thus analytically important to not paint Hanoi’s choice as either “right” or “wrong.”
Political analysts always grapple with the question of “morality” when assessing whether a country’s move is “right” or “wrong.” This is due to the differences between morality at the individual level and morality at the state level. At the individual level, a person can fall back on their values to make sense of the world; at the state level, meanwhile, a leader must first and foremost consider the state’s moral obligation to protect its own citizens. In other words, a state’s moral values are not simply an aggregation of the individual’s values, and actions that are perceived to be “wrong” at the individual level make sense at the state level.
This is because the state mostly operates in a world determined by power politics and not by any universal moral principles. Importantly, saying whether a state’s action is morally “right” or “wrong” in the context of analyzing its behaviors hurts the objectivity of the analysis, for it implies a course of action that the analyst thinks the state “ought” to have followed instead of what it “is” following. It is methodologically essential to avoid judging Vietnam’s abstention “right” or “wrong” when trying to understand why it decided to not pick a side.
From a rational standpoint, Vietnam’s abstention can be explained by its calculations of net benefits from taking this particular course of action. The country’s domestic political structure emphasizes continuity and consistency in foreign policy and changes its stance only when there is a clear benefit in doing so. In the context of the UNGA vote to condemn Russia, although Hanoi has repeatedly condemned the use of force in international relations, Vietnam reaps few benefits in siding with either side, which would also significantly hurt its own ties with either Moscow or Washington.
In other words, doing something hurts Vietnam more than doing nothing. Hanoi probably concludes that even if it decides to support one side, its decision will not change the balance of power in Europe and will not protect Vietnam in the event of a conflict. This is arguably very different from China’s abstention, because its support for either side could potentially sway the course of the Russia-Ukraine War. Consequently, Vietnam has understandably decided against complicating an already complex situation by picking a side. The status quo in foreign policymaking prevails.
Moreover, Hanoi has reasons to perceive that the UNGA vote reflects great-power politics instead of a defense of some universal moral code. In the late 1970s, former Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach defended the country’s decision not to condemn the Khmer Rouge attack on Vietnam at the U.N., stressing, “We do not have such high regard for the U.N. as you do… Because during the last 40 years, we have been invaded by four of the five permanent members of the Security Council.” Of course, Vietnam’s decision to overthrow the Khmer Rouge in early 1979 was not solely motivated by its abhorrence of genocide but also its preference that there be a pro-Hanoi Cambodian government.
However, the country was deeply bitter at the West’s support for the Khmer Rouge, despite its proclaimed support for some universal values such as human rights, and several high-ranking officials held on to the view that “the world owes Vietnam an apology.” From the Vietnamese perspective, the U.N. did not outright condemn China’s invasion of Vietnam in 1979, and Hanoi relied on the Soviet diplomatic support at the U.N. to avoid being condemned for invading Cambodia, a move that it saw as righteous. It has been Vietnam’s official policy to avoid being trapped in great power politics, and picking a side in the UNGA vote came too close to violating its neutral foreign policy for little clear benefit.
While there is some legitimate concern that Vietnam’s abstention will hurt its chance of being supported in a war against China in the future, such concern is exaggerated. Vietnam’s diplomatic priority is to maintain amicable relations with China, and only when such an effort fails will it seek external support against Beijing. Importantly, Vietnam is confident that if it is important enough to the Western efforts to contain China, it will receive support no matter what. In the grand scheme of things, the political significance of Vietnam’s hypothetical support for Ukraine is much smaller than Vietnam’s support for the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy. If the U.S. is willing to work closely with the Communist Party of Vietnam, there are few reasons why it cannot ignore Vietnam’s abstention to maintain the upward trajectory of the bilateral ties, so long as Hanoi does not explicitly pick a side, like the case of another U.S. partner India.
When a crisis happens, it is always easy to criticize a country for doing nothing rather than something, but doing something is not always a prudent course of action. Criticism based on an assumption of the existence of universal moral values in international politics deprives serious analysis of its objectivity and turns the conversation into a normative instead of a positive endeavor. If the job is to explain, not prescribe, then objectivity is a must. This is not to suggest that morality does not matter at all in understanding a state’s behavior, but morality tends not to be important to issues concerning its vital interests. Vietnam’s abstention was neither “right” nor “wrong,” but rational in its consistent pursuit of national interests.