May 19 (Bloomberg) — Gisele Bundchen and Vietnam are two ideas that don't easily co-exist in the mind of the average American. One is a male fantasy in Lycra, the other an ancient political memory of a war gone wrong.
The Victoria's Secret supermodel and the old war may yet go together if Congress does the right thing this summer by easing trade restrictions between the nations. If it does, it will be a tale of interest to both sexes.
Consider the Vietnamese past. As a French colony, Vietnam traded with its overlord. But lies and exploitation were a big part of the relationship. Sure there was legitimate commerce, but too often, the demoralizing, counterproductive kind. Opium. Prostitution.
Even those who weren't there then know this from the literature — Graham Greene's House of Five Hundred Girls, the brothel on Rue Catinat in "The Quiet American."
Though authors like Greene mocked the idea, moving Vietnam toward more honest trade and stability was one reason the U.S. originally got involved.
In November 1961, Dean Rusk spoke of Vietnam in a speech at the Waldorf-Astoria. He told the crowd that one of the goals of the U.S. in its foreign policy was "a worldwide system of freer trade." The ideal of a global free-trade order that included Vietnam didn't come about in that decade, or in the next, or even in the next. The communists prevented it.
East German Model
And even after the war, Vietnam remained cut off and poor. The most citizens could hope for from Hanoi's regime was to become guest workers in less impoverished Soviet-bloc countries. The expectations for the future were so low as to seem tragic today.
In 1986, the year Bundchen was six, a member of the central committee of Vietnam's communist party and several fellow leaders gave an interview to the New York Times about the country's economic ambitions. One day, these reformers said, Vietnam hoped to have a flourishing private economy — something like that of East Germany.
Even in the early 1990s there seemed little hope for Vietnam. There had been false starts and failures. But what the economic liberalization of Vietnam this past decade has done is to finally allow the country to develop a culture of honest trade.
Trade with the U.S. alone has increased 400 percent since 2001. A good share of that commerce is in textiles and apparel, including lingerie. America's retailers are already in Vietnam, including Limited Brands Inc., parent of Victoria's Secret, where Bundchen has her multimillion-dollar contract.
The trade has been valuable for nearly all parties involved. The Vietnamese economy grew 50 percent in the past four years, a fact that may someday help curtail widespread child prostitution. U.S. exports to Vietnam were $1.2 billion last year, up 24 percent from 2004.
The Bush Administration is pushing for more. This month, departing U.S. Trade Representative Robert Portman signed a bilateral trade agreement with Vietnam that cuts U.S. tariffs on Vietnamese exports. Vietnam for its part has agreed to reduce state subsidies of its manufacturers, illegal under international trade law. Under the accord, 94 percent of U.S. exports to Vietnam will face duties of 15 percent or less.
Congress's part comes this summer, when the bilateral agreement is up for approval. Adoption would enable Vietnam to join the World Trade Organization. As a WTO member, Vietnam's trade would explode and also give permanence to Vietnam's new identity. Gisele Bundchen would be able to add Vietnamese lingerie to a wardrobe now stocked with goods made in Sri Lanka and Jordan. A good ending to a bad story.
Some will call these arguments naive. After all, sex traffic of the old kind still plagues Vietnam. Just recently Gary Glitter, the British rocker, was sentenced to three years in Vietnamese prison for sexually abusing children at a resort on Vung Tau.
And Congress may block the progress. The National Council of Textile Organizations, an industry lobby, called the bilateral agreement a "lose-lose" deal. The council says the deal will fail to stop Vietnam from subsidizing manufacturing. In other words, this is not free trade but the further legalization of dumping by a country with a questionable regime.
But dumping or not, U.S. textile jobs are going to move overseas — they have been for years. What's important is that the Vietnamese get a chance to prove that they too know what citizens of developed nations knew all along. The manufacture of apparel leads to further advances, selling services, computers — Intel Inc. recently obtained a license to build a factory in Ho Chi Minh City.
Selling underwear is a start — and a whole lot better than selling yourself. Gisele, surely, would agree.
(Amity Shlaes is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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