Former US Ambassador to Vietnam Ted Osius Shares Stories of the Heroes who Turned Enemies into Friends
Behind every milestone in international diplomacy is a team of people who made it happen. In his book, Nothing is Impossible: America’s Reconciliation with Vietnam, Ted Osius recounts his experience as the United States’ ambassador to Vietnam between 2014 and 2017, during which he helped lead the negotiations to restore relations between the two countries.
On October 17, Ambassador Osius, now President and CEO of the US-ASEAN Business Council, visited Columbia to discuss his book and the current and future state of US-Asia relations. Lien-Hang Nguyen, Dorothy Borg Associate Professor in the History of the United States and East Asia introduced the event. Thomas J. Christensen, James T. Shotwell Professor of International Relations and Director of the China and the World Program, moderated. Also in attendance were Thomas Vallely, Senior Advisor for Mainland Southeast Asia at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, who played a major role in the diplomatic effort; and Jane C. Ginsburg, daughter of the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg –– who officiated Osius's renewal of vows to his husband in 2015.
In his opening remarks, Osius painted a tapestry of the events leading up to the US reconciliation with Vietnam that began with an unlikely friendship between Democrat John Kerry and Republican John McCain. The two senators, both Vietnam War veterans, had very different experiences of the war––while Kerry returned from the battlefield to become an outspoken critic of the war, McCain, who survived a harrowing ordeal as a prisoner of war, arrived back on American soil steadfast in his support for the US cause.
But the two rivals were able to bridge their differences to tackle an even greater goal in the interest of their country: helping to bring old enemies––the US and Vietnam––together.
With Nothing is Impossible, Osius sought to share the stories of “the heroes who turned enemies into friends” and tell “not just stories of people who are extremely well known, but the stories also of the Vietnamese counterparts and the people” who played a quiet, yet pivotal role in the reconciliation.
In addition to offering insight into the process of improving bilateral relations, Osius spoke about other priorities during his tenure in the State Department, including his work on the Trans-Pacific Partnership and human rights issues. Osius was the first openly gay US ambassador to serve in East Asia and cofounded Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies. Other topics of discussion included China’s influence in the region and the work of ASEAN.
Responding to audience questions about the challenges of negotiating with a country whose track record on human rights has been subject to US criticism, Osius emphasized that even when there are significant differences in values, it is more valuable to have a channel for dialogue than none at all.
“When you engage, you have a chance to move the needle,” he said.
This event was organized by the Weatherhead East Asian Institute and cosponsored by the China and the World Program and the School of International and Public Affairs.