North Korea, China, Vietnam, Cuba — a case for humility and understanding

May 4, 2012 by Joshua
in Blog, Freedom, NorthKorea

The major “Communist” countries my country invaded or fought during the Cold War without doing so well — I just visited (or smoked a cigar from).

It gives you the opportunity to learn.

The dominant voices in the United States, especially during an election year, cheer that we’re number one. You hardly hear anything else. I can’t imaging a politician disagreeing in the slightest having a hope of election.

Seeing how others perceive us is enlightening and humbling. Each has a major claim to victory over the United States despite overwhelming odds.

China: An elderly Texan oil man in Beijing — a man in any other context I would expect to praise God, country, and the great state of Texas — bluntly told me he’s been living in Beijing for a decade because the United States had long become number two to China.

North Korea: North Korea does what it pleases with little regard to warnings from the United States as it has for decades. It launches rockets, explodes nuclear weapons, counterfeits U.S. currency, and so on at its leisure.

Vietnam: After the U.S. left South Vietnam, the North took over and renamed Saigon Ho Chi Minh City, after the guy the U.S. tried to defeat. The War Remnants Museum (I’ll post about it later), however one-sided, forces you to consider, if nothing else, what we were doing on the other side of the world in a tiny country, bombing them “into the stone age” and “destroying the villages to save them.” I can answer those questions, but the answers never add up.

Cuba: I’ve never been there, so I’ll keep quiet except noting they make a mean cigar.

I stand by what I consider America’s greatest values, but Americans, and America as a country, would benefit through similar understanding and humility. You can’t learn from anyone if you think you’re better than everyone. (EDIT: I wrote a post on quotes from Robert McNamara, who played a major leadership role in Vietnam, describing what he learned from the experience, also describing the value of understanding and empathy).

Leadership benefits from non-judgmental understanding of other people’s perspectives, even if you disagree. Understanding doesn’t mean agreement. If you don’t understand people’s beliefs, perspectives, values, and motivations, they will not see you as credible and you will limit your ability to influence them. As the U.S. found with these four countries, if you can’t influence them, you are powerless with them, no matter how large your military.

Many people view the United States as a violent imperialist aggressor that has lost wars against much smaller countries it had no reason to invade in the first place. Many Americans disagree. They may even have more facts on their side — I don’t take a position here — but that doesn’t change other people’s perspectives.

If America wants to continue what leadership it has — does any halo of the Marshall Plan linger? — it would do well to understand other people’s perspectives.

Why “Communist” instead of communist?

I put “Communist” in quotes at the top of this post for a couple reasons.

First, I rarely find labels improve communication.

But mainly because China and Vietnam, at least at the street level, appear as capitalist as any place I’ve seen. You couldn’t count the number of small business running on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. The entrepreneurship is amazing. I couldn’t help but think about how much U.S. laws have come to favor large businesses and impede entrepreneurship.

Anyone who thinks the U.S. is operating at its full potential has no idea what they’re talking about. We have a lot to learn from these countries we think we’re more powerful than yet couldn’t defeat. In particular in areas we consider our strengths and their weaknesses.

Humility and understanding would help a lot.

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5 responses on “North Korea, China, Vietnam, Cuba — a case for humility and understanding

  1. “But mainly because China and Vietnam, at least at the street level, appear as capitalist as any place I’ve seen. ”

    Definitely agree. This is one thing I always struggle to explain to people who haven’t been to China, but get the impression from media sources that it’s something like North Korea. Street culture there is so chaotic and anarchistic, that you real feel the party’s grip on society is tenuous at best. (I don’t mean the party is weak — it’ll be around for a while — but the Chinese state probably has less control over most of society than most Western governments).

    I’ve never been to America, but I think your comments would apply to the “West” as a whole. I saw a graphic online yesterday explaining how “fortunate” those of us born in the West are — but I think being a Westerner is not that fortunate these days. A middle class person in an emerging market economy has pretty decent standard of living, and it’s rising extremely rapidly. India was poor, crowded and dirty, but I also saw programming and business textbooks for sale on street stalls.

    This might not be news to people like us, but it’s almost unknown to the 80%+ of the Western world that doesn’t read the Economist or FT and travels abroad only rarely. The West being the dominant civilisation is a historical anomaly, but it’s going to be very hard for most Westerners to adjust to a world where that’s not the case.

    • This trip has given me a humbling view of the U.S. Humbling, for me, means opportunity to learn and grow, so I don’t say it to put anyone down.

      You described exactly what I see humbling the U.S. So many other countries surpass, at least in some ways, the U.S. at what its leaders and culture declare some of its greatest strengths — entrepreneurship and ability to improve oneself through hard work and helpful ideas — while showing it regressing. The U.S. has great success stories of entrepreneurship and Horatio Algers, but also stifling of these things, particularly through a once-effective-now-distorted-and-counterproductive patent and copyright system. Anyone who thinks intellectual property laws are necessary for entrepreneurship and innovation doesn’t know what they’re talking about. Counterexamples abound, as you mentioned.

      Comparing the number of visible businesses per mile of roadway in Vietnam — a “communist” country the U.S. lost a war with — to the U.S., the U.S. comes nowhere close. Is that measure meaningful? I don’t know, but I could see it with my eyes. And I’d prefer a small food vendor and its produce to an Applebee’s and its freeze-dried manufactured “food” any day.

      • There is a counterpoint I should bring up — I read one study that found that government schemes to promote “entrepreneurship” in general can sometimes have a negative effect on productivity, as they just tend to support the creation of small mon & pop businesses that don’t make much money. It’s the high-growth startups that really make an impact on the economy. (

        By this logic, the number of street vendors in an economy doesn’t really matter. I’m not 100% convinced — I think “little” entrepreneurship does encourage “big” entrepreneurship.

        • I can see that happening (or not, like you). On the other hand, while small mom and pops may contribute less to the GDP or increase productivity, they may create a lot of independence and happiness. I suspect as nations switch to other measures of well-being than GDP, society will come to favor them more.

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