President Bush arrived in Hanoi the other day for discussions about regional economic issues. He would have done well to discuss America's fears about the "dominoes" of Asian capitalism.
You may remember the old domino theory of Asian communism. Four decades ago, American policymakers clung to the idea that the big domino of Soviet Communism had toppled China, and the domino of Chinese communism had then toppled North Vietnam. Unless the United States propped up South Vietnam, it was assumed, all of Indo-China would become communist.
Tens of thousands of Americans died in that war before America got out and let the dominoes fall where they may.
But then a strange thing happened. Soviet Communism disappeared. China became the fastest-growing big capitalist nation in the world. And Vietnam became one of the hottest markets in Southeast Asia.
The real domino turned out not to be communism, but capitalism.
Yet the capitalist domino seems almost as threatening to America today as the communist one was 40 years ago. Republican leaders in the House just called off a vote on a measure that would have given Vietnam permanent normal trade relations with the United States. They didn't think they could get the votes needed to pass it.
Talk about shooting ourselves in the feet. Early next year, as part of its entry into the World Trade Organization, Vietnam will reduce tariffs on foreign goods and open its telecom and financial services sectors to foreign investment. But as things now stand, America won't benefit from these measures because Congress won't normalize trade relations with Vietnam.
Why not? Some right-wingers still regard Vietnam as a menace. One Republican congressman said America shouldn't trade with its "mortal enemies." Republicans from textile-producing states don't want cheap fabrics from Vietnam. A majority of House Democrats think Vietnam's labor standards are inadequate.
Maybe Vietnam could do more to convince America it's no longer a threat. Perhaps its labor standards should be improved. But there's reason to suspect there's something more going on here than a vote against trade with that former communist nation.
Congress's distrust extends beyond Vietnam, to other areas where global capitalism is expanding. Trade bills now pending with several poor countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America are also in jeopardy. Don't expect the next Congress to look on these trade deals more favorably. Many of the newly-elected members campaigned openly and vocally against free trade.
Whether it's a renewed fear of foreigners, or fear of job losses to them, this nation seems to be turning inward. Sadly for us, as well as for millions of poor people around the world, America may be on the brink of a new Cold War --with the enemy this time not global communism but global capitalism.
Robert Reich, former secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, is professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley.