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Although the presidential campaign is capturing most of public and media attention these days, there are significant developments internationally -- not all of them bad -- that shouldn't be overlooked.

There is the ongoing mayhem in Syria and Iraq and the continuing threat of terrorism in a variety of locales.

The United Kingdom will soon have a referendum on whether to remain in the European Union, a vote that could have broad ramifications. Regardless of the outcome, Europe is burdened with economic doldrums and a flood of immigrants from the conflict-ridden regions.

Among other potentially significant and even hopeful developments have been improved U.S. relations with Cuba and with Vietnam, former American "enemies," whose modern histories are intricately entangled with ours.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson and several other Arkansas officials are pushing for a reduction of barriers to U.S. agricultural sales to Cuba, recognizing the potential benefits to Arkansas agriculture. He was the first U.S governor to visit Cuba following restoration of diplomatic relations.

President Obama has visited Cuba and Vietnam recently. Both countries still have significant shortcomings in human rights. U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Arkansas, and some Republican colleagues sent Obama a letter urging him to press Vietnamese leaders to do more to respect human rights. Obama did speak up strongly on this subject as he had done on his earlier historic trip to Cuba.

On his Vietnam trip, the headlines emphasized that the U.S. was ending the long-standing embargo on arms sales -- putting the Vietnam War further behind us, though it remains a defining event in the history of both nations. The 58,000 Americans and as many as 2 million Vietnamese who were killed should never be forgotten.

A major factor in lifting the arms ban is mutual apprehension over what is seen as China's growing assertiveness in the region, particularly its expansive maritime claims in the South China Sea.

One of the highlights of Obama's visit was announcement of the agreement to open Fulbright University Vietnam in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), the first independent university in the country and one which will operate under the principles of academic freedom. It will offer a master's degree in public policy, one of a number of educational initiatives.

John Kerry, who served in Vietnam, has been a leading proponent of educational programs with Vietnam well before he became secretary of state. The Fulbright University expands on the existing Fulbright Economics Teaching Program, administered by the State Department and Harvard, which has already impacted 30,000 Vietnam students.

The Fulbright naming represents a signal tribute to J., William Fulbright of Arkansas, who served 30 years in the Senate. Fulbright became the leading congressional critic of U.S military involvement in Vietnam. Of particular significance was his role in sponsoring and shepherding legislation for the international educational exchange program that became known as the Fulbright Scholarship Program.

To commemorate the program's 70th anniversary, a tree was recently planted in a prominent spot on the U.S. Capitol grounds at a ceremony organized by Rep. French Hill of Arkansas, who had been particularly impressed by the U.S.-Afghanistan Fulbright program, with which the University of Arkansas has had a strong connection. Hill said the program has resulted in amazing advances for people across the globe, including many in Afghanistan.

The university in Vietnam is in addition to the global exchange program. Vietnam continues to be a participant in that program, which operates in 160 countries. There have been about 360,000 "Fulbrighters" worldwide.

The Fulbright University could have major impact in leading Vietnam to a more open society.

In an op-ed column, Secretary Kerry, Sen. John McCain, and Bob Kerrey, former senator from Nebraska and chairman of the board of Fulbright University Vietnam, all Vietnam veterans, said "mutual interests will drive our partnership with Vietnam."

When serving in Vietnam, these men would never have imagined the level of cooperation that is being developed, including a landmark trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The U.S. and Vietnam are among 12 nations signing that agreement, China not among them. However, all three remaining presidential candidates are opposed to the partnership agreement. But just last week a Department of Commerce official, speaking in Little Rock at the Governor's Awards for Excellence in Global Trade, emphasized that the trade pact would boost Arkansas's economy and also have significant strategic benefits in upholding U.S. interests in a vital region.

The partnership agreement's future remains in doubt and trade agreements have generally taken a beating in the current political atmosphere.

But Cuba and Vietnam provide examples of what could be significant new chapters in international relations in these problematic times. We can hope that a vibrant Fulbright program with Cuba will soon develop.

Increased trade and contact, including educational and cultural exchange, can be important in advancing cooperation and understanding. While in this country and abroad the perplexing U.S. presidential race is the focus of attention, the world is not standing still and we have much at stake.

Commentary on 06/01/2016

Print Headline: As U.S. politics perplex, world events march on

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