There’s something strange about the controversy surrounding Barack Obama’s recent visit to Cuba: It’s largely revolved around whether the Castro government deserved restored relations with the United States and a visit from the U.S. president. But it hasn’t really been about whether these things should have happened regardless of the leadership in Havana having earned them—even if the Castros remained as implacably anti-American as when they came to power in 1959. If diplomacy is three-dimensional, the political debate in America over U.S.-Cuban affairs has been occurring on only one plane.
In a typical critique, Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz, whose father is Cuban, argued that in traveling to the island, Obama had chosen to “legitimize” corrupt Cuban dictators who continue to hold political prisoners. But his tone shifted dramatically when the subject turned to the “people of Cuba.” His message to them? “America has not forgotten you.” Before the Obama era, he added, “siding with the oppressed had always been America’s aspiration.”
Shun the oppressive government and embrace the oppressed people—the logic might make eminent sense to Americans. But Obama’s diplomatic overtures to Burma, Iran, and now Cuba should remind us just how unique the approach advocated by Cruz actually is—and encourage reflection on how well it’s working.
Consider the pattern that Geoffrey Wiseman identified in Isolate or Engage, a book he edited that assesses the efficacy of America’s isolationist policies toward hostile countries like Cuba, Iran, and North Korea. “Since its rise to global preeminence approximately a hundred years ago, the United States has often declined for long periods to establish formal diplomatic relations with adversarial states,” wrote Wiseman, a professor of international relations at the University of Southern California and a former Australian diplomat. “The United States also requires that adversarial states meet specified conditions before it will engage them diplomatically.” At the same time, the U.S. government zealously conducts “public diplomacy”—via, say, cultural-exchange programs or broadcasting arms like Voice of America—with the people in those states in hopes that they will “constrain the adversarial government or move it to adopt a more accommodating stance toward the United States.”
But there are other ways. European countries, Wiseman noted, have historically “tended to seek to change the behavior of adversarial states by engaging them and socializing them to the norms of international society through diplomatic relations.” They’ve done so based on the norm of “continuous dialogue,” which originated with the French statesman Cardinal Richelieu in the 17th century and stems from a “belief in the utility of diplomatic representation and communication even between states that have reached a hostile relationship short of war,” precisely as a way to reduce the chances of war. This posture helps explain why, for instance, American interests in North Korea are represented through Sweden, and why the United Kingdom has more doggedly pursued a diplomatic relationship with Iran than the United States has, despite both countries’ thorny history with the Islamic Republic.
America’s anomalous faith in the effectiveness of isolating antagonistic governments but engaging their people, Wiseman hypothesized, may reflect “an optimistic view about the wisdom of the people and a pessimistic view about governments (its own included).”
His thesis recalls what the French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville observed about Americans during his travels around the United States in 1831:
[T]hey hold that public opinion is the surest arbiter of what is lawful or forbidden, true or false. … They hold that every man is born in possession of the right of self-government, and that no one has the right of constraining his fellow-creatures to be happy. They have all a lively faith in the perfectibility of man; they are of opinion that the effects of the diffusion of knowledge must necessarily be advantageous, and the consequences of ignorance fatal; they all consider society as a body in a state of improvement, humanity as a changing scene, in which nothing is, or ought to be, permanent.
More than any U.S. president since Jimmy Carter, Obama has been willing to challenge this conventional wisdom. (Democrats are usually more in favor of diplomatic engagement than Republicans, though there are exceptions, like Richard Nixon’s efforts to end America’s long estrangement with China.) As a presidential candidate in 2007-08, Obama offered to meet with hostile leaders without preconditions. “Diplomacy makes the biggest difference,” he said, when the United States talks to its enemies rather than its friends. But he’s been calling audibles off the American playbook, not scrapping the playbook altogether and adopting the European version. In Cuba this week, he said he was normalizing relations with Havana because nearly 60 years of quarantining the island “was not working.” He declared that his visit was “a historic opportunity to engage directly with the Cuban people.” Lifting the U.S. embargo against Cuba will more effectively provide Cubans with information technologies that can facilitate such engagement, in contrast to past efforts to smuggle that technology to them, argued Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national-security adviser, in an interview with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg.
The Obama administration, in other words, is selling its Cuba policy as a smarter form of America’s patented public diplomacy, rather than a fundamental rethink of how the United States relates to adversarial governments.
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When I asked Wiseman what’s behind the divergent American and European approaches, he cautioned that they aren’t coherent, fully articulated strategies—instead, “that’s just how things evolved,” generally speaking. America’s robust public diplomacy, for example, may simply be a by-product of its tendency to isolate enemies; if you’re not talking to those governments, you need someone to talk to.
Still, why have things evolved the way they have? Wiseman offered three explanations.
First, he cited a “strong moralizing and crusading strand in U.S. foreign policy,” which he traced back 100 years to President Woodrow Wilson. In releasing his Fourteen Points for ending World War I, in proposing the League of Nations, in refusing to recognize the new Bolshevik government in Russia (U.S.-Russian relations would not be restored until 1933), Wilson “was trying to speak … not to foreign governments, but to foreign publics,” Wiseman said.
Europeans, by contrast, “tend to be pragmatic in their foreign policy and in their diplomacy,” an inclination arising, in part, out of necessity—out of having to navigate through and transcend two world wars and the Cold War. Moreover, Europe “has a longer tradition of diplomacy” than America, which has bred “a much greater tendency to believe that that’s how states do business: You don’t necessarily approve of an incoming government that might have come [to power] by unconstitutional or revolutionary means, but you have to deal with it.”
“The European approach is: We recognize states rather than governments,” he added. “Because you recognize a state being in existence, you don’t have to make a recognition decision every time a new government comes into office. … The basic idea is, ‘We recognize governments when they are in effective control of territory, of population, and we have a reasonable expectation that that situation will be permanent.’”
“Where the United States differs from that is that it says, ‘Yes we’re interested in whether a government has effective control of people and population, but we are more or just as equally interested in whether it is a willing participant in international society,’” Wiseman told me. “A U.S. government that is crusading and moralizing looks at the new government in the Soviet Union or Mao [in China] after ’49, Cuba, Iran, and so on and basically says, ‘We are not satisfied that this new government will behave according to the rules and norms of international relations, and therefore we don’t recognize it.’”
Second, Wiseman mentioned “America’s suspicion of diplomacy”—a lack of faith that diplomats can actually change minds in hostile governments. This is why the U.S. State Department is weak compared with the National Security Council, Defense Department, and intelligence community, he argued. And the suspicion has its roots in America’s founding, when diplomacy was associated with Europe, from which the United States had just broken away. Many Americans saw diplomacy “as being governed by people who weren’t honest and direct,” and viewed it as elitist, which “completely conflicts with the American sense of equality and individuality,” he said.
America’s geography has also played a role. “If you’re not bordering Prussia or the Soviet Union and so on, it’s a little easier to say, ‘We don’t need to do [diplomacy]. What we’re really interested in is trade,’ and that’s where much of [America’s] 19th-century diplomacy was conducted, through trade relations rather than diplomatic relations,” Wiseman noted.
Third, Wiseman pointed to the “high degree of congressional influence on U.S. foreign policy and diplomacy” relative to other Western countries. The Senate, for example, must ratify all treaties and approve all U.S. ambassadors. (Domestic lobbying groups—Cuban Americans in Miami, for instance—further constrain the president’s room for maneuver on foreign policy.) Here is Americans’ deep distrust of diplomacy, manifest in constitutional restrictions. And it’s why Obama couldn’t lift the embargo before traveling to Cuba—the embargo was codified into law through the Helms-Burton Act, which Congress passed after Cuba shot down two planes operated by Cuban American civilians in 1996. The upshot: The fate of the embargo now rests with Congress.
I brought up Wiseman’s theory about America’s optimism about people and pessimism about governments, noting the striking way the president at the time, Bill Clinton, had sunnily signed the gloomy Helms-Burton legislation. The law, Clinton declared, “reasserts our resolve to help carry the tide of democracy to the shores of Cuba.” The democratic tide, with America’s guidance, was surely headed for the island.
“There is this great faith that democracy will triumph if only we get a chance to explain it to other people who are not allowed to hear our views because of authoritarian governments,” Wiseman said, in reference not just to Clinton but to American presidents before and after him.
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Is America’s approach to dealing with hostile countries effective? It depends who you ask, of course, and how you define success. Ted Cruz would likely say yes. But Wiseman told me that the main conclusion from the nine case studies in Isolate or Engage was that “isolation of adversarial states, more often than not, does not work” in achieving the objectives of the isolationist policy.
Discussing these findings in 2015, Wiseman conceded that there are compelling arguments against diplomatic engagement with enemies: It rewards brutal, anti-democratic behavior, bestows legitimacy on deplorable governments, exposes American officials to violent attacks. But he argued that the benefits of engagement—namely diplomats being present on the ground to potentially undercut propaganda, reduce tensions, encourage government reforms, gather intelligence, and protect U.S. citizens in the country—outweigh the costs. “Undoubtedly, US diplomatic relations with such countries as Russia, China, and Vietnam have advanced US interests and values,” he wrote.
And here’s the thing: There was another way with Cuba. Writing in Foreign Affairs in 1967, Philip Bonsal, the last U.S. ambassador in Havana, recounted his efforts to prevent a rupture in U.S.-Cuban relations in the aftermath of Fidel Castro’s revolution, which uprooted the U.S.-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. In January 1960, he recalled, he helped draft a White House policy paper that ruled out American intervention in Cuba and outlined a way to preserve bilateral ties despite all the tumult and anti-American bombast of Fidel and his fellow revolutionaries:
This policy implied continued moderation and restraint on our part, denying Castro the chance to make political capital out of alleged American economic aggression. It could have slowed down the Soviet involvement in the Cuban economy, an involvement, in my judgment, more ardently desired at that time by Castro and [Che] Guevara than by Moscow. It would have given the Soviets the opportunity to counsel moderation instead of being forced either to act or to let Castro fall. And even if the policy had failed to prevent Castro’s move into the Soviet orbit, it would have gained sympathy and support for our Cuban policy in inter-American and international public opinion by relieving us of responsibility for precipitating events or destroying existing ties. Further, it would have created more favorable conditions for local opposition to crystallize. And considering the state of disorganization and confusion then existing in the Cuban government, it was not Micawberish to hope that if events were not precipitated something might well turn up to alter the situation before Castro consolidated his security controls.
Instead, Bonsal’s policy was abandoned within weeks, doomed by the arrival of a Soviet emissary in Cuba, election-year politics in the United States, and Castro’s explosive allegations about all manner of American provocations. An economic tit-for-tat followed, then the botched Bay of Pigs invasion, the U.S. embargo, the Cuban Missile Crisis. A new policy emerged, born of a dark kind of American optimism. It would prove one of the longest-running government policies in American history, enduring even as other former adversaries—the Russians, the Chinese, the Vietnamese—came in from the cold. Today that policy persists, tattered but not torn down, and tarnished by an undeniable truth: The tide of democracy never did make it to Cuba’s shores.