The US-Cuban thaw: Lessons from Southeast Asia
July-September 2015
By: Thomas Pepinsky

The recent thaw in US-Cuba relations represents the most significant development in Washington’s policy toward Havana in 50 years. For many in the United States and Cuba alike, this represents an end to decades of unproductive hostility in Washington toward one of America’s closest neighbors. For critics of President Barack Obama’s administration and opponents of the Castro regime in Cuba, however, any opening in relations represents a victory for the Communist Party of Cuba, and hence a failure of American foreign policy. Republicans such as Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio have lambasted Obama’s meeting with Raúl Castro, the Cuban president, writing that they “legitimize a cruel dictator of a repressive regime” and “undermine the future of democracy in the region.”

Allegations that Obama’s meeting with Castro legitimizes the Cuban regime or undermines democracy in Latin America and the Caribbean are surely incorrect, although it may indeed be true that Castro and his regime are more secure now that the United States is no longer overtly hostile. Nevertheless, Obama’s overtures to Havana are good news for American foreign policy. Normalizing relations with Cuba follows a long line of US rapprochements with former adversaries. Looking at US relations with former adversaries in East and Southeast Asia, in fact, provides a comparative and historical perspective on just how common it is for American foreign policy to engage with regimes that it had for decades sought to isolate. In cases such as China, Vietnam and Myanmar, geostrategic considerations eventually outweighed any principled US opposition to engagement with former adversaries. These lessons travel. For hardheaded realists who prioritize sober calculations of American foreign policy interests, then, the end of Washington’s unproductive policy of isolating Cuba is long overdue.

Reality-based foreign policy

The iconic reversal of America’s policy toward an adversary is the onset of diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China. The phrase “Nixon goes to China” is currently used to describe how a stark ideologue can make choices that a moderate could never make, but this concept only makes sense when recalling both the profound enmity between the United States and China and the fact that foreign policy toward communist countries actually did have implications for US domestic politics.

Today, however, even the staunchest opponents of communism understand that the geopolitics of US-China relations strictly outweighed any concerns about the reputational consequences of engagement with Beijing. With the Soviet Union as America’s main foreign adversary and Sino-Soviet relations sharply deteriorating, Nixon’s decision to engage with China was just smart foreign policy. It served the US foreign policy establishment’s ultimate goal of hastening the decline of global communism, even if it may have had proximate costs in terms of the consistency of American foreign policy.

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