Editions : July-September 2015


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.

For various reasons, though, the thaw in US-China relations in the 1970s that culminated in diplomatic recognition in 1979 is a poor analogue for American-Cuban relations today. The cases of Vietnam and Myanmar are relatively less known, but also far more relevant. For one, engagement with Vietnam and Myanmar did not require a Nixon. It was President Bill Clinton, a Democrat whose personal choices during the Vietnam conflict earned him much criticism from conservatives and foreign policy hawks alike, who oversaw the resumption of American-Vietnamese diplomatic relations. President Obama’s lifting of sanctions against Myanmar was particularly meaningful given that US Republican Senator Mitch McConnell, no friend of the Obama administration, has always been one of the strongest advocates for a tough policy on Myanmar.

Another important parallel between Cuba today and Vietnam and Myanmar is the asymmetry in power and resources between the United States and each adversary. Unlike China, but like Cuba, neither Vietnam nor Myanmar has the global diplomatic voice, military resources or economic might to affect core US interests. Instead, Cuba, Vietnam and Myanmar are best understood as important regional players with limited ability to project force beyond their borders, but strong security identities rooted in their Cold War-era opposition to the West. American policy toward each of the three nations has emerged from the simple idea that the United States can impose high costs on each through sanctions and diplomatic isolation, and such policies are relatively costless to the United States.

In such contexts, the United States has a compelling foreign policy interest in maintaining isolation just so long as there are low indirect costs for doing so. The case of Vietnam illustrates this point well. Despite having fought a long and costly military conflict in which tens of thousands of Americans and millions of Vietnamese died, the two countries resumed formal diplomatic relations in 1995 with relative ease. The principled US stance against engagement with Vietnam had rested on opposition to communism, together with significant concerns about America’s war dead and those missing in action. But by the early 1990s, isolating Vietnam no longer carried the same geopolitical weight.

The collapse of communism in the Soviet Union, and political and economic change in Vietnam, had two consequences. First, it was no longer possible to consider Vietnam as a communist threat in any meaningful way, but second, its main allies and ideological partners were no longer significant threats to US interests. Instead, with China beginning to exhibit a more assertive foreign policy that would eventually lead to competition with the United States, Vietnam came to be seen in a new light: a potential bulwark against Chinese influence in Southeast Asia. The fact that relations with China are a central concern in Vietnamese foreign policy, and that the two countries had fought a war even more recently than the United States and Vietnam did, only reinforces this.

In sum, American foreign policy interests in Vietnam changed in anticipation of rising competition with China. Just as soon as China’s regional power surpassed global communism as the prime concern for US foreign policy, the strategic calculus that had sustained America’s hostility to Vietnam changed as well.

The case of Myanmar is much more recent. Indeed, developments in US-Myanmar relations are ongoing, but they follow a similar script. Myanmar’s nonaligned foreign policy meant that it was neither an ally of the West nor the Soviet bloc prior to the 1988 uprising that pushed Gen. Ne Win from power, so anti-communism does not explain America’s isolation of Myanmar. Instead, US sanctions against Myanmar followed a more principled stance against the brutality and lack of political accountability of the State Peace and Development Council, the junta body that had officially ruled Myanmar since 1988, when its predecessor, the State Law and Order Council, crushed the uprising.

China served as one of Myanmar’s most important international patrons during this period. However, the growth of Chinese military and economic power in the region meant that America’s isolation of Myanmar raised the possibility it might fall irreversibly within China’s orbit. In response to the Myanmar regime’s tentative liberalizing reforms, which ultimately culminated in elections in 2011, the Obama administration in 2012 began to ease sanctions. In the wake of this, US interest in Myanmar, both in official diplomatic channels and also through private sector channels such as firms and universities, has grown rapidly.

In both the cases of Vietnam and Myanmar, we see that thaws in American foreign policy have reflected deeper shifts in US national interests in the wake of the fall of communism and the rise of China. It is transparently not the case that US engagement with these countries is the consequence of victory on foreign policy principles such as respect for human rights, democracy or accountability: neither Vietnam nor Myanmar is a democracy or anything close to one, and human rights and justice remain major concerns. Instead, policy changes simply confirm that whatever US policymakers perceive US national interests to be, they easily supersede rightful opposition to authoritarian rule. Such a conclusion can hardly be surprising for observers of US foreign policy since 1945. And the easing of relations with Cuba, which follows the exact same mold, is entirely consistent with this model of US foreign policymaking.

If the collapse of global communism and the rise of China created incentives for US engagement with former adversaries in Southeast Asia, what is the parallel change in US geostrategic interests in the case of Cuba? The decline of communism is one similarity across all cases, but this still leaves open the question of the 25-year lag between the fall of the Soviet Union and the US-Cuban thaw. One possibility – and this remains speculative – is that the Obama administration believes that Cuban relations with its main international allies, Russia and Venezuela, are more tenuous than they appear. In the context of declining US-Russian relations and an increasingly fragile Russian economy, an overture to one of Russia’s closest allies in the Western Hemisphere may be a smart gamble.

Removing domestic obstacles

There is another set of dynamics at play, though, which reflect domestic political issues in Vietnam, Myanmar and Cuba. Although changing US foreign policy interests may mean that the costs of isolating adversaries have risen, the proximate impetus for policy changes tends to lie in changes within adversaries’ own governments. Such changes make partnering with the United States more feasible from the adversary’s perspective, and simultaneously more palatable from the American perspective.

In the case of Vietnam, political change and economic reform in the 1980s created the conditions under which normalization with the United States would be possible. These changes included political turnover within the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam, which saw a new generation of elites replace the war-era leadership, as well as a change in the direction of economic planning away from the strict socialist economic model and toward a cautious embrace of the private sector and gradual opening to international trade and investment. The landmark policy package known as doi moi, enacted in 1986, was the first major signal of these changes in Vietnamese politics. By starting the process of liberalizing the Vietnamese economy, doi moi reforms also raised the incentives for the Vietnamese leadership to seek better relations with America – enough to facilitate cooperation on lingering Vietnam War-era issues.

Reform efforts in Myanmar in the early 2010s played a similar role. A definitive account of the domestic politics of political liberalization in Myanmar remains to be written, but it is notable that junta leader Than Shwe stepped down from his leadership position in 2011, at the same time that the State Peace and Development Council was officially dissolved. Than Shwe’s successor, Thein Sein, has shown a willingness to tolerate much more participation from the country’s political opposition than did Than Shwe, which contributes to a general perception that he is overseeing a genuine, if still only partial, liberalization of Myanmar’s internal politics under an electoral regime. Such reforms amounted to fulfilling the conditions for the relaxation of US sanctions against Myanmar.


US Secretary of State John Kerry, right, with Wunna Maung Lwin, foreign minister of Myanmar.


In the case of Cuba, Raúl Castro’s assumption of political leadership has clearly played a major role in facilitating engagement with the United States. With the more charismatic and divisive Fidel Castro no longer the public face of the regime, his younger brother does not engender the same level of opposition. Some economic liberalization has taken place, although many of these policies actually predate Raúl Castro, and Cuba’s gradual opening to market forces follows a more Asian-style, gradual trajectory than a rapid, Eastern European “big bang” reform. Much like political and economic reforms in Vietnam, and the end of Than Shwe’s rule in Myanmar, political turnover in Cuba has removed the major obstacle in re-establishing ties between the United States and Cuba.

There is one major difference, however, between the Cuban case and its Southeast Asian antecedents. If the thaws in American-Vietnamese and American-Myanmarese relations were so relatively smooth, then why have policies toward Cuba generated so much popular criticism within the United States? The difference is obvious to any observer of American politics, and amounts to nothing more than the salience of Cuba in American political life. Unlike Vietnam, China or Myanmar, Cuba sits right on the doorstep of America.

Also, unlike other cases, the Cuban-American community is uniquely politically active and influential. Two of the candidates from the Republican Party for the 2016 US presidential election are of Cuban descent, and state-level politics in the key swing state of Florida are especially sensitive among Cuban-American voters. It might seem remarkable that normalizing relations with Cuba would prove to be trickier than normalizing relation with Vietnam, but the peculiar politics of Cuba in the United States ensures that this is so.

In the end, the Obama administration has shown itself to be willing to risk facing a domestic backlash to pursue a more sensible, reality-based policy stance toward Cuba. The results have been largely favorable from the administration’s perspective, owing perhaps to the evolution in the Cuban-American electorate over the past half century. This has diluted the voice of stringent anti-Castro factions among more recent generations that have no memory of Cuba before communism, and which may therefore have a more pragmatic view about relations between the United States and Cuba.

In proving himself willing to follow foreign policy priorities rather than domestic political incentives, Obama’s Cuba policy is consistent with Stephen Walt’s argument that the administration’s foreign policy is far more realist than many observers give it credit for. After all, one articulation of American national interests in the Caribbean would hold that the United States desires political stability, quiescence to its core strategic interests and an absence of foreign interference from powers further afield. Those three objectives are what Obama’s new Cuba policy could actually achieve.

A Faustian bargain?

The preceding argument has commended the Obama administration for starting the process of re-engagement with Cuba, observing that this is simply “reality-based” foreign policy, which finally has superseded the anachronistic foreign policies of the Cold War. The downsides for America are few, but the upsides are many, including the possibility of greater future economic exchange, an end to an unproductive isolation policy from regional forums and person-to-person contacts between the Cuban diaspora and those who have remained back on the island.

How about from the Cuban side? The asymmetries in power and resources between America and Cuba would mean that the risks for greater engagement with the United States fall disproportionately to the Cubans. To be sure, the upsides are many – for all the same reasons that these are upsides for the United States – but there are also downsides.

Here is an illustrative scenario drawn from recent Eastern European history. A former command economy embarks on a thoroughgoing economic reform process, dismantling inefficient state-run firms, privatizing key sectors and sidelining a bloated bureaucracy, all with the support of a newly friendly US government and to the great delight of the American private sector. The result is the rise of a new class of elite moneyed interests whose rise to power is predicated on their close relations with the regime, and who lack any serious interest in effective administration or representative government. Having abandoned one inefficient and unresponsive form of government, the former command economy has embraced another.

Fortunately, we are still very early in the US-Cuban thaw, and Raúl Castro has shown no evidence that he wishes to unwind some of the basic policy successes, such as high-quality health care and universal education, that Cubans today enjoy. Nor does he need to do this. There is no compelling reason, in fact, why renewed relations between the United States and Cuba would require any changes to Cuban social policy. Yet Cuban economic policy might be a different story, especially given the potential benefits that American firms stand to gain from renewed trade and investment relations. Moreover, the Helms-Burton Act makes the resolution of outstanding property claims “an essential condition for the full resumption of economic and diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba.”

Castro and his successors should therefore be mindful of what engagement with the United States could entail. After more than half a century of isolation, Cuba can stand to take things slowly as it re-engages with its big neighbor to the north. The real victory, both for the United States and Cuba, is that things are moving at all.


Thomas Pepinsky is an associate professor of government at Cornell University in New York.

Please login to leave a comment

Related Articles

The News, But Shorter, Delivered straight to your inbox

By signing up, you agree to our Privacy Policy. And agree to data transfer policy.