Cuba deal: A game-changer for U.S. foreign policy?

The diplomatic achievement could rebrand Obama as a soft-power victor, says Matthew Bondy.
By: /
December 19, 2014
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Finally, the United States gets a coup out of Cuba.

Not the kind Kennedy went for in 1961, but a coup none the less.

Following Wednesday’s announcement that the U.S. and Cuba would restore diplomatic ties, much of the analysis points to the deal as securing President Obama’s foreign policy legacy.

But Obama’s willingness to take on critics by radically changing the U.S.’s relationship with a controversial country is a diplomatic victory with further global implications on two important counts.

Nuclear diplomacy

Talks with Iran about that nation’s nuclear program are ongoing, and the U.S. President’s credibility is essential to the success of the process. That should not be a controversial or uncertain fact, but it was — at least until now.

Just days prior to the Cuba announcement, the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute think-tank published a piece saying that “the Iranian regime expressed doubts that President Obama can deliver on any deal he commits to, but remains committed to negotiations narrowly restricted to the nuclear program and lifting of sanctions.”

Between the skeptical U.S. senate and the concerns raised about the Iranian negotiations by key allies, many have doubted that Obama could deliver a major diplomatic agreement even if he brought it home in his own briefcase.

If the President can raise his credibility with the Iranian negotiating team and in the eyes of the ultimate decision-maker, Ayatollah Khamenei, the odds of a deal go up.

A study in contrasts

While Russian president Vladimir Putin is furiously flashing his fangs by invading sovereign, neighbouring Ukraine, the United States has just committed itself — out of no major or immediate national security interest — to normalizing relations with Cuba. The contrast is striking, and that counts when the world is watching. By projecting an image of magnanimity, generosity of spirit, and strategic foresight — in essence, role-modelling humane values — the United States does much to enhance its global standing.

What’s more, the U.S. is reaching out to normalize relations with its smaller neighbour at a time when its economy is rebounding and it is leading diplomatic efforts to open up global trade to unprecedented levels through the Trans Pacific Partnership and seeking to tame the Iranian nuclear file. Trade and diplomacy go hand in hand, along with military strategy and rhetorical positioning, to signal a nation’s strategic intentions and political priorities.

America’s global goals can increasingly be interpreted as more benign and enlightened than those of its great power competitors, especially Russia, and that’s a contrast the Americans should sharpen through continued diplomatic efforts and the right rhetoric.

When combined with military and economic might, the positive values that traditionally animate U.S. foreign policy are key to America’s overall strength, and also to the appeal of the status quo liberal order.

The Cuba deal is minor in some respects. Cuba’s economy, population, and economy are all small. In fact, that island nation looms far larger in the American political psyche than almost any modern metric could support.

But Cuba needn’t be the major object of the Cuba deal — not with so many active challenges and opportunities around the world.

For the Obama administration, this diplomatic action is much more about reversing the decline of America’s soft power resources and proving to skeptics both at home and abroad that the president can close the even bigger deals if opportunity knocks.

That’s a coup of another kind altogether.