Next Monday, the Cuban Embassy will open in Washington, to be followed later this summer by the Stars and Stripes going up at the U.S. Embassy in Havana.
Two remarkable events, and both will soon seem ordinary.
After all, we have nearly 300 embassies and consulates around the world, including in many countries with problematic human rights records or a lack of representative democracy.
Or to take two examples, records of territorial aggression.
The Communist Chinese are literally building islands in the Pacific to extend their territorial and maritime reach – an innovation, to say the least, in geopolitics and international law. The Russians, with Soviet “salami tactics” still in their genes, used plainclothes special forces to take a piece of a sovereign neighbor’s territory (the entire Crimean peninsula) for themselves, and have been contesting big chunks of eastern Ukraine ever since.
No one, not even those feeling faint at the thought of full diplomatic relations with Cuba, has suggested that we break relations with China or Russia, much less that our embassies in those places connote approval of those governments or their conduct.
Of course they don’t, because diplomatic recognition has nothing to do with approving of a foreign government, or even liking it. It is a means of communicating, nothing more – to represent our interests, deliver information, ask questions, express disagreement, seek cooperation, address disputes.
That is why Senator McCain happily welcomed the head of that country’s Communist Party to his office last week, “proud of our nations’ vital partnership.” It’s why Senator Rubio celebrates trade with China, telling CNN last year, “We welcome a China that’s richer and more prosperous, because that’s a potential trading partner, customers for our products and services.”
These and others who criticize President Obama on Cuba are big supporters of engagement everywhere else. They can only sell their moralistic line on Cuba by basing it on standards that they themselves apply nowhere else, hoping that no one bothers to notice and compare.
Or they try to sell a strategic argument based on the 50-year delusion that the Cuban government is on the verge of collapse and hence any change in U.S. policy gives it a new lease on life. (Recent examples here and here, and a useful retrospective here) This amounts to strategic malpractice, overestimating the impact of Cuba’s economic difficulties and ignoring nearly everything else about the country’s politics. But it creates a nice pretext for economic sanctions in perpetuity.
Thankfully, President Obama doesn’t buy any of that. He is ending policies that have arguably strengthened the Cuban government politically and weakened its domestic opposition, and that in fact have limited American influence in Cuba by limiting contact by our government and our people.
Instead, he’s putting Cuba in the mainstream of our foreign policy. We will communicate through a regular embassy and begin to seek areas of mutually beneficial cooperation. Cabinet ministers will travel back and forth. If commercial interests line up, U.S. exports will expand far beyond agricultural products – and with some movement on the Cuban side, U.S. exporters can help to build a supply chain for the increasingly large and diverse private sector that is essential to Cuba’s economic reform. American travelers will continue to grow in number, and links between our societies will grow in sports, culture, science, education, health, and other fields. U.S. airlines will set up normal, cheaper flights that travelers will book on-line. Cuban Americans will continue to travel in droves, many investing in small businesses in Cuba. Hopefully, other Americans will follow their example.
Disagreements will continue about human rights, claims, the Guantanamo naval base.
The new approach is a radical departure from 50 years of Cuba policy, but it will appear normal to Americans because it is the normal American approach to diplomacy.
It will continue to gain support among Cuban Americans, as it did recently from former Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez, the last chairman of the Bush Administration’s grandiose Cuba transition commission, because it looks to the future and to the needs of Cubans living in Cuba now.
Congressional action could make the changes deeper and permanent.
But even absent such action, our two nations have an 18-month opportunity before us. That’s the real novelty – not the diplomatic formality, but the prospect of building constructive ties between our societies after five decades of estrangement.
If both seize that opportunity, as the saying goes, with la lucidez que el momento exige, both will benefit and it will be hard for any future U.S. President to return to 1961.