The Liberal Fallacy of the Cuba Deal

Don’t get me wrong: I support the normalization of relations. But believing it can remake the regime in Havana is the worst kind of American exceptionalist fantasy.

castro
castro

When the New York Times decides to run a banner headline in virtually every one of its domestic and international editions, it usually means something big has just gone down. This week, it was the administration’s announcement that the United States is reversing the policy of the last 50-plus years, re-establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba and advocating an end of the economic embargo of the island nation.

I would like to say that this policy change has emerged because non-recognition and the embargo were both stupid and self-defeating policies. And that may be part of it. But the debate that has begun to emerge around the Cuba policy announcement this week actually seems to be going in another direction. Instead of simply ending a policy that was always unworkable, we are at risk of embarking on another misleading debate about American exceptionalism: that somehow U.S. policy, in some way, will lead to the political and economic order that we (not the Cubans) want to see in Cuba.

President Barack Obama correctly announced (recalling Einstein’s dictum about insanity): "I do not believe we can keep doing the same thing for over five decades and expect a different result." Non-recognition has not changed Cuba’s government; the embargo has only limited the island’s economic growth potential. So it’s time for a change in policy.

When the New York Times decides to run a banner headline in virtually every one of its domestic and international editions, it usually means something big has just gone down. This week, it was the administration’s announcement that the United States is reversing the policy of the last 50-plus years, re-establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba and advocating an end of the economic embargo of the island nation.

I would like to say that this policy change has emerged because non-recognition and the embargo were both stupid and self-defeating policies. And that may be part of it. But the debate that has begun to emerge around the Cuba policy announcement this week actually seems to be going in another direction. Instead of simply ending a policy that was always unworkable, we are at risk of embarking on another misleading debate about American exceptionalism: that somehow U.S. policy, in some way, will lead to the political and economic order that we (not the Cubans) want to see in Cuba.

President Barack Obama correctly announced (recalling Einstein’s dictum about insanity): “I do not believe we can keep doing the same thing for over five decades and expect a different result.” Non-recognition has not changed Cuba’s government; the embargo has only limited the island’s economic growth potential. So it’s time for a change in policy.

The goal of that new policy, according to the White House, is to “renew our leadership in the Americas, end our outdated approach on Cuba, and promote more effective change that supports the Cuban people and our national security interests.” It’s the “promote more effective change” part that plants a flag in the liberal exceptionalist camp. The justification for this policy is, in part, still rooted in the notion that the United States can effect the change it wants in another country, this one close to our shores.

The opposition to this policy shift came immediately. Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Ted Cruz (R-TX), and Marco Rubio (R-FL) — all of whom share a Cuban background, and two of whom hail from states with a substantial immigrant Cuban population — made it clear they do not agree with the president’s theory of political and economic change in another country. Menendez offered a straight-up exceptionalist argument: “It is a fallacy that Cuba will reform just because the American president believes that if he extends his hand in peace, that the Castro brothers suddenly will unclench their fists.”

Cruz was, typically, even more strident: “If history be our guide, the Castros will exploit that power to undermine America and oppress the Cuban people.”

As the incoming chair of the Western Hemisphere subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Rubio is in a position to frustrate the appointment of Obama’s future ambassador to Cuba and, possibly, the construction of an embassy in Havana. Obama’s announcement “is a lifeline for the Castro regime that will allow them to become more profitable . . . [and] a more permanent fixture,” he said on CNN. “The embargo is leverage, these sanctions are leverage.”

Other conservative exceptionalists weighed in, including House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), who supported the Rubio position: “Relations with the Castro regime should not be revisited, let alone normalized, until the Cuban people enjoy freedom — and not one second sooner. . . . There is no ‘new course’ here, only another in a long line of mindless concessions to a dictatorship that brutalizes its people and schemes with our enemies.”

The fantasy that U.S. policies and actions can reshape another country has been with us for far too long. The ability of the United States to change any country’s internal economy or politics is extraordinarily limited, as our most recent experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan show, yet again.

We have spent more than 100 years trying to remake other countries, often by force, sending the U.S. military into Haiti, the Philippines, Nicaragua, Dominican Republic, Panama, El Salvador, Vietnam, Guatemala, Iran, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, among many, many others. And we have spent billions, if not trillions, on democracy assistance, international broadcasting, and economic support funds to bring about political and economic change in other countries around the world.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying all of this was a wasted effort — though the military interventions come pretty close to zero or even negative results. What I am saying is the exceptionalist argument gets us in repeated trouble. We intervene and encounter major blow back both in the target country and from its neighbors, but get precious little political change in return (Egypt is still authoritarian). Or we just install a dictator the country has to get rid of later (Pinochet in Chile), or we just lose (Vietnam). In Cuba, we’ve broadcasted messages of democracy and freedom at great expense (Radio and TV Marti), mostly making only the expatriate community happy, but causing little change.

There is a serious danger in the liberal argument over Cuba, however. In a defensive crouch, the proponents of recognition and lifting the embargo seem to think it is only politically safe to take this position if they can say it will produce better and faster progress toward democracy and free markets in Cuba. But that position is trapped in the notion that we indeed can bring about internal political and economic change in another country, and that it is our mission to do so.

The Achilles heel of liberal interventionism is that its adherents continue to believe that the United States has and can execute a God-given American mission to remake the world (for some by foreign aid, for others by adding the use of force).

I support restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba, and have for decades. And I believe that the economic embargo has been a meaningless tool, one that only makes life harder for innocent people and frustrates the opportunity for better relations with a country only 90 miles from the United States. And I certainly feel for the Cuban people who have put up with five decades of political repression and economic ineptitude. But I do not believe it is in our power to have anything more than a marginal impact on the process of political and economic change in Cuba.

Diplomatic isolation has only isolated us, not Cuba, which retains healthy diplomatic relations around the world. And it makes us look stupid, when everyone else is happily engaging with Cuba. It is also self-defeating. It flies in the face of a basic principle of statecraft, established by the British, especially: maintain diplomatic relations with everyone. Because you never know when it will going to pay off.

The bottom line is that the exceptionalist argument is not only wrong. It backfires against us. Changing a country’s political and economic order is a job for the people of that country, not for the United States. Conservative exceptionalists have demonstrably failed to change Cuba for 53 years. Liberal exceptionalists do not have a much stronger record for changing the political and economic orders of other countries, either.

Maybe it would be better to say that recognition and economic relations with Cuba are good things in their own right. And maybe one day Cuba becomes a liberal democracy with a free economy. But that choice is not ours to make. It belongs to the Cuban people.

Miguel RUBIERA/AFP/Getty Images

Gordon Adams is a professor of international relations at American University's School of International Service and is a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center. From 1993 to 1997, he was the senior White House budget official for national security. Twitter: @GAdams1941

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