President Obama appears to be working on solidifying his legacy in the last years of his second mandate. His two real diplomatic victories are coming at the last mile of his presidency with the closing of the nuclear deal with Iran and the reopening of diplomatic relations with Cuba. Even if the future looks bright for President Obama in starting his last year in office, and especially for his legacy, his administration has been looking for a clear diplomatic identity throughout the reigns of Hillary Clinton and John Kerry at the helm of the US Department of State.
The Cuban-Iranian Files
In a matter of weeks, the US diplomatic body has offered the US two great diplomatic victories starting with the nuclear deal with Iran and the resumption of diplomatic
relations between Cuba and the US. In the case of the nuclear deal with Iran, it began in 2003 with a European diplomatic mission, the EU 3+1 (France, the United Kingdom, Germany + the High Representative Javier Solana). In 2003 the US had just waged war against Iraq and was not inclined in participating in the nuclear talks with Tehran (still today the members of the Bush administration are still fighting against a diplomatic deal with Iran as illustrated in the recent piece by John R. Bolton). China, Russia and the US joined the Europeans in 2006 as part of the P5+1 format (5 permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany). In September 2013, the US initiated the first direct talks between Washington and Tehran since 1979. From 2013 to July 2015, both capitals with Paris, London, Moscow and Beijing worked on finding a deal. Even though a large part of the success goes to Kerry and his team, the Europeans, lead by three successive High Representatives with Javier Solana, Catherine Ashton and Federica Mogherini, played a crucial roles throughout the process. At the lowest point of the relations with Iran, the EU was axiomatic in initiating and maintaining the negotiations at least alive. The last two years of negotiations led by John Kerry and the US demonstrated to be essential in the agreement of a deal. Despite missing the original deadline of June, the world powers and Iran finally agreed on the Vienna accord, which now needs to be approved by the US, Iran and other powers.
The re-opening of the relations with Cuba is a second landmark for the Obama administration. If the Iranian file was not certain to translate into an agreement, the
opening of relations with Cuba was only a matter of time. Aside from the powerful Cuban lobby and its two republican spears, Senator and presidential hopeful Marco Rubio and Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, wanting to maintain the 55 year old embargo, the rest of the US does not really feel any emotional connection to this reminiscence of the Cold War (read here an interesting piece by Simon Kuper about the perception of the US policy towards Cuba in Miami). In his December 2014 speech, President Obama announced the change of this “rigid policy” towards Cuba and that “a policy of engagement, we can more effectively stand up for our values and help the Cuban.” On July 20th, the Cuban embassy officially opened in D.C.
The Cuban and Iranian openings share one element in common, Obama’ strategic intelligence of cautious diplomatic negotiations. With both countries, the US has some serious concerns about democratic principles and values, the lack of free press, the oppression by the state of individuals and civil societies, their human rights records and so forth. But both countries are important for the US for several reasons: first, they are important regional players. Iran is central for the stability of the Middle East and finalizing wars in Iraq and Lebanon. Cuba is so close from the US southern borders that a failed state could be disastrous in terms of human and drug trafficking. Then, in order to bring ‘change’ or at least transformation in societies that have been locked since the 50s for Cuba and 79 for Iran, it will take time. The best way to open up the countries and permit from a bottom-up transformation is to bring them back into the community of nations.
Now the chances that both countries become allies of the US in the future remain thin. The opening of the US-China relations initiated by Nixon was central for the current relations between both superpowers. There are certainly not always peaceful, but both countries are today so interdependent and intertwined. However, China is not the type of country that the US dreamed of, an open-democracy. With almost five decades of cooperation between China and the US and a clear reflection on the level and depth of the current tensions between both partners, one could imagine how they could have been without the implementation of the ping-pong diplomacy leading to the visit of Nixon to China in 1972. So let’s apply this model on the Iranian and Cuban case.
Diplomacy in the 21st century
Diplomacy in the early 21st century has become a dirty word in American politics. In a field, that is extremely conservative and principally framed and informed by realists, for Obama to have implemented and closed, almost simultaneously, on two diplomatic deals is a real accomplishment in such. However, Obama’s foreign policy has certainly lacked of a clear identity and direction since 2008. For instance, Obama initiated once arriving in power a shift, or pivot, to Asia requiring American’s partners, namely the Europeans, to increase their power and influence in the neighboring regions. Aside from the French, the Europeans were unwilling (look at the Brits) and unable to perform such missions in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Obama and the US were brought back in the European sphere of influence quickly considering the crises in Eastern Europe, Middle East and North Africa (Syria, Egypt, Libya, Lebanon), Iraq and Yemen. The US foreign policy appears to be, yes successful, but less influential in shaping world events. Obama could not do what he had envisioned and had to instead settle for what was possible/achievable.
Now let’s be clear on the fact that both diplomatic efforts are directly aligned with American interests. In the case of Iran, bringing back Iran into the community of nations is already a positive step. The Obama administration was right on focusing solely about the issue of nuclear production and avoiding Iran to get the bomb, at least in the next decade, instead of trying to include all types of prerogatives requesting for domestic reforms and change. Sticking to the nuclear deal was the main reason for a successful agreement. Certainly the US will have to reassure its regional allies, namely Israel and Saudi Arabia, which will materialize through new arms deal and commitment of eventual engagement in case of serious tension. In the case of Cuba, the US has nothing to lose and will instead gain more. The US has to position itself considering that European governments have been shifting their positions towards the island. Both diplomatic openings with Cuba and Iran are not an approval of the regimes and their ideologies, but simple diplomatic success on important regional and global security matters.
In the 1960s, France and Israel were extremely closed allies. So close that France provided
the nuclear bomb to Israel. After a long friendly relations between David Ben-Gurion, Israeli Prime Minister and French President Charles de Gaulle, France started to shift from Israel to Arab nations as the country needed gas and oil. After this shift, Ben-Gurion wrote a letter to Charles de Gaulle, saying that he thought that they were friends. To this, de Gaulle responded that people have friends; nations have interests. By working with the Iranians and with the Castro regime, President Obama is not seeking for friendship, he is simply working on advancing American interests. Obama has certainly advanced American interests on both issues, but what about his legacy?
The concept of legacy needs to taken with some lightness for two reasons. First, legacies are made because of time. Historians are more inclined to validate one’s legacy than other social scientists much more focused on the present. A serious historical reading of Obama’s achievements can only take place in several decades (read here a piece by Robert Dalleck in Politico raising some caution about using the concept of legacy too soon). Second, one’s legacy is usually solidified by his/her successor. A continuation of Obama’s foreign policy, most likely with the election of Hillary Clinton, would ultimately play in favor of Obama in engraving his domestic and international landmarks. Until then, President Obama has sealed two diplomatic victories.