Cuba and Iran – Obama’s Legacy or Diplomatic Victories?

Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

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

Photo: U.S. Department of State
Photo: U.S. Department of State

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

Photo: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

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 Ping Pong Diplomacyopening 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

Photo: Fritz Cohen / GPO
Photo: Fritz Cohen / GPO

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.

(Copyright 2015 by Politipond. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission).
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Vinyl Diplomacy – A refreshing look at US Diplomacy

Source: UN Photo (14 October 1952)
Source: UN Photo (14 October 1952)

Diplomacy is more than high-level meetings behind closed-doors. Diplomacy is primarily the art of building relationship between humans. However, it seems that this core component has been lost leading to a decline of Diplomacy in its role, perceptions and successes, at least since the end of the Cold War. Even though American diplomacy seems to have failed on many levels, as demonstrated in this piece, there are still some glimpses of successful use of diplomatic instruments, like music, in order to deepen ties between nations and individuals. The rise of ‘vinyl diplomacy’ in an over militarized diplomacy can speak volumes about American soft power.

The Militarization of Diplomacy and its Demise

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the beginning of the American hegemony, diplomacy has been confused between foreign policy and defense policy. How many times since 9/11 has the Secretary of Defense taken the lead on issues that should be first undertaken and/or overtaken by diplomats? In the US, the Department of Defense, in charged of military affairs and the use of force, tend to have too much power over the decision-making processes in diplomatic affairs and the solution implemented. Diplomacy should always be first, followed by military power, in the last resort.

The most obvious case was the race to the Iraq war in 2002-03 when diplomacy was sidelined, and even diminished/discredited, by the Bush administration in order to use the ‘almighty’ american power against Saddam Hussein and Iraq. Diplomacy, at least the American and British, was irrelevant and to some degree useless. The Anglo-American couple undermined the primacy of international law, diplomacy and international organizations like the United Nations. One of the most memorable moments on the road to Iraq was the speech made by Colin Powell, at the time US Secretary of State, before the

Photograph: Timothy A Clary/EPA
Photograph: Timothy A Clary/EPA

United Nations Security Council demonstrating that Iraq had in its possession weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). The fact that Powell was a four-star general leading the American diplomatic service demonstrated the militarization of American diplomacy. In the last decade, the US has not conducted proper diplomacy where it should have been; military power has been now framed as part of diplomacy. Well it should be the other way around: first, diplomacy (but credible policies with a ‘real’ support at home) and then the threat of military power in order to provide the stick. In the post-9/11 world, diplomacy is now perceived as a sign of weakness from the highest-elected officials and large segment of population.

One of the most interesting case is the nuclear negotiations with Iran. The current negotiations are complex, difficult, and lengthy. Diplomacy is and should be all of the above. The fact that the legislature, and especially the Republican party, continuously threaten to deepen sanctions against Iran and even use force affect the credibility of the American diplomatic machine. This raises important questions: Can diplomacy bring everything wished for the two negotiating parties? No and it has never been the case. Now, is the use of force against Iran a credible scenario? No. Americans are not ready to start a war requiring at least 100,000 soldiers on the ground with an endless war in sight. Americans have grown war-weary since the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan. One of the fascinating components behind the lack of trust in diplomacy and negotiation lays in the polarization of domestic debates. How can a country show unity and trust in its diplomatic body when domestically the different political forces are unable to communicate, interact, negotiate, and compromise? Once again the failure of American diplomacy is not caused by the complexity of the current global issues and/or the inability by American diplomats to do their jobs, but in fact by the degree of incoherence and cacophony in domestic political debates.

Vinyl diplomacy

Photograph: State Department
Photograph: State Department

So how can American diplomacy address these problems? What elements could be integrated in order to do diplomacy? In a recent interview for PRI’s the World, Matthew Barzun, US Ambassador to the United Kingdom has been working on his ‘vinyl diplomacy’ (listen to the interview here). In this enlightening and refreshing interview, Matthew Barzun talks about his love for music and how the US embassy has become a concert hall featuring bands like the National and Belle and Sebastian with spectators counting Prime Minister David Cameron and his spouse among others. As he argues in this interview, “Diplomacy at its fundamental level is about connecting with people. And it’s not just elected or official government-to-government relationships. … We actually do get the government leaders but in a different context. all together in one place, united by a love of music and the particular band we’re featuring that night.”

The ‘vinyl diplomacy’ is a wonderful initiative with most likely real success in building human relations outside of closed-meetings. It is a trademark of the diplomat in charged and demonstrate one of the many ways to strengthen ties between countries. Certainly, doing ‘vinyl diplomacy’ in the UK could seem routine in between two close-partners and among anglo-saxon countries. The ‘vinyl diplomacy’ falls directly under the broad umbrella of American soft power. Would any other world ambassadors initiate such type of diplomacy?

Last but not least, Marco Werman, host of PRI’s The World, asked Matthew Barzun about one of his favorite songs. It was difficult to resist and underline a common pleasure for Iron & Wine’s ‘The Trapeze Swinger.’ Let’s finish with one of America’s best dimension of soft power, music.

(Copyright 2015 by Politipond. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission).