US – Cuba rapprochement: The implications behind the headlines

Reporting on the historic resumption of diplomatic ties between the USA and Cuba has tended to focus on the details of the agreement and the likely impact on domestic politics and bilateral relations. Beyond the spectacle of longstanding political and ideological adversaries coming to terms after a hiatus of over fifty years, there are a number of additional implications which deserve examination.

States still matter. The globalization age has for the most part been tough on states. For centuries they enjoyed somewhat of a monopoly on international relations, but that pre-eminent position has been slipping over the past few decades as a plethora of new actors and issues emerged. Power and influence have been migrating relentlessly upwards, to supra-national institutions, outwards, to corporations, NGOs, and even individuals, and downwards, to other levels of government including provinces, states and cities. States, according to the received wisdom, are locked in a pattern of inexorable decline.

Be that as it may, the new deal between the USA and Cuba was negotiated primarily among and between the representatives of national governments. Its success underscores the fact that whatever else might be said about continuing centrality of states, in some instances their role and place remains indispensible.

Secret diplomacy delivers. In the contemporary diplomatic literature it is widely concluded that traditional interstate discourse, wherein designated envoys discuss the business of government among themselves, is giving way to a more modern approach. Public diplomacy features dialogue and outreach, lobbying and advocacy, strategic use of the conventional and digital media, and joint ventures with representatives of civil society. The essential idea is to use the techniques of public relations to persuade individuals and groups in the host country to want what you want through the power of attraction, and then leave it to them to convince their governments to act accordingly. This sophisticated form of political triangulation – a function of soft power – is becoming increasingly mainstream.

Such was not, however, the case here. Over the course of eighteen months – with a little help from the Vatican mediators and using good offices provided by Canada – negotiations were held and an agreement reached entirely in camera. In the wake of Wikileaks, Ed Snowdon’s revelations, and the very high profile nature of the subject matter, that the proceedings were conducted and concluded without notice is little short of astonishing. More of the same may be in store…

Foreign policy coup. The implosion of the USSR in 1991 heralded the start of a short-lived period of American unipolar dominance which ended in 2004 with the ill-fated decision to invade and occupy Iraq. Major gains for US global policy and interests have since been few and far between. Indeed, the rapid rise of China, India, Brazil, Indonesia and others, compounded by establishment of the Islamic State, Taliban gains in Afghanistan, and the US’s diminished international reputation have led many to conclude that world order is in flux.

While the move towards normalizing relations with Cuba cannot be expected to reverse these long-term trends or to restore American hegemony, it stands as a signal achievement, especially as regards US interests in the hemisphere. The way is now clear for Cuba to join the OAS and to attend next year’s Summit of the Americas, thus removing a major irritant which had plagued US relations with many of its immediate neighbours. As a historic gesture which heralds the symbolic end of the Cold War, this development has been well-received in the region and beyond. It will be recorded prominently on the positive side of the foreign policy ledger.

Boost for Obama. For all who believed that the President might prove capable of translating his resonant “hope and change” message into new directions and concrete action internationally, the past six years have been disappointing. Enhanced interrogation techniques and extraordinary rendition, which is to say torture and abduction, have been curbed, but Guantanamo Bay remains open. Although large scale foreign wars have been wound down, the US military is again engaged in Iraq, while thousands of troops will remain in troubled Afghanistan. Pledges to the contrary notwithstanding, through drone strikes, special operations, cyber attacks and mass surveillance, the Global War on Terror continues unabated.

Against this backdrop, the deal with Cuba stands out as exceptional. Although the political influence enjoyed by die-hard anti-Castro members of the Cuban diaspora community will ensure that this departure is not universally welcomed on the home front, younger voters and the business community seem supportive. As a rare example of presidential leadership in the orchestration of a fait accompli, this opening will add much-needed lustre to Obama’s legacy. Similar initiatives may be expected elsewhere.

Setback for Canadian interests. Dating back at least to PM Trudeau’s storied visit to Cuba in 1976, Canadians have enjoyed something akin to special status on the island. Canadians today constitute by far the largest group of foreign tourists, and inexpensive, all-inclusive holidays have become very popular. Over the next few years, however, especially if the comprehensive sanctions are lifted by Congress, a tide, if not a tsunami of American economic activity and visitor arrivals can be expected. Corporate interest is high, and a flood of US investors, businesspeople and, not least, tourists would inevitably dominate, perhaps eventually transforming the island’s egalitarian culture.

The days of easy access to the warm sands, aquamarine seas and endless mojitos long enjoyed by so many Canadians are almost certainly numbered.