One of the most salient criticisms of U.S. President Barack Obama’s recent overtures to Iran and Cuba is that neither country, as a condition for engagement, has agreed to undertake fundamental reforms of their internal political systems or alter the general direction of their foreign policies. Indeed, the leaders of both countries have claimed victory in defying those types of demands.
In theory, this need not be a setback. When Richard Nixon traveled to China in 1972, Mao Zedong did not repudiate his ideology, release any political prisoners or make any commitment to pursuing liberal political or economic reforms. Nixon, in essence, engaged a hard-line communist regime that made no secret of its dislike for the American system and continually criticized U.S. behavior. Moreover, Nixon’s visit upset many of America’s Asian allies, who feared it was the first sign of their own abandonment. The opening to China, however, was intended to help shift the global strategic balance back in favor of the U.S. and to help counterbalance the rising power of the Soviet Union, which threatened both Washington and Beijing. The engagement was less about promoting freedom for the Chinese people than about preserving it for Americans.
So could the United States learn to live with the Islamic Republic in Iran and the communist regime in Cuba even in their current, unreformed incarnations in exchange for longer-term strategic benefits? If there is indeed an emerging Russia-China entente that seeks to alter or even overturn key aspects of the post-Cold War settlement and to reduce the global leadership role of the U.S., then containing those two powers must become the central organizing principle of U.S. foreign policy. Under such an approach, the sins of both Iran and Cuba—serious as they may be when viewed in isolation—become less important in the global context. Similarly, U.S. outreach to Myanmar and Vietnam, both of which have poor human rights records, must be understood in relation to China.