From China to Cuba – Bold diplomacy to jettison long-standing policies

For better or worse, US diplomatic history has its share of long-running policies that stay in place because that’s what had always been done. Whether due to bureaucratic inertia, the lack of better policies, domestic pressure to maintain the status quo, or the prevailing international order, strategies often times remain constant—despite the lack of positive outcomes.

Boldness—along with a good deal of realpolitik—is one way to describe the Nixon administration’s most successful foreign policy initiative—the opening to China. By the time of the President’s famous 1972 trip to Beijing, China was a raw spot in America’s collective foreign policy psyche. The “loss” of China in 1949, the Korean War, McCarthyism and the State Department’s blackballing of “China hands”, John Foster Dulles famously refusing to shake hands with Zhou Enlai at the 1954 Geneva talks, and the Vietnam War all played their part in a consistent US policy of non-recognition and recrimination toward China. It also helped that there was a significant “China Lobby” in the United States adamantly insistent that the “true” Chinese government was the non-communist Nationalist government on the island of Taiwan, where our ally Chiang Kai-Shek had fled to in 1949. These issues aside, there were also factors pushing China and the United States more closely together, including the Sino-Soviet split in the 1960s.

As Jeremi Suri recently wrote (ISD Director Barbara Bodine moderated a discussion with Suri’s co-editor, Robert Hutchings, to discuss the book and the usefulness of diplomatic case studies), many scholars postulate that the “opening was obvious, necessary, and almost inevitable.” This may be the case, but Suri points out that “for all the obvious strategic logic behind a Sino-American opening, most of the bureaucratic, historical, and political pressures pushed in the opposite direction. The status quo standoff was much easier to maintain than it was to change. Institutional and ideological inertia favored conflict and isolation.”

Nixon took steps to begin the process of opening relations with China on his first day in the Oval Office. Building upon US-China ambassadorial talks that had been ongoing in Warsaw, Nixon’s administration worked to create avenues for outreach to China through foreign emissaries (eventual Chinese outreach for a visit came through the Pakistanis and Norwegians), and in June 1969 Nixon eased restrictions on contact between the United States and China. At the same time, the Chinese were also undergoing a strategic recalculation of the relationship, with a secret internal study recommending improved relations with the United States. The historic visit of the US table tennis team to China in April 1971—better known as ping-pong diplomacy—provided the aegis for forward momentum. Nixon used this to increase contacts, including expediting visas for visiting Chinese, easing currency restrictions, and relaxing “controls on direct trade between the United States and China.” This series of moves, over more than two years, eased apprehensions on both sides, softened US public perceptions of China, and set the stage for Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s secret trip to Beijing in July 1971. President Nixon would famously follow in February 1972.


In 2014, President Obama’s rapprochement with Cuba has a similar boldness, ending six decades of stale Cold War policy. Like Nixon before him, Obama decided early in his presidency that he would tackle a difficult, long-running policy problem differently. In his first term, the Obama administration  “made [it] easier for Cuban-Americans to travel and send remittances to Cuba.” Then, following months of quiet negotiations between Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes and NSC Senior Director Ricardo Zuniga and Cuban officials, Presidents Obama and Castro announced a new direction in US-Cuban relations on December 17, 2014. Domestically, the President also had to deal with a large anti-communist Cuba Lobby reminiscent of the pro-Taiwan forces behind the China Lobby.

In 2015, both sides were moving closer towards full recognition. The State Department took Cuba off the State Sponsor of Terrorism List, both Cuba and the US reopened their embassies in each other’s countries, and Secretary Kerry visited Cuba in August 2015. The long-awaited official visit by President Obama on March 20 marked the first visit by a sitting President to Cuba since 1928, when Calvin Coolidge was in the White House.

The Obama administration’s view, quite simply, is that over 50 years of diplomatic isolation failed to change the political situation in Cuba. Their view is that open engagement—people-to-people, business-to-business, and government-to-government ties—will create a more open and prosperous Cuba, and improve the lives of the Cuban people. There are also regional strategic reasons behind the move. As the Economist recently highlighted, for years, American isolation of Cuba damaged broader US regional relations and goals, somewhat ironically creating an opening that China stepped in to fill in the last decade. The hope is that changing the Cuba dynamic will tilt the regional dynamic, with the United States benefiting from closer engagement with all of its neighbors.

The opening to China eventually led to normalization of relations in 1979, aided Deng Xiaoping’s extensive “reform and opening” policies of the 1980s, and led to an easing of US-China relations. Closer US-China ties also put pressure on the Soviet Union during the waning years of the Cold War. China’s explosion of exports over the last 30 years, lack of a fully transparent business and investment regime, regional expansion claims in the South China Sea, continued human rights abuses, and entrenched political system, though, continue to lead to Sino-US diplomatic clashes. Forty years of normal relations, though, create the institutions and mechanisms to try and tackle each of these thorny issues.

Can we hope to see the same course of events in US-Cuba relations? The Obama administration argues that having more interactions on a regular basis with the Cuban people and the island’s embryonic business community will play a major role in pushing the Castro regime toward a more open and inclusive form of government. Detractors believe nothing will change and that America should not reward a dictatorial regime for decades of oppression. The jury’s still out. One thing is for certain, though. To successfully enact change—for better or worse—it takes a bold decision to break free from long-held policies. Obama has succeeded in doing just that, and there’s a pretty decent chance his overall Cuba policy will reap positive rewards on both sides of the Straits of Florida over the long run.

Dr. Kelly M. McFarland - ISD director of programs and research