Presidents who have been successful in achieving their foreign policy goals sometimes are described as having a doctrine. Harry Truman’s was containment of Communism; Ronald Reagan’s was rolling back Communism and “peace through strength”
Not all administrations can be labeled, because they lacked clarity of goals or didn’t achieve their goals. Bill Clinton didn’t seem to have a strategic goal; Jimmy Carter had one—promoting human rights—but he mostly gave left-wing dictatorships a pass while harassing right-wing dictatorships.
Not only do U.S. presidents have identifiable doctrines. Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev had one—namely that not one square inch of soil that Soviet communists conquered would be relinquished (NB: most such square inches were). When we can identify a president’s foreign policy doctrine, it provides a useful shorthand to describe how the administration sees the world and the U.S. role in it, and then we can judge its effectiveness.
There Is No Trump Doctrine Yet
It is too soon to ascribe a doctrine to the Trump administration. Candidate Trump campaigned on rejecting nation-building, foreign adventurism, and the notion that an assumed global consensus was the North Star for U.S. policy. Voters liked this, and it helped him win the White House. Nevertheless, over the past five months Trump has revealed another facet in his approach to foreign policy: clarifying who the United States’ enemies are and hostility toward them rather than accommodation.
By withdrawing from the Paris climate accord, rattling the North Atlantic Treaty Organization by insisting on fair dealing regarding its costs, disrupting business as usual at the United Nations, and strictly scrutinizing the Iran nuclear agreement, President Trump is signaling that U.S. action in the world will be decided first and foremost according to U.S. interests, not some vague notion of an internationally approved consensus.
This approach makes sense. After all, no country on earth is now acting or ever has acted in the world for the good of the world. All nation-states serve their interests first. If they are wise, they try to act in ways that attract allies and provide common benefits, but the chief goal is always their own interests and security. To think countries do otherwise is fantasy.
Speaking of the Obama administration: Trump’s actions are a marked departure from his predecessor’s approach to the world. Steeped in the “anti-colonial” view of the world that saw first British then American leadership as the cause of the world’s ills and a justification for rogue states’ bad actions, Obama intentionally put U.S. interests last or subsumed them into some vague notion of the world’s interests. No matter how hostile, threatening, or insulting a regime was toward the United States, Obama looked for ways to accommodate them.
But Trump’s bombing of the Russian-backed Syrian government’s military positions from which the regime used chemical weapons against civilians, and now with his revisions to Obama’s Cuba policy, reveal the president’s contempt for hostile regimes that treat human beings as fodder for their heinous acts.
Other Countries’ Bad Behavior Isn’t Always Our Fault
Obama spoke and behaved as though Cuba was poor, dysfunctional, and allied with our enemies because the United States had pressured and bullied Cuba. His view was that if the United States would simply normalize relations (treat Cuba like any other country in the world) and trade with it, the regime would moderate, open its economy to the world, and democratize. From that would flow peace, harmony, and development on the island.
The Obama administration did not deny that the Cuban regime was a dictatorship or was failing its people materially or in terms of freedom. The administration simply did not hold Castro’s regime responsible for all the problems it caused itself and others. Rather, Obama believed the U.S. posture toward the regime had caused the regime’s bad actions. Therefore, if the United States would change its behavior and embrace the regime, then the regime would respond in kind.
This requires an incredible amount of ignorance or willful disbelief about how dictatorships—especially Marxist-Leninist ones—think and operate. The Castro regime does not exist for the sake of the Cuban people; it exists for the sake of itself, the party, and the military that run the island. Every single action it takes is to first keep itself in power and then to enrich itself.
Not only do such regimes control political life to stay in power, they also control the economy to stay in power. Obama’s refusal to acknowledge that the regime controlled the economy as a means to holding on to power is key to understanding the fatal flaw of his “opening” policy.
Cuban Leaders Care About Themselves First
Obama acted as though the regime wanted to liberalize its economy and allow ordinary Cubans to participate in it and prosper. But the Castro brothers have never wanted such a thing. If they did they would have allowed ordinary Cubans to enjoy economic freedom, as the Chinese Communists began to do under Deng Xiaoping. But they never have allowed that.
Even the handful of Cubans who are allowed to operate a little restaurant in their homes or fix flat tires cannot participate in a free economy since they cannot trade convertible pesos. Only party members and the military can own and operate significant business enterprises in Cuba, and only the privileged can use the convertible currencies on the island. All others have to turn in dollars and convertible pesos to the regime, which gives them in return only 20 percent of the value.
In short, the regime runs Cuba’s economy for itself. Being a tourist in Cuba and investing in Cuba enriches the military that owns about 80 percent of the enterprise in Cuba. Spending a few dollars in a Cuban home restaurant or bed and breakfast does not make for the growing prosperity for the average Cuban that is supposed to lead to greater political openness. The Cuban family that got your dollars cannot use them because they have to turn them in to the government in exchange for a few lousy and worthless Cuban pesos.
Meanwhile, all Obama’s opening achieved was more money in the regime’s pockets and greater political repression on the island. Arrests and beatings of political dissidents increased, and the regime’s rhetoric became more defiant. Let us not forget that the hallmark of the Cuban regime’s barbarity is that the regime thugs beat in the streets the mothers, wives, and daughters of political dissidents as the latter walk to church together.
And let’s be realistic about the value of trade with the Cuban elite: if more trade and investment is supposed to lead to improving the average Cuban’s life and more open politics, why haven’t the decades of tourism, trade, and investment Cuba has with scores of European countries led to anything positive for the Cuban people? Conditions on the island have been worsening, not improving, as the world opened itself to the Castro regime.
Trump and Team Get Cuba Like Obama Didn’t
President Trump, with the help of Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, understands all this and has acted accordingly. Rather than bend to the constant calls from Europeans, the UN, and numerous leftist activist groups to embrace the regime, the Trump administration is improving U.S. policy toward the Castro regime.
Trump has called for the strictest application of all U.S. law regarding tourism to Cuba, trade, and investment. His new policy will not allow regulation-skirting and, most importantly, U.S. investment and tourism will not be able to benefit the regime. U.S. investors and tourists will not be permitted to engage with the military’s tourism and manufacturing conglomerates. If you want to travel to Cuba or invest in Cuba, your actions must benefit the ordinary Cuban people.
The ball is now in Castro’s court to change his policies and actions if he wants to benefit from engagement with the richest country on earth. Moreover, Trump’s new policy requires the regime to hold free and fair elections supervised by international observers and free all political prisoners.
President Trump’s new Cuba policy provides us with the sharpest contrast to date between Trump’s understanding of foreign policy and Obama’s. Trump does not believe the United States is the cause of other countries’ bad behavior. He does not believe that we have enemies only because we create them. And he does not believe anything good comes from accommodating barbaric regimes hostile to the United States.