President Obama on Wednesday announced that the United States would normalize relations with Cuba. As he put it: “isolation has not worked.” Yet, the United States itself has been isolated in its attempt to isolate Cuba. The European Union, for instance, changed its position in 1996 and allows Cuba to benefit from some preferential treatments for its exports.
The United Nations General Assembly has voted since 1992 on an annual resolution on the “necessity of ending the economic, commercial and financial embargo imposed by the United States of America against Cuba.” In 1992, with the Cold War just ending, fewer than 50 percent of all member states voted in favor of the resolution (more than half abstained). The graph above shows how quickly any semblance of support for the embargo evaporated. In its latest iteration only Israel joined the Americans in voting against the resolution, although, to its credit, the United States did get the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, and Palau to abstain.
U.N. General Assembly resolutions have mostly symbolic value as they do not create binding legal obligations. Yet, U.S. isolation probably undermined the effectiveness of the embargo. Given its geographic location, the United States is a natural trading partner for Cuba, but trade with Europe, Latin America and Asia is not nothing. Moreover, having to lobby countries on an issue where the chances of success were minimal created a headache that U.S. multilateral diplomacy could well do without.