By the late 1980s — through traditional intelligence-gathering, international monitoring, support for civil society, academic exchange programs, and diplomatic outreach with the U.S.S.R. — we began to understand that the Soviet Union was a failing enterprise.
We could have rushed in, trying opportunistically to accelerate the process. Instead, our presidents at the time — Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush — opted for caution and engagement.
Our best and brightest foreign-policy minds worked out strategies for dealing with the implosion we began to see coming. We renegotiated nuclear arms control treaties, promoted people-to-people exchanges, and even provided economic assistance.
We didn’t pile crushing sanctions on the Soviet Union. We didn’t threaten it with military action. We encouraged and applauded its gradual opening.
We did this because we knew we didn’t need to topple the Soviet system; it had been crumbling from within for decades.
One can argue that Iran, Cuba and Venezuela are displaying those same telltale signs of terminal decay. But as I watch the Trump administration’s approach to all three — led by national security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — I find myself wishing that today’s leaders would revive some of the late Cold War tactics that worked so well.
These days, however, our policy toward adversaries seems to be entirely based on the threat of confrontation. All sticks, with no carrots in sight.
Against Iran we deploy the most severe economic sanctions that hurt the population much more than their corrupt leaders; we dispatch an aircraft carrier strike group to the Persian Gulf or make loud declarations of the willingness to use force.
In Venezuela, we push aggressively for regime change, deploying a harsh embargo on oil exports that has done more harm than good to a society trying to free itself from the dictatorial rule of Nicolás Maduro. And as for Cuba, we’ve discarded President Barack Obama’s engagement policy in favor of still more sanctions and a return to travel restrictions.
And critically, in all three cases, we’ve made contact with the citizens of these countries nearly impossible, imposing blanket travel bans and cutting the sorts of exchanges we used to rely on as an essential component of our human intelligence gathering.
All of these moves appear to have taken shape without much of a formal policy process; President Trump has shown little interest in complex deliberations. Instead, today’s leaders seem to rely more and more on their gut instincts, shutting their eyes to the sorts of pragmatic information-gathering that normal people use to make choices.
It’s become clear that our strategies for punishing dictators usually serve to create obstacles to homegrown change. If we’re not careful, this can put us at direct odds with the aspirations of populations that we claim to support.
For decades we’ve conflated the populations of these countries with the regimes ruling over them. If our aim is truly to empower those fighting for freedom, punishing measures should be reserved for the rulers, not the societies that we claim to support. But the opposite is true, and as a result Washington appears entirely disingenuous.
Having spent time in both Cuba and Iran, I’ve witnessed the sad irony of people forced to endure the double whammy of rule by authoritarian ideologues even as they struggle to cope with harsh Western policies designed to coax them toward revolt.
Yet this old approach seems to have produced few positive results. We blacklisted Iran for almost 40 years to little apparent effect. We kept the Cuban embargo in place for even longer — yet we never succeeded in dislodging the Castros and their ilk. We’ve targeted Venezuelan leaders with sanctions and loudly proclaimed their regime illegitimate — but Hugo Chávez and now Maduro still hold power, continuing to corrode civil society.
You don’t fix failed policies by doubling down on them. Yet that’s what we keep doing.
Despite the great advantage in military and economic might that we now hold, we lack a key ingredient of earlier eras: moral authority.
At the end of the Cold War, the United States could make a credible case for its stature as a defender of freedom. We had spent the years of confrontation with the Soviet Union protecting our democratic allies in Europe and elsewhere, and promoting the cause of human rights where we could.
We were clearly not completely consistent, but we acted in favor of democracy often enough that we commanded respect in the eyes of the world. Few global citizens welcomed the idea of a Soviet Union able to operate unchecked by Washington.
Today, though, we defend human rights only as an exception to the rule. Our president saves his warmest words for Russia’s Vladimir Putin, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, Egypt’s Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman and China’s Xi Jinping, while showing persistent contempt for our democratic friends.
In our efforts to undermine the regimes in Caracas, Havana and Tehran, we’re not even feigning an obligation to doing what’s right. The world can see just how selectively we’re applying the values we claim to hold so dear.
It’s no wonder the “promise” of American support to those demanding change rings hollow. Instead, we trap them within their stifling borders with travel bans while systematically degrading their economies through sanctions.
It’s time we recommitted ourselves to our old role as defenders of the open society. This isn’t just the right thing to do. It’s also the smartest long-term investment in our security.