Most scholars agree that Nixon’s surprise visit to China in 1972, which paved the way for the resumption of diplomatic relations between both countries, is one of the major breakthroughs of American foreign policy in the 20th century. Just a few months after before end of the bloody Vietnam war, the decision shocked a mourning nation. However, it received a bipartisan approval, since it was seen as a bold move in order to try to split the Communist camp.
After hearing the inflamed rhetoric by president-elect Donald Trump and most Republican senators on Obama’s historic agreements with Cuba and Iran, one wonders whether Nixon could have “gone to China” had he being the US president in 2016. The parallelisms between Nixon’s move in 1972 and Obama’s in 2016 are notable.
Pretty much like the US policy towards Communist China, Obama’s decision comes after many decades of a failed containment policy of both Cuba and Iran. And, what’s more, nothing suggests that this policy would bear fruit any time soon. With some notable exceptions -Israel and Saudi Arabia-, the nuclear deal with Iran enjoys a rare consensus within the international community, including EU countries, Russia, China and the “emergent” powers. They are all worried about the effects on nuclear proliferation that tearing up the agreement would provoke, as well as the risks of a devastating war in the Middle East.
As for Cuba, according to polls, even the majority of Cubans living in Florida approve of ending the blockade and resuming diplomatic relations with Havana. This exile in Miami used to be the main constituency that blocked such a move in the past. Not anymore. Therefore, how is it possible that so many members of the US Congress reject these agreements?
The only possible answer is the deep partisan polarisation that currently dominates American politics and that threats to put it in a permanent state of deadlock. Resentment against Obama is so strong among Republicans that they want to scrap anything related to his legacy, such as these deals or the so-called “Obamacare”.
Not so long ago, foreign policy was quite isolated from politicking, which was mainly reserved to domestic issues. It was understood that national interests and security required a certain degree of continuity and consensus. Not anymore. Since the Clinton presidency, and specifically the “Lewinsky affair”, American politics have become increasingly polarised, a trend only amplified by the emergence of 24-hour ideological cable news (like MSNBC of Fox News) and the social networks.
The deals with Cuba and Iran do not only constitute Obama’s legacy in the domain of foreign policy, but the tools to achieve a detente is really appreciated all over the world. This is why many chancelleries still hope that Trump will not fulfil his electoral promise to undo them. The president-elect final decision will not only be a crucial test to his credibility, but to the leadership of the US in the world.