Adventures in Exceptionalism

October 25, 2013

We offer these thoughts a few days before the UN General Assembly votes on a resolution condemning the United States for the embargo against Cuba.

“For decades,” journalist Marc Frank reminds us in Cuban Revelations, “Cubans who left the island – especially for the United States – were considered traitors who were joining a foreign power’s attempts to overthrow the nation.”

In Cuba, this was the government’s rationale for restricting the liberties of all Cubans to leave and return to their country as they pleased.  But, a little more than two years ago, President Raúl Castro issued a strong signal that the weather was going to change.

Speaking before Cuba’s National Assembly, Castro said: “Today, the overwhelming number of Cubans are émigrés for economic reasons…What is a fact is that almost all of them maintain their love for the family and the homeland of their birth and, in different ways, demonstrate solidarity toward their compatriots.”

In January of this year, nearly all travel restrictions on Cubans were dismantled. Now, as we have noted previously, Cubans who want to travel to the U.S. face fewer restrictions than nearly all U.S. residents who want to travel to Cuba.  President Obama acted wisely to repeal the harsh restrictions his predecessor imposed on family travel in 2004. Now, the right of Cuban Americans to visit their families on the island is unlimited.  Upwards of 350,000 exercised that right just last year.

The president also reopened channels for people-to-people travel and, as we reported last week, non-Cuban American travel to Cuba has hit peak levels.  But, if you look at the numbers for 2012, you will see that the more than one million Canadians, more than 150,000 travelers from the U.K., and over one-hundred thousand tourists from Germany, Italy, and France exceeded the Americans (98,050) who got to visit Cuba, and none of them had to apply to their governments for a “license” in order to go.  We were the exception.

***

It is not new that the United States is criticized by friend and foe alike.  In October, however, the U.S. image has taken a pounding overseas; and, to be clear, this not a public relations problem.  The drumbeat got louder and more insistent over much larger issues.

Criticism of the U.S. spiked when the U.S. government was shut down, the nation’s credit rating was at risk, and Congress frightened bondholders and contractors with the threat that we would not pay our bills. China called for a “de-Americanized world.” A columnist in The Guardian wrote: “The rottenness of modern Washington makes outsiders gasp.”

Strong stuff, but nothing in comparison to the uproar caused by revelations that the growing global scandal over surveillance by the National Security Agency now encompassed the private communications of 35 world leaders.  This will multiply the backlash the U.S. already felt when Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff cancelled a state visit over reports of U.S. snooping in her country and her private office.

Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel, is especially incensed.  As USA Today reports, she told President Obama that “spying among friends cannot be,” there needs to be trust among allies and partners, and that “such trust now has to be built anew.”

Foreign Policy is reporting that Germany and Brazil are joining forces “to press for the adoption of a U.N. General Resolution that promotes the right of privacy on the Internet,” that would extend the coverage of Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to the online world.

This Article states “no one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his honor and reputation,” and that “everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.”

If the amendment happens what difference will make it?  The U.S. Senate waited sixteen years to adopt the covenant and, when it did so, it added fourteen reservations, understandings, and declarations that so denuded its force that scholars said the U.S. had perpetrated a fraud on the global community.

Two weeks ago, the United States was among 15 member nations scheduled to have their human rights records reviewed by a UN committee in Geneva, and NSA spying was already “slated for discussion.”  But, the U.N. Human Rights Committee cancelled the U.S. review and rescheduled it for March 2014.

“The USA highlights its regret at having to make such a request, which is due to the ongoing government shutdown,” the committee said.  Fourteen other countries were reviewed.  For the U.S., they had to make an exception.

***

On October 29th, when the General Assembly votes on its 22nd resolution to condemn the U.S. embargo on Cuba, the U.S. will again stand virtually alone in asserting the rightness of our views.  In President Obama’s first term, Ambassador Ronald Godard argued that the U.N. had no business even debating the question, because the U.S. had a “sovereign right” to punish Cuba for its political system as part of its bilateral policies.  “Butt out;” he seemed to say, “this is America’s right to do as it pleases.”

This idea, grounded in the notion of American exceptionalism, so pervasive in U.S. foreign policy, combines our faith in the “rightness of our cause” with our overwhelming power.

Recent events demonstrate just how damaging this attitude can be.  It leads this country to impose its will in ways that hurt our interests internationally, harms the alleged beneficiaries locally, and causes them to turn against us politically.

The embargo may seem a small thing to many in the U.S.  It is, in fact, a much larger and more powerful symbol than many understand.  Reversing it will not only help Cubans lead better lives, it could be a small step in a bigger effort to change how the U.S. is perceived and received in the world.  Someday, we hope that President Obama acts to dismantle the embargo, remove all travel restrictions, and put us on course for a normal relationship with Cuba.

It won’t solve all of our problems.  But it would make him truly exceptional.

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