What Obama can do to stop driving the world and Brazil nuts

September 27, 2013

This week at the United Nations General Assembly, Brazil’s president, Dilma Rouseff, earned global attention with a strongly-worded condemnation of the NSA surveillance program that violated the privacy of her own email, telephone calls, and text messages, and that of communications throughout Brazil.

“We face,” she told the General Assembly and an audience of world leaders, “a situation of grave violation of human rights and of civil liberties; of invasion and capture of confidential information concerning corporate activities, and especially of disrespect to national sovereignty.

We expressed to the Government of the United States our disapproval, and demanded explanations, apologies and guarantees that such procedures will never be repeated. The problem, however, goes beyond a bilateral relationship. It affects the international community itself and demands a response from it. Information and telecommunication technologies cannot be the new battlefield between States.”

Not since Hugo Chávez, the late president of Venezuela, likened then-president George W. Bush to the devil, and accused him of acting “as if he owned the world,” has a UN General Assembly address by a Latin American leader generated this much news.

What makes this development different – and, for U.S. foreign policy more disconcerting – is that President Rouseff cannot be dismissed as easily as President Chávez often was for representing what Cold Warriors called “the pink tide.”  She is the leader of the largest economy in South America, the sixth largest in the world. Her county is among those most likely to be next made a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council.  Brazil is a huge export market for the U.S. – just ask Boeing – and they are the global destination for FIFA’s next World Cup and the IOC’s next summer Olympic Games.

Moreover, she is not alone, and what is dividing the United States from its natural partners in the region and other nations around the world is not just U.S. snooping but their growing willingness to diverge from the U.S. on issues where we have historically expected them simply to fall into line.

Chilean President Sebastian Piñera urged greater reforms in the Security Council than the U.S. supports.  Others displayed divisions over reforming drug policy.  El Salvador’s President, Mauricio Funes, among our closest allies in Latin America, broke with the U.S. over Cuba policy, and called what he termed the blockade “a relic of the past.”

Sometimes, what is said at the UN can really matter.  So, it is heartening that when President Obama spoke to the General Assembly, he ruled out American support for regime change in Iran, as he pursued a diplomatic end to its nuclear weapons programs, and that he later declared, “We are no longer in a Cold War. There’s no Great Game to be won.”  Those of us who think about U.S.-Cuba policy could hardly help nodding our heads.

But, we can only gauge what words are worth by measuring the actions taken in their wake.  If the president can reach an accommodation with Iran’s government that acknowledges its legitimacy; if he can say to the world, in the context of Russian diplomacy on Syria, that the Cold War is over, how much longer must we wait for him to apply these conclusions to his management of U.S.-Cuba relations?

We know he knows better.  YouTube has the evidence on tape (take that, NSA!).  We know the world is impatient for the U.S. to come around; we face global condemnation in the next few weeks at the U.N. for maintaining the embargo against Cuba, and a regional boycott at the next Summit of the Americas if the U.S. tries again to exclude Cuba.

Now is the time for the president to act. It is time to take the good and important things he does below the radar – the negotiations, the travel reforms, the tamped down rhetoric – and make a public commitment to end the Cold War in the last theater where it is still being waged.  It will modernize a policy that has been flawed and failed for decades. It will help the Cuban people.  It is in our national interest for him to do this.

Even more, if in the course of normalizing relations, the president shows the world that we need not listen to their phone calls to actually hear what they are saying, the importance of this action will resonate loudly beyond the boundaries of Cuba.  That can – and should – be his legacy.

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