A half-century of estrangement is over, President Obama declared late last year, in a surprise announcement that he was transforming U.S. policy towards Cuba. Having broken the ice, the administration hopes that normalizing diplomatic relations and lifting the economic embargo will, as the recently released National Security Strategy explains, “enhance our engagement in our own hemisphere, where there are enormous opportunities to consolidate gains in pursuit of peace, prosperity, democracy, and energy security.” Actually, it’s a geopolitically insignificant decision—except for the pattern it continues, one we would do well to recall as the deadline for a deal with Iran looms.
Obama’s approach to the world can be summed up with the title of a single book: How Enemies Become Friends: The Sources of Stable Peace. Influential Georgetown professor Charles Kupchan published it in 2010 and now serves the president as senior director for European affairs on the National Security Council (on which he also served during the Clinton administration). Contravening conventional wisdom, Kupchan argues that “deft diplomacy, not trade or investment, is the critical ingredient needed to set enemies on the pathway to peace.” The Russian reset, the two-plus years of nuclear negotiations with Iran, the 18 months of secret talks with Cuba: The administration clearly agrees that diplomacy, not shared interests or values, can overcome longstanding barriers.
Kupchan outlines a four-step transformation sequence to turn enemies into friends, one the White House has followed to a tee: unilateral accommodation, reciprocal restraint, societal integration, and the generation of new narratives and identities. States remove a threat by “exercising strategic restraint and making concessions to an adversary” as a way to signal benign intent. To indicate the seriousness of the gesture, the concession needs to be “unusual and costly,” such as “backing down on a border dispute or unilaterally withdrawing forces from a contested area.”
Evidence of the Kupchan approach is ubiquitous. Towards Russia, the unilateral accommodation included accepting Russia’s occupation of Georgian territory, giving up American missile defense plans in Eastern Europe, and agreeing to a massive reduction in America’s nuclear arsenal. For Iran, it involved removing the credible threat of U.S. military force and recognizing Iran’s right to enrich uranium despite U.N. Security Council resolutions and regular Iranian perfidy. With Cuba, Obama is using his executive powers to normalize relations and weaken the embargo as much as he can but not requiring an end to repression there.
Kupchan’s book does not seem to have been translated into other languages because none of America’s adversaries has taken step two, reciprocal restraint. China continues to bully its neighbors, Russia has invaded Ukraine and backstopped Bashar al-Assad’s regime, which in turn has murdered 200,000 people, and Iran, while cheating on its interim nuclear commitments, now boasts of controlling four Arab capitals, Baghdad, Beirut, Damascus, and Sanaa. This uncooperative behavior has not led the administration to rethink its approach of treating enemies as friends. America finds itself partnering with China, Russia, Syria, and Iran to solve problems those countries themselves have caused.
Putting Kupchan’s theory into practice was bound to fail. He points to the Iroquois Confederation, the Anglo-American rapprochement, the European Union security community, and the Swiss Confederation as his successful cases. Such transformations, Kupchan writes, can only occur when three conditions exist between the two parties: institutionalized restraint, compatible social orders, and cultural commonality. Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Xi Jinping’s China, Assad’s Syria, the mullahs’ Iran, and the Castros’ Cuba hardly fit the bill.
The White House does not seem to believe its strategy comes with costs. As Obama said about America’s Cuba policy, “these 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked. It’s time for a new approach.” But the Kupchan approach has done real damage. Not only have the administration’s unilateral accommodations encouraged additional bad behavior, they have also caused huge rifts with allies caught in the crosshairs. Obama’s weak response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine led Poland’s then-foreign minister to bemoan that the “Polish-U.S. alliance isn’t worth anything.” Similarly, the administration has infuriated Saudi Arabia with a series of decisions, from the chemical weapons red-line climb-down in Syria, to the suspension of military aid to Egypt, to the unveiling of the interim nuclear deal with Iran—all of which the Saudis reportedly learned from CNN.
Which brings us to the public spectacle that is Obama’s relationship with Benjamin Netanyahu. With Cuba as yet another example, the Israeli prime minister’s ultimate fear is that Obama is willing to sign any nuclear deal with Iran—no matter what it entails—because any deal will set the U.S.-Iranian relationship on a transformative path. Recognizing and legitimizing an Iranian nuclear capability is precisely the sort of “unusual and costly” concession Kupchan says is necessary to turn an enemy into a friend. Israel isn’t just worried the pending deal will do little to halt Iranian nuclear plans; it could be the conduit through which the United States begins to treat Iran as a regional partner rather than its supreme regional adversary.
As with the president’s other olive branches, the attempt to transform Iran from an enemy to a friend will likely fail. We’ve seen no evidence of forthcoming reciprocal restraint from the mullahs. Continued Iranian support for murderous actors such as Assad and Hezbollah or persistent violations of nuclear commitments could well force this administration, or the next one, to reverse course. When that happens, however, we will not be able to return to the status quo ante. Allies, such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, will have made their own choices in the interim about how to secure their interests, which now stand in opposition to the budding U.S.-Iranian concert. Netanyahu’s speech made this clear. One can easily imagine a situation in which Israel and Sunni states decide to take on Hezbollah and Assad directly, only to be opposed jointly by Washington and Tehran. Not only will the United States have failed in turning enemies into friends, but it will have lost friends in the process.