The United Nations has undertaken its annual vote to condemn the US embargo of Cuba. In an unusual move, the United States abstained from the vote, instead of outright condemning or sidelining the resolution. Although international law and acts of the UN General Assembly are already unenforceable, unless a world power like the United States acts on it, the nonbinding UN resolution condemning the Cuban Embargo is thoroughly symbolic in nature. As the world’s only superpower, the US response to such efforts actually matters far more.
The Obama Administration has sought to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba, but the restart is a political sore spot inside the US. In fact, the debate over whether or not the Cuban Embargo should be lifted has yet to truly begin. Although it is controversial for the Obama Administration to abstain from a UN resolution that condemns US policy in itself, abstaining from the Cuban Embargo vote reflects the internal political strife found within the US government. Outside of the US, the symbolism is far different. Instead of being seen as an effort to undermine US foreign policy, such actions actually help strengthen US foreign policy positions.
Under traditional wisdom, the United States needs to control the “message” in order to protect America’s moral authority and the perception of the world’s population. By suppressing criticism of US foreign policy, opposition to US policies and threats to the United States can be suppressed. The problem with this kind of traditional wisdom is that the suppression of dissent actually tends to inspire greater criticism and opposition. Propaganda may appear to be a constructive means of controlling perceptions, but such efforts breed distrust and undermine US credibility, even when the US is fully justified in its policies. The freedom to criticize and dissent from the most powerful government in the world, therefore, strengthens US credibility.
The Cuban Embargo was adopted in response to the spread of communism during the Cold War. It was also a response to the Soviet Union placing nuclear weapons on an island just off the coast of the United States. Because unrelenting US criticism of communism, which fails to confront the enticing benefits of communism and socialism, has been the main focus of the US-Cuban tiff, the justification for the Cuban Embargo has been forgotten. In turn, the suppression of the Cuban People has been ignored by US critics in order to condemn the US. Similarly, the likes of Saddam Hussein of Iraq, Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia, and Bashir Al-Assad of Syria are often painted as victims of US policies, even though they have brutally slandered their own Peoples.
Consequently, the symbolic value of the Obama Administration abstaining from the UN resolution condemning the Cuban Embargo is not limited to the issue of the Cuban Embargo. Abstaining from a UN referendum on US policy is a means for the US to show that it is listening to the world. Instead of automatically suppressing criticism, the willingness to listen and accept criticism shows the world that the US is not above the international values it promotes for others. It also puts the US in a position where it is forced to explain the reasoning behind condemned US policies, i.e. foster a foreign policy debate. Allowing dissent does not mean agreeing with criticism. It means strengthening the credibility of the United States by encouraging disagreement.
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