Not So Splendid Isolation

PARIS – At the end of the nineteenth century, the British Empire pursued a policy of what it called “splendid isolation,” reflecting its leaders’ determination to stand aloof from international engagements. With the strength of its economy and the superiority of its navy, the United Kingdom could afford to avoid entanglement in others’ affairs.

Today, as recent events have shown, isolation is – more often than not – a mistake, an unenviable condition resulting from failed policies. Cuba’s emergence from decades of forced isolation is a victory for the island, while North Korea’s pariah status has led it to the brink of collapse. Similarly, Israel’s controversial policies and diplomacy risk leaving the Jewish state unprecedentedly alone. And inward-looking policies in Russia and Turkey, driven largely by their leaders’ egos, are unlikely to produce anything but harm.

By beginning to normalize relations, Cuba and the United States have snatched victory from the jaws of a double defeat: the failure of the embargo and the failure of the Cuban economy. The deal struck in December allows Cuban President Raúl Castro to claim success in mending ties without making significant political concessions. For US President Barack Obama, the breakthrough is a chance to cement his legacy as a transformative president, like his models Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt – even if, in ending nearly six decades of failed policy, he more closely resembles Richard Nixon, who presided over the opening to China.

Though Pope Francis, the first Latin American pontiff, was instrumental in facilitating the resumption of diplomatic ties, so was the plunging price of oil. Continued isolation would have left the Cuban regime dangerously exposed, given the declining financial fortunes of its primary sponsor, petroleum-rich Venezuela.