The Failure of Intervention

President Joe Biden’s remarks to the United Nations struck a positive tone in international relations, a tone that has not been heard for several years from an American president. This is happening as United States allies criticize the president for not having consulted them when the U.S. withdrew from Afghanistan. This dismal experience shows the urgent need to reframe the country’s foreign policy from intervention and war to policies that favor peace and effective channels of communication.

The essential question revolves around the principles that will bolster these policies. George F. Kennan, the noted American diplomat and foreign policy expert, suggested four such principles: proper distance, mutual respect, non-interference and, above all, the avoidance of war. Although his thoughts were mainly framed at the often-thorny relations between the Soviet Union and the U.S., we can adopt the practice of non-interference and the avoidance of war as basic principles, at a time where any false step can lead to a world confrontation of unpredictable but certainly dire consequences.

In the book Peril, Bob Woodward and Robert Costa allege that General Mark A. Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called China’s top general, Li Zuocheng, to assure him that if the U.S. decided to attack China, he would warn him ahead of time.

The reason for the call, made in agreement with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, was that the general, the Speaker and then-Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, had doubts about the state of former president Trump’s mental health, and feared he might launch an unprovoked attack against China. This incident reveals the enormous fragility of peace in the world today, where untimely actions can lead to its destruction.

This brings us to the issue of intervention in other countries’ affairs. Recent history shows that most foreign interventions have resulted, either immediately or in the long run, in the invaded countries’ destabilization, economic chaos, internal displacement, or wave of refugees to other countries, often aggravating the social and economic condition of all nations involved.

This is true for Russia in the Ukraine, China in Tibet, and the U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen, to mention just a few cases. Granted that foreign intervention can be justified in times of humanitarian catastrophes. But even in such cases, intervention should be approved by the United Nations Security Council.

It can be argued that the United Nations is a weak body. However, the United Nations is as good an organization as the member states want it to be, and its decisions should be listened to. The U.S. relations with Cuba is a case in point. Despite the UN General Assembly’s vote of June 23 last -the 29th consecutive one- whereby 184 countries favored a resolution demanding an end to the U.S. economic blockade on Cuba, only the US and Israel voted for its continuation. The reason given by Rodney Hunter, Political Coordinator for the U.S. Mission to the U.N., to keep the embargo was that “Sanctions are one set of tools in Washington’s broader effort toward Cuba to advance democracy, promote respect for human rights, and help the Cuban people exercise fundamental freedoms.”

Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla called the embargo “an economic war of extraterrestrial scope against a small country already affected in the recent period by the economic crisis derived from the pandemic.” And he added, “Like the virus, the blockade asphyxiates and kills. It must stop.”

This was not an exaggeration. In several health-related missions to Cuba, I was able to assess the impact of the embargo. For over half a century Cubans have had a wretched standard of living, and public health has suffered as well. Although the government’s health policies have, to a certain extent, lessened the impact of the embargo, Cubans do not have access to vital medicines and medical equipment.

The Cuban government is an authoritarian and repressive government. But the U.S. has normal relations with worse regimes than the Cuban. Lifting the embargo is one the easiest foreign policy actions the U.S. government can take. Besides being quick and sound, it would lead to a wave of good will in Latin America, the Caribbean and the rest of the world, and dramatically change the atmosphere of confrontation and war. If the U.S. wants to counteract the negative effects of intervention, Cuba is the best place to start.

Dr. Cesar Chelala is a co-winner of the 1979 Overseas Press Club of America award for the article “Missing or Disappeared in Argentina: The Desperate Search for Thousands of Abducted Victims.”