George F. Kennan served as United States Ambassador to the Soviet Union for a brief period in 1952 during the last year of the Harry Truman presidency. Nevertheless, it is his article, “Sources of Soviet Conduct,” that he is most remembered. The article was published the Foreign Affairs Journal in the summer of 1947 under the pseudonym “X.” The “X Article” is noted for the concept of “containment” which came to define American foreign in general until the collapse of the Soviet Union near the end of the 1980s and at the beginning of the 1990s and towards Cuba until President Obama began normalizing relations with Cuba in July of 2015.
Containment was meant to counter Soviet or Communist advances anywhere in the world. Vietnam was a part of the containment policy against the Soviet Union. Prior to the mutual openings of Cuban and U.S. embassies, American foreign policy had been essentially hostile since the Cuban Revolution which toppled the Batista regime in January 1959. Most American school kids only knew about Cuba in the context of Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and more recently, Guantanamo Bay (the sight for holding captures of President Bush’s extra rendition policy during the “War on Terror.”) Remnants of the Cold War era policies are still in place due to the need for the U.S. Congress to pass legislation ending the U.S. embargo against Cuba.
Coinciding with the collapse of the Soviet Union the world witnessed another monumental occurrence. In February 1990 Nelson Mandela was released from prison in South Africa after serving close to twenty-five years in captivity. Mandela had become the face of the international anti-apartheid movement and the world’s most famous political prisoner. Apartheid was a system of racial segregation was formally established by the Afrikaaner South African government in 1948 lasting until 1994 when Nelson Mandela assumed the presidency of the new South Africa. Interesting enough Chris Matthews of the MSNBC Hardball news program gave commentary berating Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution. I found this quite interesting given the fact that shortly after Nelson Mandela was released from prison, he traveled to Cuba to meet with Fidel Castro. As stated, most American students know the Chris Matthews side of history as opposed to the Nelson Mandela side of history.
Chester A. Crocker served as President Reagan’s Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs from 1981 to 1989. Nevertheless, what he is most noted for is his conceptualization of the policy of “constructive engagement” toward the apartheid regime in South Africa. American foreign policy had been characterized by reactionary support for the apartheid regime in South Africa all the way from Eisenhower to Nixon and Ford. Containment against Soviet advances in southern African had become the central rationale for American support for South Africa’s apartheid regime. In the 1980s, however, the anti-apartheid movement gained major momentum. The presidency of Jimmy Carter had given some voice to the movement concern prior to the election of Ronald Reagan. During the winter of 1980/1981 Foreign Affairs published an article by Chester A. Crocker entitled “South Africa: Strategy for Change.” In this article Crocker outlined the policy of “constructive engagement” which would characterize the Reagan foreign policy toward the apartheid regime in South Africa. As a counter to Carter, Crocker argued that sanctions should be ended. He was against divestment from South Africa. The argument was that more good could come from engaging South Africa than from strengthening sanctions. The argument also stated that sanctions hurt the very people that the anti-apartheid movement claimed it wanted to help. This policy choice put the Reagan Administration out of step with the international community. In short, the Reagan Administration along with the Margaret Thatcher regime in Britain became apartheid’s last and closest friends.
This leads us to a central question. What is the difference between President Reagan’s “constructive engagement” with South Africa’s Apartheid regime in the 1980s and President Obama’s “constructive engagement” with Cuba’s Communist regime in the middle of the second decade of the twenty-first century? First, America has normalized relations with China which, to date, is still a Communist nation. Major American corporations from Wal-Mart to Apple operate in China without a second thought. Virtually all “iPhones” are manufactured in China. Therefore, the argument that Cuba is a Communist state does not justify the continuation of an old Cold War policy. Second, whereas Reagan’s “constructive engagement” placed the United States out of step with the world community, Obama’s “constructive engagement” places the United States in line with the world community. Finally, the Reagan Administration sought to use “constructive engagement” as a cover to prop up the South African regime without truly challenging South Africa’s policy of apartheid or its human rights record. President Obama has openly admonished the Cuban government on its human rights violations. Obama’s “constructive engagement seeks to use American involvement as leverage to challenges the Cuban regime and advance more liberties in the country of Cuba. On a final note, it may seem a bit trivial that British Rock group the Rolling Stones, who boycotted apartheid South Africa, played a free concert in Cuba before 1.3 million people. This concert came on March 25, 2016 only three days after President Obama had left the island.
Anthony Neal earned his Ph.D. in political science at Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University). Dr. Neal is an associate professor at State University College, Buffalo. The author of numerous book reviews and journal articles, he has had his work published in the Western Journal of Black Studies, the Journal of Black Studies, and Black Issues in Higher Education. In 2014 Dr. Neal received the university’s Faculty Appreciation Award, was named Instructor of the Year by the university’s United Student Government, and Professor of the Year by the Student Political Society in the Department of Political Science. In 2015, he published The American Political Narrative which is a succinct yet poignant narrative about the development of the American political system and what is needed to maintain it. In 2016, he will publish a book of poetry entitled “Love Agnostic | from 9/11 to Charleston”