Burma, Cuba, and Iran: the pros and cons of Obama’s rapprochement

deal with it



2015 has been a big year in Obama’s administration, one that ultimately will shape his presidential legacy. While he did not do so well on the first term, and even on the first half of his second term (thanks to the government shutdown in 2013 and intense bipartisan politics being played in the Congress), his performance became hugely bolstered through the passage of fast-track authority, which enables the administration to finish Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) before 2017 and other proposed mega-regional free trade agreements in the future, as well as the improvement in relations with countries formerly dubbed as ‘sponsors of terrorism’ – while not being hypocritical that US does have its own particular record – and in this specific case, Burma (or Myanmar, you name it), Cuba, and Iran. I will not talk so much about other foreign policy accomplishments that he had done in his presidential period, but these three countries, oftentimes tied together in almost any media report as ‘centerpieces’ in his foreign-policy rapprochement, deserve some particular attention. While Obama’s efforts, which emphasize diplomacy and compromise rather than the overt use of military force, have won plaudits, there are always concerns about what these countries, upon the re-engagement, are doing, and will possibly do, in the present and in the future. In all Polyannaist terms, nonetheless, we do really expect – while keeping our realist mindset on track – that the ‘opening’ of these countries will also lead to the betterment in the surrounding regions, and the world.




Source (for all map images): Lonely Planet

Population: 60 million (almost), GDP (nominal): 60-65 billion US$ (2014)

Pros: since the limited reforms introduced in 2011 by the quasi-civilian president Thein Sein, sanctions have been gradually lifted the country has managed to attract more foreign direct investment from numerous Asian countries (other than the long-standing investor China), such as India, Thailand, Singapore, Japan, European Union, and obviously, from United States. Tens of billions of dollars have been poured in various industrial projects, while construction boom, mostly focused on high-rise buildings, is currently taking place in major cities, particularly in Yangon. For all the doubts among much of the international communities, World Economic Forum did even organize an investment summit in early 2013. Middle class is emerging in major cities, an important component in the country’s path towards eventual democratization. Hundreds of political prisoners are also since then released from prisons, and political participation is also turning into a more competitive arena as well, with numerous parties now participating in the country’s parliament based in Naypyidaw.

Cons: human rights abuses continue to take place, and the notoriety surrounding the country’s treatment of ethnic Rohingyas, as evident in the massive refugee crisis occurring in the seas between Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. The government continues to deny the citizenship status of the whole ethnic group, numbered at over 1.7 million strong. Other than Rohingyas, the government remains in belligerence with several ethnic-based insurgency groups in the border, particularly those near India and China (some of the peace accords struck with them in 2012 and 2013 failed). There are also concerns that the political reforms seemingly stall, with the latest regulation reserving 25% of the parliament seats to the armed forces, while a presidential candidate has to secure more than 75% of parliamentary support, an obstruction to the country’s most leading politician, Aung San Suu Kyi, to contest the electoral race scheduled to take place in October this year. It is obviously undeniable, in fact, that she can not become a candidate, but whether the next president will proceed with the ongoing reforms remains a big question that has to be solved.

Obama’s visits to the country: 2012 and 2014




Population: over 10 million, GDP (nominal): 80 billion US$ (2014)

Pros: relations between United States and Cuba in 20th century were mostly characterized by Cold War conflicts, and CIA’s numberless covert plans to assassinate Fidel Castro, the country’s leading political figure, until his replacement by his brother, Raul, in 2008. Limited reforms have been introduced since then, most astonishingly, the layoff of over 500,000 public employees in 2010 (which indirectly also led to the growth of entrepreneurs). The rapprochement, initiated in May 2012 as part of a ‘spy swap’ program, had since become a wide-ranging thaw among the two countries, culminating with the December 2014 meetings between Raul and Obama, assisted by Pope Francis. Bilateral meetings between Raul and Obama continued further with Organization of the American States (OAS) Summit in Panama City in April 2015, which, for the first time, oversaw the handshaking between the two leaders.

Cooperation among the two countries extends not only among the leaders, but also in people-to-people level. Cuban medical researchers, which ‘doctor diplomacy’ is widely utilized in Cuban foreign policy, have pioneered a medical breakthrough in cure of cancer, and the cooperation has recently begun between the countries’ scientists. The re-opening of US embassy in Havana last week, as one expects, will push American businesses and tourists, gradually, to invest and interact with the locals living in the country in the future. Furthermore, the country can advance even further in its ‘doctor diplomacy’ strategy, now already dispatching more than 40,000 medical experts across the developing world.

Cons: two major takes. Firstly, US has continued to retain the notorious Guantanamo Bay prison, where the infamous CIA rendition program is still taking place there. Further negotiations between Washington and Havana have to be conducted in order to solve this decades-old, lingering problem. Another concern is the extent to which Cuba, still ruled by one-party regime, will introduce its political reforms, and also allowing more competitive political atmosphere. Such political opening will take years, if not decades; if reforms go too fast, a political crisis will be a real, legitimate threat. Gradual phases of tutelage will be a more recommended pattern to guide the country’s path towards political openness, and that will be left to his successors in 2018 (the time Raul resigns, as he will be 87 years old afterwards).

Obama’s visits to the country: zero





Population: 80 million, GDP (nominal): 400-500 billion US$ (2014)

Pros: the nuclear deal, eventually achieved two weeks ago, was another highlighted achievement that Obama had achieved in his administration after over 6 years of uneasy numerous processes of negotiation, together with European Union, IAEA, China, and Russia. The deal itself will require Iran to highly limit (but not completely freeze) the nuclear program, obligate the country to open up for inspections by IAEA, as well as provide progress reports, up for international joint reviews, for a period of 10 years. While the accord was achieved ‘not with trust, but through verification’, the deal will enable the gradual lifting of economic sanctions that have crippled the country for almost one decade, potentially adding an annual oil revenue of more than 100 billion US$ that Tehran critically needs to support the long-term development. Still, a complete normalization of US-Iran relations will not be expected in a short term period, somehow.

Cons: There remains this question of regional rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, two long-time arch-enemies, in Middle East. The two countries have played proxy wars and conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq, and in numerous other Shia-Sunni conflicts across the region. Unlike the two countries above, Tehran plays a powerful influence in Middle East. It continues to retain support to Bashar al-Assad regime in Damascus (and most recently, a new law has been signed in Tehran to authorize 1 billion US$ of financial support to the beleaguered country annually), while the civil war in Yemen, despite the truce, has not led to a full pause. There remains doubt, also, of what will happen once the deal expires in 2025; such uncertainty will have a major implication on global geopolitics in the decades to come, especially when one expects Iran to be economically and politically in even stronger position than now. An Iran-Saudi rapprochement, possibly brokered by Washington, will have to be attempted in a few years to come to prevent a larger regional conflict to take place.

Obama’s visits to the country: zero


As much as these efforts have resulted in significantly positive impacts on US relations with the world in the second decade of 21st century, these deals also carry Obama’s name in a huge stake in the long-term future. What if the direction becomes worse rather than better? There is too much one can hardly speculate, even in the 10 years of time; this also carries an important question, furthermore, of what the future US presidents will relate to these countries in a post-Obama setting. Will the presidents maintain the ‘diplomacy-first’ strategy, or will the stance become much harder and more hawkish? In such situations of fixed uncertainties, wisdom will be the sole guidance one has to employ to understand the problems, and proactively solve them. For all the flaws that have occurred, at least, engagement is the continuous form of remedy in international relations that Obama has exercised (so far).





The Diplomat: know the Asia-Pacific, much deeper

the diplomat


Why you should visit this website: it’s an online magazine, about Asia-Pacific, not like any other you see; it provides in-depth insight (normally nearly 1,000 words long for each article) into numerous particular issues surrounding the region, with simplistic, convenient multimedia features, and a language particularly easy to understand. Another great fact from this website is that it allows international-relations wannabes (mostly Master’s or PhD candidates worldwide), altogether with senior fellows and other well-experienced analysts, to exchange words, facts, and information freely, giving it an exclusivity-free atmosphere you barely see in conventional, first-class global-affairs websites you frequently need to subscribe (another recommendation being Foreign Policy, but still, you can only access 8 free news articles each month starting from last year). Such humble face of this website provides great opportunities for the public to access these articles freely, therefore gaining rapid comprehension about current affairs taking place in the world’s currently most dynamic region.


Somaliland – Progress towards a Regional and International Role (report)




Speaking of international relations, there exist two different types of sovereign states: ones that are officially recognized, and the ones which are, obviously, vice versa.

In numerous cases, we have seen the establishment of a considerable number of countries being either contested by few or, if unfortunate, most of the existing states. For instance, Taiwan, whose sovereignty is disputed by China; Palestine by Israel; Abkhazia and South Ossetia by Georgia (and only recognized by Russia and three others); Transnistria by Moldova; or Nagorno-Karabakh Republic by Azerbaijan. These are only a handful of examples of how formation of a ‘nation’, and a ‘state’, can be so easily contradicted against the current existing conditions.

But Somaliland is an exception. Formally, not even one sovereign state in this planet declares to this country an official recognition (its entire international relations operate rather on an informal basis).

Its existence can be traced back long before the devastating civil war in Somalia in 1990s. Unlike the rest of the country, which was administered by Italian government, Somaliland was controlled by the British instead. The war itself, compatible with the total absence of a centralized government in Mogadishu (rather than being epicenter of Somalia, it instead symbolizes the destruction, lawlessness, and hopelessness of the nation), enforced the local warlords in charge of the region, those who were long embattled with the regime back in the capital, to reach a compromise, and thus Somaliland was born.

With more than 3.5 million inhabitants living in the region, and with no countries officially acknowledging their existence, the newly-formed government had to fight a hard game to ensure social stability in the newly-born country. And subsequently the results start to pay off. The remittances sent back home (a World Bank report suggests the number sent by Somalilanders working abroad, mostly in Saudi Arabia, exceeds 1 billion US$ every year) were mostly used to rebuild the country’s shattered economy. Today, real-estate and construction projects have begun to mushroom throughout the country’s main cities, predominantly Berbera and Hargeysa (the chief capital).

After two decades of social stability and bustling economic growth, the government now seeks into a new, and deeper, venture: an official, and worldwide, international recognition. While the government still has to tackle numerous obstacles and stereotypes that hinder much of the foreign direct investment back in Somaliland – primarily due to the country’s association with Somalia as being chaotic, lawless, and anarchic, another difficulty ensues: Puntland, another autonomous region of Somalia that favors national union with Mogadishu, and also a copy-cat version of Somaliland in terms of social stability and economic growth, has begun to dispute a tremendous number of Somaliland’s territories. Several armed border clashes even took place in the past. Still, though, the government has numerous tasks to accomplish in both near and far future.

Chatham House, a non-governmental international-relations think tank based in London, UK, has recently interviewed two ministers of the Somaliland government regarding the country’s future international recognition. Click the link here for the full interview archive.

And for those who are not well-acquainted with this country (or even not aware if such country exists), click Wikipedia for further information.