01/13/2015 03:55 pm ET Updated Mar 14, 2015

Recognition Is Not Endorsement of the Cuban Government

President Obama created a firestorm with his announcement on December 17 that the United States would establish normal diplomatic relations with Cuba. Opponents in the U.S. Congress already have vowed to prevent construction of an embassy and block the appointment of a U.S. ambassador.

Diplomatic recognition of another country and its government is nothing more than an acknowledgement of its de-facto existence as a nation state, not tantamount to approval of its political system or its policies. President Obama noted that he was under "no illusion about the barriers to freedom that remain for ordinary Cubans." Moreover, diplomatic relations do not preclude the application or continuation of sanctions, as illustrated by their imposition on Russia in the wake of its aggression in Ukraine while diplomatic relations remain in effect.

The existence of embassies and consulates in other countries enhances communication, increases understanding, facilitates the reduction of tensions and advances mutual interests. This long-established diplomatic practice has been recognized through the ages as highly beneficial in inter-state relations.

Many officials in the United States have been, and still are, opposed to extending diplomatic recognition to States with which we have strong disagreements. It took the U.S. 15 years to recognize the existence of the Soviet Union and establish relations with it in 1933. We clung to the myth that the Chinese Nationalist government that fled to Taiwan in 1949 represented mainland China until 1972, when President Nixon visited the Peoples Republic; and we finally established diplomatic relations with Beijing in 1979.

What useful purpose is served by our continuing to stand virtually alone in a futile effort of more than 50 years to isolate Cuba and its regime? In fact, establishing formal diplomatic relations and increasing contacts between our two countries is more likely in the long run to liberalize the Cuban government than continuing the unproductive policies of the past half century.

Lt. Gen. Robert G. Gard (USA, Ret.) is Chairman of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. He served 31 years in the U.S. army and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.