12/04/2014 01:33 pm ET Updated Feb 03, 2015

Reinventing American Exceptionalism: Why U.S. Foreign Policy Should Embrace Idealism


President Barack Obama's pivot to the Pacific has afforded Myanmar's military junta an opportunity to share the world stage with a sitting American president for the second time in over two years during the recent East Asia summit hosted in Naypyidaw. The President and his team of advisors have sought continued engagement with this erstwhile Southeast Asian country in the hopes of bolstering its fledgling democratization efforts. This, in spite of President Thein Sein's backsliding on promises of political reform, has come to characterize the inconsistencies of Obama's stance on diplomatic engagement with pariah regimes.

Why is this important? As our legacy in Central and Latin America bears witness, America frequently has aligned itself with shadowy regimes for geopolitical gain. Those, however, were different times, ripe with the complexities of great power politics. Globalization and the benign hegemony of the United States must give way to a more consistent and idealistic foreign policy. We should engage regimes like Myanmar and Cuba with the utopian aim of improving quality of life and health metrics on the ground and less towards an eye on geopolitics.

Mr. Obama has long believed in the power of collective action to spur change. "I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being," Obama said at West Point's commencement address in May 2014. But, he noted, "American influence is always stronger when we lead by example." Yet, leading by example means upholding virtues of fairness and justice, and in the world of foreign policymaking, that means an emphasis on being consistent in approach even when it may not be convenient. That Burma holds strategic appeal for an America seeking to build allies on China's immediate periphery is well known. Its poor infrastructure, even poorer health metrics, and high rates of corruption notwithstanding, a growing American economic footprint on the shores of the Irrawaddy would provide strategic balance to an otherwise Sino-dominated South China Sea.

Similar hopes of transformative political change underwrote the President's interest in securing a nuclear deal with Tehran in 2013. Even as a candidate for the highest office, a desire to engage the late-Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was emblematic of Mr. Obama's approach to consider all avenues of diplomacy. As he noted then, "it is important to understand that ignoring these countries has not led to improved behavior on their part and it has not served our national security interests."

What then to make of the continued trade embargo levied against Cuba? Certainly, revolutionary fervor in Cuba has abated since the 1960s, the significance of a Havana-Moscow axis has been relegated to academic discussion, the country's much-praised health system is facing serious questions of long-term sustainability, and the tragedy of a well-educated Cuban populace mired in a stagnant economy continues inexorably. Cuba is the most populous island in Latin America and has resources in Nickel and tobacco that hardly sustain its economy. What little foreign direct investment exists is heavily relied upon by Havana for subsistence. "We understand Obama is in a difficult political situation," said one former-lawyer now turned home stay owner on the outskirts of Havana. "Most Cubans blame the Castro government for the embargo and lack of access to economic opportunity and quality healthcare; the propaganda only focuses on income equality and universal health coverage, but these are all misleading," he lamented.

If Cubans cannot help themselves, why continue to deny them access to the global stage? Engagement with Havana has the potential of ushering political, health and economic reforms; as former Florida governor Charlie Christ has noted on several occasions, "if we want to bring democracy to Cuba, we need to encourage American values and investment there."

In other words, allowing Havana to engage in multilateral trade and diplomatic institutions may ultimately spur political upheaval and free elections. Certainly, there are no guarantees, but this approach is not new to the American foreign policy arena. In some ways, permitting engagement with the global commons is evocative of the Bush doctrine, that is the spread of western values of free elections and capitalism to spur the democratization of authoritarian regimes; yet it is at the same time its very antithesis, given its emphasis on the power of institutions rather than military force to promote change.

Mr. Obama has a chance to create an enduring foreign policy legacy that would justify his awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize nine months after his inauguration. Yes, Tehran and Naypyidaw hold strategic value that Havana simply cannot match in our current geopolitical climate. However, Mr Obama's presidency has always been about transformative ideas and transcending political sclerosis to bring change. He is a believer in the power of institutions, and if Myanmar and Iran merit diplomatic overtures given political exigencies, so does Cuba on humanitarian grounds.