When it comes to adversarial states, diplomatic aims are better served by engagement, not isolation.
The current heated, even toxic, debates in the United States about the Iran nuclear deal and President Obama’s agreement with Raul Castro to restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba reflect what has long been a core US policy issue: Should the United States directly engage its adversaries? Or should it seek to isolate them.
Other Western democracies place more faith than the United States in diplomacy’s capacity to mitigate bad behavior by recalcitrant states.
For nearly a century this issue has been central to US foreign policy. Isolating an adversarial state can, of course, be expressed through trade embargoes and economic sanctions, but the United States has often also imposed a form of symbolic and formal isolation by refusing to have diplomatic relations with the state. Instead of engaging—typically through recognition and the mutual exchange of embassies and ambassadors—the path of isolation has been taken.
There are many examples of this “traditional” US refusal to establish full formal diplomatic relations with adversarial states: the Soviet Union (1917–33), the People’s Republic of China (1949–79), Cuba (1959–2015), and Vietnam (1975–95); this approach has also been applied to Libya under Qadhafi (1969–2003) and to Iran (1979–present) and North Korea (1948–present)—and more often than not, this policy has frustrated US foreign policy goals.