Problems, big and small

Cuba and North Korea are examples of our second-tier foreign policy problems.

WeâÄôve spent plenty of time in this space over the past few weeks talking about the big problems: Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. There is, after all, a reason those countries are front and center in most foreign policy debates today. But there are plenty of other states in the world, and as a superpower we have dealings with nearly all of them. And so countries like North Korea and Cuba, while not necessarily at the fore of every debate, still get plenty of attention. North Korea grabbed a few headlines last week when its government kicked U.N. weapons inspectors out of the country and announced plans to resume their quest for a nuclear weapon. And make no mistake about it: A nuclear North Korea would be a really bad thing. The Democratic PeopleâÄôs Republic of Korea (DPRK) government is wildly unstable, it spends a huge percentage of its GDP on its military, its people live in crushing poverty and it generally seems starved for attention. A North Korean nuclear bomb is undesirable for pretty much every other country in the world âÄî even chief ally China is in no hurry to give Kim Jong Il the keys to the nuclear car. Up until a few weeks ago, things were pretty quiet on the North Korea front; a Bush-era agreement had led to the dismantling of most of the DPRKâÄôs nuclear program, capped off by the dramatic implosion of the cooling tower at the Yongbyon reactor. But then, North Korea launched a missile over Japan, and things got screwy. We didnâÄôt like the fact that the tested missile had enough range to hit Hawaii, and Japan certainly did not like having a DPRK rocket fly overhead. Tough words were exchanged on both sides, the six-party talks (between the United States, the DPRK, Russia, China, Japan and South Korea) broke down once again and the North Koreans kicked out the inspectors âÄî which brings us to today. What do we do now? The best answer at this point is probably: âÄúnothing different.âÄù The fact is, when it comes to North Korea, we have time on our side. The threat of a nuclear North is real, but itâÄôs also far off; even if they started work on their reactor yesterday, it would take up to a year to get the thing working again. And if they pull that off, they would barely be able to produce enough nuclear material to build one bomb per year. One bomb is much, much worse than no bombs, obviously, but we donâÄôt have to worry about a blast happening tomorrow. We have time to take a deep breath, get the multi-lateral talks restarted and continue negotiations. We still have the upper hand here. North KoreaâÄôs economy is in complete shambles, Kim Jong IlâÄôs health is constantly deteriorating and most of the international community is united in opposition to a DPRK bomb. Our real problem may be what happens after the NorthâÄôs government finally collapses. Plenty of experts are worried that things are so bad in the North that any attempt to unify the Korean peninsula would drag South Korea into an economic disaster. A bad situation indeed, but not a dire one. The situation in Cuba, though, is entirely different. While the way forward in North Korea is foggy, the proper path in our dealings with Cuba couldnâÄôt be clearer. WeâÄôve been clinging to a stupid, failed embargo for 50 years. Normalizing relations with Cuba is long overdue. The Obama administration nudged the ball forward last week, but they didnâÄôt go nearly far enough. Last weekâÄôs alterations in U.S. policy toward Cuba were nice enough âÄî they eased travel restrictions on Cuban-Americans who have family back on the island and opened up some telecommunications rules âÄî but if the president thinks he can dust his hands off and call it a job well done, heâÄôs badly mistaken. Unlike North Korea, Cuba poses no conceivable threat to the United States. There is no Cuban nuclear program, no threat that a Cuban army will land on the southern tip of Florida. The embargo does nothing but contribute to Cuban poverty. In foreign policy, things are so very rarely black-and-white âÄî when it comes to Cuba, though, anything less than full normalization just isnâÄôt going to cut it. Even a bunch of retired U.S. military leaders have started calling for an end to the embargo. WeâÄôre not protecting ourselves from anything by doing something stupid to Cuba. Traditionally, politics have gotten in the way of sensible policy. Presidential candidates have feared offending FloridaâÄôs substantial anti-Castro Cuban population. But, if nothing else, President Barack Obama will hopefully feel slightly liberated on that front. He won a commanding Electoral College victory that didnâÄôt depend on Florida, so we can hope that he will have the fortitude to actually do the sensible thing. If this first little change is a sign of more to come, we can celebrate the injection of a bit of rationality into our foreign-policy conversation. But this bears watching; since there always seems to be more pressing issues in the world, Cuba can easily slip to the back-burner. It shouldnâÄôt. This one is so easy, we may as well just get it out of the way. If in, say, a year or so there hasnâÄôt been any more headway on the Cuban front, it would be a serious failure of ObamaâÄôs presidency. That is often the risk of these second-tier diplomatic relationships: It is hard to force change, even simple, obvious change, if nobody is paying attention. North Korea pops up every so often with a crazy new plan to attract attention, but Cuba too often slips beneath the radar. Those of us who voted for the president because of his foreign-policy platform ought to be watching these smaller countries closely over the next few months. John Sharkey welcomes comments at [email protected]