The most dire reaction to President Barack Obama's plan to thaw relations with Cuba has come from his Republican opponents. Variously, they have talked of the folly of negotiating with a repressive regime and suggested that extending a hand to Havana was wrong until full democratic and human rights reforms were undertaken. Notably absent from this response was any appreciation of the history hewn four decades ago by a leader of their own party, President Richard Nixon. His quest for better relations with China, culminating in a visit to Beijing in 1972, was a forerunner of the path now being pursued by President Obama in a different hemisphere.

Until Mr Nixon's intervention, tension and hostility characterised relations between the US and China. The President spoke of the "angry isolation" in which the Chinese lived. This would endure, imperilling global stability, until the icy relationship ended. Mr Nixon was right, and his initiative also encouraged progress in relations with the Soviet Union. Now, President Obama is equally right. There is no point in continuing a policy that has abjectly failed to advance the interests of the US. Indeed, as Hillary Clinton suggested, its major impact has probably been to strengthen the communist regime's grip on power.

To what extent relations will improve is questionable. For the moment, a trade embargo that bans American companies from importing or exporting to Cuba remains in place. The reinstatement of full diplomatic relations is being discussed, however, and some of the crippling restrictions on business, banking and travel have been lifted. But as much as Cubans wish for the economic stimulus that will flow from the end of isolation, Raoul Castro, their 83-year-old President, will be cautious. The dangers of such a dramatic step are readily apparent, not least through the arrival of enhanced telecommunications in a country in which only about 5 per cent of the population have access to the internet.

The Republicans have also indicated that they will do as much as possible to sabotage the normalisation of relations. President Obama will need their co-operation to lift the trade embargo. In part, the Republicans' opposition reflects their belief in the importance of Cuban-American voters in the key swing state of Florida. There, they are also misguided. The Cuban-Americans who fled to Miami soon after Fidel Castro seized power may still be adamantly opposed to the regime. But there is nothing to suggest their children and grandchildren share their fervour. Noticeably, there was little protest on the streets of Florida after President Obama's surprise announcement.

Advertisement

Second-term presidents are apt to spend much of their time on foreign policy, where plenty can be achieved without the agreement of their political opponents. Mr Obama's rapprochement with Havana is following a similar path to that with another longstanding foe, Iran. The talks with Tehran have also not escaped criticism from those apparently content with a state of perpetual hostility. Those critics might ponder what the outcome would have been if President Nixon had taken their view on China. Where would angry isolation have taken the Chinese? Mr Obama's initiative is to be applauded.