Coming in From the Cold: Escaping Isolation

Joe Biden promised, while campaigning for the presidency, to make Saudi Arabia a "pariah." He didn’t. He promised to isolate Russia. He hasn’t.

The US has experienced a recent deficit in its ability to enact its promises to isolate enemies. Its confidence is proving greater than its capacity.

The US promised to sanction and isolate Iran. But Iran is entering the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as a full member, unlocking access to top-level contacts and economic cooperation with nations representing a full 43% of the world’s population, including giants like China, India and Russia.

In March, with the help of China, Saudi Arabia and Iran signed "an agreement to resume diplomatic relations between them and reopen their embassies and missions within a period not exceeding two months." One month later, they signed an agreement to reopen their embassies and consulates in each other’s countries.

The first achievement opens up Eurasia to Iran; the second has the potential to reintroduce Iran to the Sunni Muslim world and the Middle East region. Though not fully insulated from US sanctions and not desirous of being cut off from the US and the West, Iran has found an escape and has been neither starved nor isolated.

In America’s backyard, the same is true for Cuba and Venezuela. In the 2022 iteration of the UN General Assembly vote on the US embargo of Cuba, the world voted 185-2 against US isolation of Cuba. Mexico demanded that the world not just vote, but act and promised "to continue demanding that the blockade against Cuba be lifted." Other Latin American countries joined in the call. Brazil’s President Lula da Silva has urged Latin American and Caribbean nations to solve the problems of Cuba – and Venezuela – and treat them with “much affection.”

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has embraced both Venezuela and Cuba, including inviting Miguel Díaz-Canel of Cuba and Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela to the most recent meeting of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States. Colombia has returned its ambassador to Venezuela and signed a joint declaration with Venezuela to consolidate bilateral relations and deepen integration. Peru, Honduras and Chile have reopened communications with Venezuela, Ecuador is considering re-establishing diplomatic relations with Venezuela, and Argentina has announced that they will re-establish ties.

In November, French President Emmanuel Macron addressed Maduro as “President” and shook his hand for one-and-a-half minutes while telling him that he “would be happy if we could talk to each other for longer to engage in useful bilateral work for the region.”

And while the US continues to insist on the isolation of Syria, Syria is similarly escaping that isolation. Saudi Arabia has backed the rebels fighting the Assad government. But, with the help of Russia, Syria and Saudi Arabia have recently agreed to reopen their embassies. That could be the door to reintegrating Syria into the Arab world from which it has been isolated.

Saudi Arabia is reported to be ready to formally invite Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to this May’s Arab League summit in Riyadh. The invitation, Syria’s first since 2011, would “formally end Syria’s regional isolation.” Syria’s readmission has a good chance of passing, though perhaps not passing unanimously. On April 1, Syria’s foreign minister went to Cairo for the first official visit in twelve years to begin the process of reinstating Syria in the Arab League. And on April 12, Syria’s foreign minister, Faisal Mekdad, arrived in Saudi Arabia for meetings with Prince Faisal bin Farhan, the Saudi foreign minister. It is the first visit to Saudi Arabia by a Syrian foreign minister since 2011.

And the reintegration is extending past the Arab world. Again under the auspices of Russia, on April 25, the defense ministers and intelligence chiefs of Syria and Turkey, together with their counterparts from Iran and Russia met in Moscow in order to "rebuild Turkey-Syria ties." Like Saudi Arabia, Turkey has backed the armed opposition to Assad. This is the second time the Turkish and Syrian defense ministers have met in Moscow.

In the latest progression of Syria’s reintroduction to the Arab world, the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq and Syria on May 1 all joined in calling for Syrian "sovereignty" over all of its territory and for "the exit of all illegal foreign forces from it."

As in Cuba, Venezuela and Iran, the US opposes the normalizations of relations with Syria. But the US ability to isolate its enemies does not seem to be keeping pace with its desire.

Ted Snider is a regular columnist on US foreign policy and history at and The Libertarian Institute. He is also a frequent contributor to Responsible Statecraft and The American Conservative as well as other outlets.