×

Why Trump's tough talk on Cuba will work

Cuban President Fidel Castro gives a speech in front of the U.S. Interest Section May 14, 2004 in Havana.
Jorge Rey | Getty Images
Cuban President Fidel Castro gives a speech in front of the U.S. Interest Section May 14, 2004 in Havana.

The late Cuban dictator Fidel Castro loved baseball, so using a baseball term to describe what his death has provided President-elect Donald Trump: A meatball right over the plate. And not only is the opportunity to start talking tough and actually getting tough on the Cuban regime a home run opportunity for Trump, it's probably a good window to what we can expect from him when it comes to foreign policy for the next four years. The easy-access to the bully pulpit provided to Trump by social media is just too enticing for him to resist.

That became apparent early Monday when Trump followed up his celebratory weekend tweet about Castro's death with another tweet about how his administration will deal with Cuba going forward:

At first glance, this might look like something Trump can and will only do in regards to nations like Cuba. After all, the Cuban economy and potential dollar value of the Obama administration deals with the island nation are very small. Politically, Trump talking and dealing tough with Havana is another easy positive for him as it helps him connect deeper with the Florida's Cuban-American voting block that backed him more than expected in the election. And personally, it allows Trump to hurt the established hotel and resorts businesses he's been competing with his entire adult life. Win/Win/Win.

But if we've learned anything from Trump's behavior over the past year at all, it's that he's basically addicted to tweeting blustery thoughts and quasi-threats at will. And that behavior has, as the psychologists say, just been given the most positive and enabling reinforcement there is with Trump's presidential election victory.

Trump's tweeting does indeed allow him to present a very clear and honed message to his supporters and potential supporters at will. Trump is unique in this way. Because while Twitter has been available to President Obama for his entire term in office and was around for decent part of President George W. Bush's tenure in the White House, Trump is the only one who's made it an expected part of his brand.

But this goes beyond a social media platform. Twitter or no Twitter, this is just as much about the no nonsense, strongly worded kind of messaging Trump wants to continue to employ. Diplomacy 101 tells us that's exactly the kind of attitude and public speaking persona that world leaders shouldn't use. But in case you haven't noticed, Trump and most of his more ardent supporters indeed do want to upset the establishment apple cart in almost every way possible.

And almost all of post-World War II American diplomacy is probably as politely establishment as it gets. Trump wants to end the era of tacit and polite respect American presidents and Secretaries of State show to hostile countries and cultures. Images of President Obama bowing low to Saudi kings, his so-called "apology tour" across the world during his first term, and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and some of her female predecessors in that job also agreeing to don Muslim head coverings in public, non-religious places, are just a few examples of things that Trump wants to reverse.

"Serious talk, even if it comes in supposedly undiplomatic forms like a Trump tweet or a 'Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!' challenge from Ronald Reagan, can produce great results as long as the leaders making them are ready to back them up."

If you listen to his speeches during the campaign, you know Trump believes most of American foreign policy has been a failure for a long time. Now, he wants to change not only the policies but the way America sounds and acts in relation to the world. So, get used to this.

The big question is: Will this tough talk and decidedly undiplomatic behavior work? The easy or cop out answer is "time will tell." But we do have some actual evidence to work with to provide a bit of a better answer than that. History tells us that more blunt talk in American diplomacy often works wonders.

It worked when Ronald Reagan made it clear that his administration was going to ditch the murky policy of Detente in favor of a "we win, they lose" strategy against Soviet expansion and influence. But it didn't work as well when President George W. Bush spoke about how terrorist nations and nations that harbored terrorists were one in the same.

That was basically the message that led to the Iraq War, which didn't achieve its promised goals despite the fact that most Americans were mobilized to support it at first. President Obama's clearly stated "red line" on chemical weapons use in Syria has produced almost nothing but more confusion and international outrage.

So what we learn about provocative talk in foreign policy is that it's only likely to work if the presidents or diplomats saying it actually walk the walk after talking that talk. It will be relatively easy for the Trump administration to back up President-elect Trump's hard core challenge to Cuba. But if he starts making more specific challenges or threats against larger nations, or even groups like ISIS, Trump is going to have to back them up with real actions or risk being ignored before long.

President Bush's sweeping statement about all nations that harbor terrorism didn't work because, in the end, his administration wasn't willing to back that up against countries like Saudi Arabia. President Obama's "red line" statement about chemical weapons didn't work because his administration simply decided to backtrack on it. It wasn't about how those presidents said something, it was what they did after saying them.

The same will be true of Trump's tweets about foreign policy or even negotiating with companies like Carrier to keep their business in the U.S. If it turns out Trump and his team don't succeed in that effort it will be one thing, but it will be a lot worse if we learn his team never really did much negotiating at all.

Some history from the Reagan years can illuminate that point. When Reagan and then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev failed to make any real nuclear arms reduction deal at Reykjavik in 1986, that failure was considerably mitigated by the fact that Reagan indeed presented Gorbachev with a very bold and sweeping offer to reduce American nuclear arms.

They laid some important groundwork for the future and never stopped working to achieve success. And a major nuclear deal breakthrough was achieved about a year later setting the stage for the START treaty signing between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. in 1991.

Serious talk, even if it comes in supposedly undiplomatic forms like a Trump tweet or a "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" challenge from Ronald Reagan, can produce great results as long as the leaders making them are ready to back them up. Again, Trump's Cuba comments won't be hard for his incoming administration to make into a workable policy.

But perhaps this Cuba scenario will provide just the right kind of practice and lessons the Trump team will need. The best we can hope for is not for Trump to stop making these kinds of statements, that ship has sailed. But we can hope that Trump first thinks hard about whether he and his foreign policy team will always be ready to back those tweets up.

Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.