Thanks to the restoration of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba, the Cuban flag is flying over Washington, and, perhaps, the Soviet-era pop song “Cuba, My Love” can finally be appreciated in America.

Like the Iran nuclear deal, the opening with Cuba is yet another diplomatic victory for Barack Obama as his second term draws to a close. Both victories were achieved through informal or semi-informal diplomacy relying on various backchannels and go-betweens.

Andrei Kolesnikov
Kolesnikov is a senior fellow and the chair of the Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center.
More >

The president of the Carnegie Endowment for the International Peace, Ambassador William Burns, played an important role in bringing about the Iranian agreement, while Pope Francis was instrumental in the Cuba deal. His Holiness displayed true patience and cordiality, even when Bolivian President Evo Morales presented him a crucifix in the shape of a hammer and sickle. In a different era, an earlier Pope, John XXIII, had donned the mantle of peacemaker during and after the Cuban missile crisis. Who knows how history might have played out if the Pontiff hadn’t succumbed to stomach cancer, if Kennedy hadn’t been shot, and if Khrushchev hadn’t been removed.

In the wake of the Cuban crisis, the Pope encouraged famed Saturday Review editor and anti-nuclear activist Norman Cousins to try to kick-start relations between the Kremlin and the Vatican. He met Nikita Khrushchev in Moscow and Pitsunda, where he played badminton and spent hours talking to the Soviet premier while his daughters frolicked in Khrushchev’s pool. The Soviet leader complained to Cousins about the shoddiness of the Soviet propaganda machine and about the obstinacy of his hardline generals. These conversations and a plea from the Pope resulted in the release of Ukrainian and Czech Catholic archbishops from the Gulag. Later, Cousins found himself playing a key role as intermediary between Kennedy and Khruschev during negotiation of the Limited Test Ban Treaty.

Détente was initially built through a backchannel between Henry Kissinger and Anatoly Dobrynin, the longtime Soviet ambassador in Washington. As Richard Nixon’s national security advisor, Kissinger often worked without consulting the American ambassador in Moscow or even higher-ups in the State Department in Washington. When Leonid Brezhnev dragged Kissinger out on wild boar hunts, the American diplomat explained to him that missed shorts were still likely to kill the animals by giving them a heart attack. Standing in his hunting tower, Brezhnev told Kissinger about how he had had to scramble to find a decent uniform to wear at the 1945 Red Square victory parade and suggested that the Soviets were reaching “the point in history where we should stop building monuments for military heroes.” And that’s how détente was established.

For a brief while, it seemed like John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov’s well-documented long walks might provide the impetus for creating a channel of mutual trust and good will. But unlike Burns’s, Pope Francis’s, Pope John’s and Kissinger’s missions, none of these efforts have gotten any traction.

 “…[F]ortunately for the boars—for whom I was rooting—night was beginning to fall, and Brezhnev missed two shots at long range,” Kissinger writes in his memoirs. Sadly, it’s hard to imagine finding a boar that might inspire Russian leaders to give at least a little thought to the higher purpose of peacemaking.

This article originally appeared in Russian in Vedomosti.