Breaking relations with a country is an absurd concept. The United States disagrees with Communist dictator Fidel Castro — so we pretend the entire nation of Cuba doesn’t exist. We are appalled by the North Korean government’s human rights record and gravely concerned about its nuclear ambitions, so we don’t interact with it in any way. It doesn’t make any sense. To solve a problem, you must work through it. Who benefits from our lack of relations with Cuba, North Korea or Iran?

President Bush has only moved in the wrong direction on this policy during his administration. Not just content with breaking relations with countries like North Korea, Iran and Iraq, President Bush has labeled these three “The Axis of Evil,” an inappropriate nickname that only promotes misunderstanding.

President Clinton had the right idea when he re-established relations with Vietnam after a 20-year hiatus in 1995 and appointed our first new ambassador to Hanoi in 1997. After a horrifyingly bloody conflict created bitter enmity between our two nations, we are bridging the rift. With formal diplomatic relations, the United States and Vietnam have worked to account for MIAs, to reunite families of refugees, and to fuel new humanitarian programs. In 2001 a Bilateral Trade Agreement went into effect between our two countries and each year the United States and Vietnam do $6 billion in business and 250,000 Americans visit Vietnam. As explained by the current U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam, Raymond Burghardt, “Our deepening — relationship with Vietnam promotes civil society, encourages economic reform — and promotes interests of American workers, consumers, farmers, and business people.”

The best example, perhaps, of the importance of establishing relations with countries with which we have differences, is China. After President Nixon made his historic visit in 1972, the United States formally established relations with the People’s Republic of China in 1979. What was once an underdeveloped and opaque communist country is today moving toward integration into the international community. China has moved away from a centrally-planned economy to a moderately-free economy with free prices. According to the World Bank, 200,000,000 Chinese citizens have been lifted out of extreme poverty since 1979.

While much has yet to be seen and written about China’s emergence, particularly in the areas of democratic reform and human rights, the peaceful progress between the 1970s and now is amazing and undeniable. If the United States has anything to do with China’s becoming a peaceful democracy with a permanently strong economy, we will have great reason to be proud. Learning to interact and peacefully co-exist is central to the resolution of discord between nations.

Our total lack of interaction with Cuba, on the other hand, has solved nothing. Fidel Castro remains in power 40 years after we established the embargo, and the only real result of that policy is the widespread poverty of the Cuban people. While Castro’s regime is not democratic and still abuses human rights, our policy is doing nothing to weaken him — only weaken the esteem in which the United States is held. Like it or not, Fidel Castro has achieved some good things for Cuba, including the finest health and education systems in Latin America.

We should lift the embargo, establish normal diplomatic relations with Cuba, and work relentlessly for a peaceful transition to democracy after Castro’s death. It is the American embargo that keeps Cuba and the Cuban people poor; if lifted, the tropical island nation would almost certainly develop rapidly into one of the world’s prime tourist destinations and a large American trading partner. It serves only the interests of presidential candidates hoping to win the votes of Miami’s Cuban population to keep the Cuban embargo in place. While I support nations acting morally and making political statements rather than simply pursuing the economic bottom line, is keeping 11 million people in poverty the morally correct thing to do?

The same holds true for North Korea and Iran. While a new dimension is added to our relations with North Korea and Iran by our fear of their nuclear ambitions and intentions, only through constant dialogue can we hope to make progress and to be as well informed as possible about these potentially dangerous nations. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright made certifiable breakthroughs with North Korea at the end of the Clinton Administration, and she urged the new Bush Administration to continue the dialogue; their decision to terminate all discussions with North Korea was a disastrous setback that leaves us in our current six-way talks in Beijing.

Locking behind closed doors those countries that we fear or don’t understand promotes ignorance and resentment in the American public. Resolving global issues and conflicts starts on the everyday level with the men and women of our Foreign Service discussing, learning and acting as bridges between cultures. Breaking relations with countries promotes military situations to diplomatic problems — let’s take our foreign affairs back from the Pentagon and put them where they belong, at the State Department.

Peter Hamilton is a sophomore in Berkeley College.