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Commentary | 22 October 2014

Russia, ISIL and the Diplomatic Lessons of the Cuban Missile Crisis

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James Nathan |Khalid Bin Sultan Eminent Scholar, Professor of International Policy at Auburn University

Diplomacy Foreign policy Nuclear Weapons Russia Russia-West Relations United States Euro-Atlantic Security

We are now at the 52nd anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis. As Khrushchev remembered it, it was a time that hung heavy with the ‘smell of burning in the air.”

Forty-five years on, at a Princeton conclave marking their wisdom, Presidential advisors Theodore Sorenson and McGeorge Bundy were still congratulating themselves for standing tough and prevailing. The Soviets capitulated, they insisted. The crisis had gone the American way by dint of the Kennedy team’s collective guts. In fact, the excavation of now-distant events has been an industry for a regiment of academics. To many, such as Harvard’s Graham Allison, President Kennedy’s paradigmatic resolve is a template for our times, applicable to managing North Korea, Iran, Russia, ISIL, you name it.

The recent release of apparently complete White House Cuban Missile Crisis tapes does indeed reveal a triumph of presidential fortitude, but not of the customary hagiographies. Instead, it’s now clear that President Kennedy alone, against his advisors, had been determined from the start to strike a deal with Nikita Khrushchev.

The famous thirteen days, from the discovery of the missiles to the Soviet announcement of their removal from Cuba, were consumed with bargaining, less with the Russians and more between the President and virtually all the assembled “wisemen” cabinet secretaries, ambassadors, ex-officials and even President Eisenhower – all of whom urged President Kennedy not to buckle – even in the face of the assessment offered early on by the Joint Chiefs, that, if the Soviets retaliated, 100 million Americans would die.

The denouement of the crisis stemmed from a private American pledge to remove American missiles from Turkey within six months in exchange for the Soviet Union’s withdrawal of its nuclear forces from Cuba and the public American promise not to invade the island.

The U.S. concession to bring American missiles from Turkey as part of the package was kept secret for 17 years, not just from the public but from most members of Kennedy’s national security team as well.

As a consequence, the Cuban Crisis accelerated the long depreciation of diplomacy in the eyes of Americans. It was a march that had begun with the Munich Agreement in 1938 and had accelerated with the poor repute of the 1945 Yalta Conference. Diplomacy mattered only when tied to a position of strength and, barring that, in the nuclear age, suicidal courage was required for “deterrence” to hold.

Americans had come to believe force and the management of coercion could dictate events. And this is the “lesson” that remains. Somehow, Americans still believe that if they secure their reputation and capacity for the wedding of coercion to diplomacy, they can sculpt the world.

A parade of horribles abounds for American Presidents, matched by calls far and wide for a more muscular American posture. This month the chairman of the House Committee on Armed Services, Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, argued President Obama needs to consider new options, including American ground troops, to combat ISIL in Iraq and Syria. Although this September President Obama told American troops that “I will not commit you and the rest of our armed forces to fighting another ground war in Iraq,” in September of last he told the UN, “The United States of America is prepared to use all elements of our power, including military force, to secure our core interests in the region.” And, in fact, few doubted American forces would soon again be in close combat, if not leading the fight in a war-riven Middle East and beyond. General Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, in September told journalists, regarding ISIS, “You’ve got to have ground forces that are capable of going in and rooting them out.”

General Martin Dempsey, President Obama’s top military adviser, this month told a TV interviewer that, though he had not recommended the insertion of significant numbers of ground combat advisors, “[t]here will be circumstances when the answer to that question will likely be yes.” And the Army just released its Operating Concept with its “vision of future armed conflict,” tasking American forces with blocking Russia’s “determination” “to expand its territory and assert its power on the Eurasian landmass,” and seeking to deter Chinese “ambitions” as well. A close read of the planning document indicated that, as in 2002, the U.S. was again readying itself for a muscular military pre-emption.

But Americans are weary now, and for a good reason. President Obama recently asked the CIA if any of its many efforts to covertly arm foreign forces worked. The response was no, not really, unless one counts Afghan mujahedeen fighting Soviet troops, which led to the Taliban, a redoubt for Osama bin Laden, and America’s longest war.

It is instructive that Henry Kissinger has reversed a career-long insistence on the utility of force. The 91-year-old Kissinger reflected on his time when “America has fought five wars,” and “has gained its objectives in only one of them, the Gulf War… [I]t entered all the wars with a consensus in favour of them.”

Kissinger’s insight was found early on by President Kennedy. John Kennedy knew war. From the age of 22, his Pacific theatre wounds were born with the assistance of crutches, braces, opiates, steroids, and Benzedrine. But the President’s advisors, to a man, favoured war. In response, the president instructed his ad hoc Excomm: “I’m just thinking about what we’re going to have to do in a day or so … 500 sorties … and possibly an invasion, all because we wouldn’t take the missiles out of Turkey. And we all know how quickly everybody’s courage goes when the blood starts to flow, and that’s what’s going to happen in NATO … when we start these things and [then when] the Soviets grab Berlin, and everybody’s going to say, ‘Well, this Khrushchev offer was a pretty good proposition.’ ”

Since the Cuban Crisis, there has been a haemorrhage of blood, valour and measureless treasure in the attempt to weld force to diplomacy. The result is a vast detritus of ruin and a staggering tab — $6 trillion, according to a recent Harvard study (six times the constant dollar cost of Vietnam) for just the past 10 years of war alone.

Today, foreign policy discussions ought to be subordinate to crying American needs, such as a fivefold jump in the number of hungry Americans since the late 1960s, and dilapidated infrastructure, including America’s school buildings now averaging over 40 years of age. And though American bridges from the Eisenhower era were built to last 50 years and their mean age is now 44 years, half are much, much older and many are courting disaster.

At long last, can we hope for a return to realism? Is it too much to plead for a sober reflection about the meaning of decades largely barren of results? We face a crossroads. We can negotiate a settlement with Iran and perhaps enlist it in the defence of the Gulf against barbarism. Iran can make a choice, as well, to re-join the world economy or try to make its own with declining revenues and few prospects for its people. Russia faces a similar choice. It can re-join Europe and the world economy, or face the same risks as Iran. We also have new worries that defy the logic of military power. Climate change as a national interest is upon us now. And if Ebola gets a hold in the developed world, we may yet live behind barbed wire, with the afflicted looking in.

American power might be relevant, but applying it will not coerce. Like the case of the Cuban Crisis, parties will have to come to an understanding. Negotiating is not the mark of weakness; it is the signature of a successful appreciating of national interests by the parties involved. Negotiated solutions could define another half century of world order. This is the classic realist calculus of the nexus between the desirable and the doable.


The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.