Cuban Missile Crisis: Lesson for Today on Nuclear Diplomacy

On the anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis we need again to focus on what lessons we can learn from those events regarding nuclear crises and emerging major conflicts of strategic importance. The usefulness of learning from history only works if we understand the challenges we face today.

In my opinion, we do face critical nuclear and other serious conflicts which can determine the stability of the global landscape and specifically U.S. vital interests and security.

But they are not the same as in 1962. Our dangers are far less in terms of the “Cold War” era of “MAD” (Massive Assured Destruction), nuclear standoff between two super powers of the 1950s, and (until 1991) the fall of the Soviet Union.

First, to gain an insight into a reflection of these times there is a series of quotes from former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara who lived through this crisis.

The quote below is from an article by him later in life

The world is facing another potential war in Iraq. We have a host of potential conflicts ahead of us in the next 50 or 100 years. We should learn from the Cuban missile crisis and the mistakes that many of us made to determine how to reduce the risk of such wars in the future.”

“For many years, I considered the Cuban missile crisis to be the best-managed foreign policy crisis of the last half-century. I still believe that President Kennedy’s actions during decisive moments of the crisis helped to prevent a nuclear war. But I now conclude that, however astutely the crisis may have been managed, by the end of those extraordinary 13 days—October 16-October 28, 1962—luck also played a significant role in the avoidance of nuclear war by a hair’s dilemma.
We were lucky, but not only lucky. I believe we would not have survived those 13 days had not the president shaped and directed the ways in which his senior advisers confronted the crisis. This began within minutes of the moment on Tuesday morning, October 16th.”

Another key judgment that McNamara made in reflection to his experience during the Cuban missile crisis was:

We must learn as much as we can about nuclear crisis in October 1962—about the factors that led to it; about the reasons we escaped the ultimate consequences in the events; about what might have happened but thankfully did not; and about whether, or how, the lessons learned from the missile crisis might assist those of us who are interested in reducing the risk of nuclear catastrophe in the 21st century.”

There are two levels of efforts which are needed to lessen the chances of another such crisis. The first what I will call macro’ policies and institutions that both America and the international community need to improve or build which can mitigate possible crises or act to prevent their occurrence. They include:

Strengthening treaties and institutions working against the proliferation of nuclear weapons. These include the Nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty (NPT treaty), the coming into force the of Comprehensive Test Band Treaty which we have singed but not yet ratified. The other institution is the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna which is the group that does the inspections and other key activities to make sure non-nuclear nations party to the NPT do not build nuclear weapons. There are other treaties and institutions which are also useful such as the New START treaty with Russia negotiated by the Obama administration which continues inspections and verification regimes between the two countries. Promote and fund the UN institutions of peacemaking, peacekeeping, and reconciliation.

Nunn-Lugar program and with the formal ending of this program next year, which aimed to make safe nuclear weapons and materials in the former Soviet Union space and  the continued development of this effort via other means if possible.

            Promoting strong bilateral cooperation with others to advance such goals as nuclear free areas or to gain agreement on reductions of such weapons between antagonists and getting them off “hair-trigger.”

Strengthening the education of our citizens about the issues of nuclear weapons and the type of policies which will act against another Cuban missile crisis.

Gaining support for polices institutions, and domestic modalities which will increase our leverage and capacity to act to prevent in advance the development of conditions which would cause a major conflict or destruction.

What McNamara pointed out in later years suggests the need to learn an important lesson: seek to understand the adversary and how the situation looks to that country’s leadership. That may require a level of empathy and a reduction in self-righteousness. It also requires on our part a long-term strategic view and understanding future trends and opportunities.

Here is a short list of 7 Lessons from the Missile Crisis that pertain to the nuclear and WMD and MAD challenges we face today and in a larger sense dealing with conflicts and strategic dilemmas generally:

(1) Know the intentions and capabilities and interests of your opponent and others with an interest in the issue at hand. Some say it’s “know your adversary” which requires intensive on the ground “diplomacy” first; not boots on the ground if possible, which can destroy sometimes the needed interpersonal understanding and effective peaceful outcomes. I call this “preventive diplomacy.”

(2) Keep your active engagement with “problem states” and potential adversaries rather than either an unneeded policy of public antagonism, hostility, or withdrawal of contact. Keep the diplomatic doors open. Indeed the wise choice is to strengthen them.

(3) In a crisis, if possible, keep or create enough time to think through the crisis and fully understand all aspects of the crisis and see it from all sides. Develop a process of communication that does not escalate the crisis but reduces it or slows it down so that both sides have time to think of the consequences and the avenues to avoid a “show down” leading to open conflict.

(4) Get advice from a wide circle of experts and “wise people” who have experience and specialized knowledge that are not only of weapons, but of the people and culture of potential adversaries and their perspective. When the decision in the war in Vietnam was made to escalate that conflict, there was no true expert in the room on Vietnam and its society nor its historical relationship with China. The same is true of the Iraq war according to written documents.

(5) Consult with allies and countries in the region or those directly impacted if the situation permits about best options on how to solve the crisis. See if others can act to help decrease the tension and open doors of communication. Explore “third tract diplomacy” options by those who have entry to and confidence of the leaders of our adversaries.

(6) Question both the intelligence given to you and those who urge immediate military action without also examining the cost of such action and ignore the efficacy of other options. Bring in those who have new ideas and alternative approaches to see if these ideas might work and how.

(7) Find solutions which have a “win-win” outcome for all sides whenever possible including compromises when necessary. Seek, if required, “under the table” or not public solutions when they are justified by the peaceful resolution of a nuclear related crisis or other serious situation. Do not think the best option is a “Zero Sum Game” outcome for either side. To maintain agreement and willingness to accept long term an outcome means the other side can live with it and gain some benefit.

These rules apply today to such situations as Cuba where my colleague Wayne Smith is the preeminent expert. He is also the preeminent expert today to North Korea, Iran, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, and Russia – all countries with nuclear weapons or possibly building nuclear weapons or have capability.

But it also applies to “problem” or “rogue states” such as in the Middle East and Arab world, North Korea, and in places in Africa where upheavals are rampant and instability endemic. It applies strongly to the Afghanistan/Pakistan/India conundrum and danger zone.

Finally, I need to illustrate the imperative to learn lessons via another conversation between McNamara and Leonov of the KGB Cuba Desk during the Cuban crisis that took place at a conference in 1992 in Cuba:

Leonov: It is terrible even to think of what would have happened. Under such conditions an entire group of Soviet forces in Cuba wouldve perished, along with perhaps millions of Cubans. Therefore, if what you describe happened, no Soviet leader would have been able to keep his post without taking some dramatic action in response. The closest target, of course, was in West Berlin. I think we would have seized West Berlin.

McNamara: And we would have responded with nuclear weapons…

Leonov: Yes. I remember vividly October 27, the most dangerous day. Khrushchev, as we know, received a cable from Fidel on the 27th in Moscow (the 26th in Havana), saying that an American attack was imminent within 24-72 hours. Of course, this was shocking. But also arriving at that time was a cable from [Soviet ambassador to Cuba, Aleksander] Alekseev to the head of the KGB which had this phrase: Fidel said that the probability of attack and invasion is at least 95 percent; and if the Americans attack and invade, you [Khrushchev] should attack the U.S. and wipe them off the face of the earth!” Obviously, things were spinning out of control. Such unprecedented messages, at such a time, meant that we had to find an exit, whatever it may be. And we found it just in time.

McNamara: I conclude from this discussion that were damn lucky to be here. We were so close to a nuclear catastrophe.

Leonov: One mistake at the wrong time in October 1962, and all could have been lost. I can hardly believe we are here today, talking about this. It is almost as if some potential intervention occurred to help us save ourselves, but with this proviso: we must never get that close again. Next time, we would not be so lucky, as you put it.

Almost all of us who were born before 1962 and most of those who were born after that momentous date would not be here unless we found, by diplomacy and wise judgment, a peaceful path from nuclear destruction. We all need the smartest, judicious and questioning leaders we can find here in the US and abroad.

Rethinking Russian-American Relations: Two Years Into “Reset”

After two years of the “Reset” button in U.S.-Russian relations there has been some real progress despite sniping from the sidelines by Republicans and many “neocons” who would like to return to the Cold War. Has there been a total success, no, but more progress has been made than those critics were happy to admit. Obama, in fact, made an historic turnaround in our approach to engagement with Russia.

Among the best signs of success are the results of a recent poll in Russia which showed that a vast majority of Russians want better relations with the West. This is contrary to many pundits, who have written that hate for the West is widespread in Russia. In the last days of Putin’s presidency when he was conducting a propaganda war within Russia against Western values and encouraging xenophobic animosity and Russian nationalism, there appeared to be a much more negative feeling towards the West.
Continue reading

10 Reasons to Vote Yes on New Start

The Arms Control Association offers some great resources on the New Start treaty, including this list of 10 reasons why Congress should pass New Start now! Please remember to call your senator today and urge them to vote yes, if you haven’t already.

1. New START would make real cuts in Russia’s strategic nuclear arsenal.

Today, Russia deploys approximately 2,000 strategic nuclear warheads, not counting bomber weapons in storage, according to the Congressional Research Service.  Contrary to assertions by critics that New START would not reduce Russian forces, the treaty would in fact reduce Russia’s force of deployed strategic warheads to 1,550 or less, meaning that hundreds of Russian nuclear warheads would no longer be deployed on ballistic missiles that could be aimed at the United States. Moreover, New START would lock-in these limits for the next decade or longer.

At the same time, New START would allow the United States to maintain a devastatingly powerful nuclear arsenal deployed on a “triad” of nuclear delivery systems: intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and heavy bombers.

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen said Nov. 11 that New START would leave the United States with nuclear forces that are “more than enough for us to handle our military responsibilities.”  Besides Russia, the United States’ only potential nuclear adversary is China, which has fewer than 50 nuclear-armed long-range missiles.

2. New START would resume inspections of Russian strategic forces.

It has been a year since the United States lost the ability to conduct intrusive, on-site inspections of Russia’s nuclear arsenal mandated by the 1991 START accord. The 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), still in force, contains no verification provisions.  The longer New START remains in limbo, the longer this strategic blackout will continue. Continue reading

Action Alert: Call your senators about the New Start treaty TODAY!

Dear friends and colleagues,

Last Wednesday, the Senate agreed to debate the New Start treaty. During the weekend debates, two amendments proposed by Republicans were defeated. Today, the Senate plans to hold an “executive session” to continue debate and it is expected there will be a vote to limit debate, which could lead to a vote on the treaty on December 22 or 23.

We need to act swiftly and quickly to make sure our voice is heard and our senators know that we want them to support the New Start treaty.

Due to the time sensitivity, we urge you to contact your senators today or tomorrow and encourage them to support the New Start treaty. Click here for a PDF of the treaty. Senator John Kerry (D-MA), is quoted in the New York Times as saying, “Yes, I believe we will have the votes,” but the vote is likely to be very close and we must make sure our voices are heard.

This might be the last chance to realistically pass the ratification resolution. After the lame duck session, the influx of Republicans will make it increasingly difficult to find the support needed to ratify the treaty.

The treaty will increase American security through reductions of strategic arms on both sides, and restart the critical verification system which provides America with a high level of certainty regarding Russian strategic arms activities. If the treaty does not pass, it will make America less secure and blind us to Russian strategic nuclear activities. It will hurt the possibilities of further reduction and harm cooperation between the United States and Russia. And, it will set back global non-proliferation goals.

To take action, call the central switchboard to the Senate at (202) 224 – 3121. Ask the operator to connect you to the office of your senator, ask for the legislative director, voice your support for the New Start treaty and urge your senator to vote yes.

In solidarity,

Harry C. Blaney III
Senior Fellow
Center for International Policy

Click here for a PDF of the treaty.

Click here for more information from the White House, including fact sheets, a video and more.

The Lessons of 2010 in National Security: A Year End Summary and Look Forward

As the year 2010 draws to a close it is a good time to think back on the national security landscape of this year and to think forward to the implications of what we have experienced and observed for the future. The first observation is how the national security challenges we have encounter have become if anything more complicated, difficult to fully assess, and even more dangerous than heretofore.

Let’s look at that landscape one issue and problem at a time briefly:


Dealing with Russia:

Putin’s Russia is not a putty place.  It is authoritarian, corrupt, sometimes violent and for most of its people depressing and dark. Yet it too like China is in the process of significant change and its direction may not be unalterable. This is the same nation that made the New START treaty with us and is helping in Afghanistan. At the same time, it is a state that kills or jails its journalists, dissenters, and permits the health of its population to deteriorate while its rich and connected oligarchs live like sultans and rape the economic landscape.  Nevertheless, we must pay attention to Russia for the security and well-being of the globe. It is vital in decisions about non-proliferation, arms control and dealing with Afghanistan, Iran, and important given its energy resources geopolitical position.


Dealing with China:

Under Obama, we have made some real efforts in this area but China has a divided leadership, with rising largely self-generated nationalism, perhaps some aggressive motives but probably has not yet firmly decided on a commitment to be either a “responsible great power” verses a “hostile global state.”  Some in America would like to make them into a “hostile state” which is only playing into the hands of those in China bent in this direction and hurtful to efforts to integrate them into a peaceful and cooperative nation.  North Korea shows again this ambivalence both working in some respects for stability and peace but also assisting North Korea towards its irresponsibility.  Nor has China understood the difference between its short and long term interests in the area of trade, currencies, and human rights.  It is a work in progress with an uncertain direction. Think of the example of the Soviet Union then and today…still authoritarian yet also not a “Stalin totalitarian State.” George Kennan, my old teacher, counseled diplomacy, containment and patience.   China and the world are at a kind of tipping point of either a responsible state or a problem for the whole world. We need more not less attention to this critical problem.


The Afghanistan-Pakistan-India Triangle:

Obama was handed an impossible situation in this region which was not of his doing. Afghanistan had become a disaster during the Bush administration which had falsely misdirected it attention to a needless war in Iraq when it had the capacity to deal with the Taliban in the early period of our action in that country. Each day we are there seems to have only increased the people’s anger, skepticism, and belligerency against us and the corrupt government we are backing. The choices however are difficult and it is likely that the current strategy will run its course through 2011 to 2014.  Many experts feel that the government in Kabul will never be able to achieve either the necessary security in the countryside, the loyalty of a disgruntled and despairing population, or a reliable and honest army and civil service.  Yet the choices of pulling out and letting the situation become even worse, or upping the surge and kinetic levels and deaths provides only bad options.  Further, Afghanistan is only the smaller part of the problem which is really the future of Pakistan. There the trends seems always down and in the background a catastrophic outcome looms. India has also instability and growing acts of violence and duplicity.  Add nuclear weapons, the Kashmiri conflict, and internal unrest in both countries and you have the makings of a major global crisis. Here. like in the Middle East, some solutions are known but few are willing pay the price to go down a street of peace and compromise.  But we can’t turn our back on this region.


The Rogue States: North Korea, Iran, Sudan, Somalia, etc:

Here again these problem states are of long standing and again few good answers.  For both North Korea and Iran, the “nuclear” problem looms and narrows the choices. Isolation and containment with a touch of diplomacy seems to be the current policies and that is better than “war-war.” Sudan a different kind of problem is a brutal state carrying our warfare against its own citizens.  “Failed states” seem to grow with each year as poverty, lack of jobs and corrupt governance spreads and the developed world turns its back on these problems or deal with them in ineffective ways.  New approaches are needed that probably require more “hands on” tactics.


Climate Change and Global Environmental Challenges:

Having failed at Copenhagen, the world is trying again at Cancun where efforts are being made to find some common ground and modest progress against the world’s greatest threat to its environmental survival as a viable planet. Here the problem is lack of will, willingness to commit the necessary resources and share in a common burden and sacrifice.  All the other world’s crisis and conflicts draws away the energy and the focus and commitment to deal with climate change. The rich feel already burden by the economic crisis and the poor feel the problem should only be solved by the rich and they see only worse ahead.  Clearly, there is need for new approaches and creation of forms of global governance that so far have alluded us all.  The questions need to be faced and soon or again we will see catastrophic results.


The Israeli-Palestinian / Middle East Conundrum:

As this is written the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks have collapsed and   settlement building goes on, and neither side seems to have the political will or ability to make the necessary decisions to agreed to a solution that all know is the only one possible and well known to all. Each day the security situation of Israel gets more dangerous but the political process in Israel moves more and more towards rigidity and unreality. On the other side, Palestinians have such inner conflicts and they need still more help to build their own coherent state governance and civil society. At least on their side of the divide they seem to have made some, albeit limited, progress.  Both the Arab states and Iran are playing dangerous games while the key Western states and others are unwilling to forcefully provide both necessary sticks and carets to make the peace deal that is the only answer.  But give Obama and Clinton credit for trying, but not for courage and steely bold determination.  Downward movement for now.


Terrorism and Conflict Regions:

I have combined these two elements since they go together. Where has terrorism sprouted most has been in the most poor regions, and where conflicts have become endemic. It is clear that despite the spending of billions of dollars and much blood that the problem of both growing conflict areas and of the dangers of terrorism around the world have not gotten significantly better in the last year.  In many cases they have become worse.  Just look at the events in Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, Mexico, Iraq, Pakistan, places in West Africa, and elsewhere. We are not solving serious problems of conflict and peacekeeping and peacemaking. Our ability for effective on the ground knowledge of what is taking place, early intervention, and stabilization and conciliation capacity and frankly “nation building” still is in an infant state. Things are happening faster than we can respond and we lack the necessary resources to be effective. But the good part is that some recognize the problem.


US-European and NATO Relations:

Europe is undergoing a major sea change in regard to the economic crisis, with respect to immigration, defense and security policy, and assessment of the role the EU should play within Europe and beyond. There are new questions being raised about cooperation with the U.S. and concern about the direction of our policies with the election of so many uninformed and extreme members of congress in the recent election. The old saw that when the “US catches a cold the rest of the world gets the flue” seems to still be true. When in Britain in late November there were major discussions in political and media circles about a “reassessment” of relations and cooperation with America. The unfortunate aspect is that much of it was accompanied by actions that only had the EU and European countries come to the global table with less, not more, assets of its own due to a mindless hyper deflationary set of policies and funding cut actions which only indicated both moves towards a “double dip” recession in Europe if changes were not made with cuts in diplomacy and defense.  The issue going forward is whether this enforced isolationism and coming to the table with independent policies but with empty hands will do more harm than good.  We need, in the end to work together, in a time of crisis and I foresee harder not easier times ahead. But these are our best allies and no major problem can be advanced without their help.


Arms Control and Non-Proliferation:

We have looked often at the issues of the New Start treaty, non-proliferation and arms control in this blog. At this writing New START ratification remains ion doubt, we made progress at the NPT Conference but it was based on the nuclear weapons counties moving toward lower levels of arms. We have finally stated the long-term goal of nuclear banishment and addressed some other key issues. But this is again an area where trends can turn against us and the spread of more nuclear armed nations is one in which our very existence is in peril.  Yet it is treaty by some of our leaders in Congress as if we were living in a make believe world without dangers. We need at least to strengthen our multilateral and bilateral “tools” including strengthening the IAEA, the NPT framework and ratify the CTBT, and move towards greater reductions and control over tactical nuclear weapons, other WMDs and reductions and control of fissile materials globally.  How long can we delay these actions?

In sum, we have an increasingly dangerous and complex world in the 21st century and seem to have our mind set and vision still looking backward and myopic in perspective and imagination.  We welcome your ideas now and in the New Year on how we might best address these issues!


We send to our readers seasons greetings and hope for a more peaceful New Year.

Harry C. Blaney III