Misapplying lessons from the Cuban missile crisis

Twenty years ago this month, America had its closest brush with nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis. In the two decades since those 13 fearful days, it has become America's most popular model of how to manage a confrontation with the Soviets, and its ''lessons'' are especially popular with the Reagan administration.

For students of foreign policy generally, the dramatic neatness of the Cuban crisis makes it especially appealing: the sudden disclosure of the missiles, Kennedy's televised challenge to Khrushchev, and, above all, the textbook display of skillful coercive bargaining resulting in an American triumph. It has become the American foreign policy crisis par excellence.

For the Reagan administration, the Cuban missile crisis provides the case for maintaining strategic military superiority, for negotiating from strength. A more seductive ''lesson'' from the Cuban experience is the demonstration that if the United States only acts with sufficient resolve, the Soviets will submit to its will. It is time for us to seize the initiative, the President tells us. We should be willing to challenge the Soviets and then stick to our guns. ''More nations have got themselves into trouble through retreat and appeasement than by sticking up for what they believe.''

Paradoxically, the same people who readily accept such historical analogies, are likely to ignore systematic attempts to generalize from a large sample of cases. This is unfortunate, because a better understanding of the dynamics of inter-nation crisis behavior generally, as well as of Soviet-American bargaining over the three major crises since World War II (Berlin in 1948 and 1961, as well as Cuba), might help us avoid acting out the same drama with a tragically different outcome.

Quantitative analyses of the interactions of nation-states in crises occurring over the last century and a half, in fact, indicate a good deal of reciprocity in the bargaining of states relatively evenly matched in military capabilities. The three Soviet-American crises are no exception to this rule. Far from a pattern of one side bullying the other into submission, we find that threats, especially explicit threats of force - from either side - have most often been met in kind.

The most successful American bargaining tactics have been carrot-and-stick inducements combining promises of rewards with deterrent warnings stated with sufficient vagueness to allow the Soviets to avoid appearing to submit to American bullying. Even in the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy's ultimatum to Khrushchev was tempered with a secret promise to remove US missiles in Turkey, as well as the promise to refrain from any future invasion of Cuba.

Despite these face-saving concessions, Cuba was an extremely costly defeat for the Soviets; ''they blinked,'' as Dean Rusk put it. The metaphor may appeal to the John Wayne mentality of some in the Reagan administration, but the past performance records of nations finding themselves in successive crises offers a stern warning. Our findings indicate that when evenly matched nations find themselves in two or more successive crises, the loser of the previous crisis invariably bargains more aggressively in the next encounter. Since the winner is likely to attempt to repeat its successful exercise in coercive bargaining, it is not surprising that the likelihood of war increases with each successive encounter.

It is not hard to guess why the loser of the one crisis adopts a more belligerent stance in the next one. Among evenly matched powers, submitting to threats or ultimatums, especially in public view, exacts an unacceptable cost to the government's reputation for resolve. Kennedy realized this when he warned his associates against gloating over the outcome of the Cuban crisis, noting that ''every setback has the seeds of its own reprisal, if the country is powerful enough.'' Thanks largely to the ''lesson'' of being outgunned in the Cuban crisis, the Soviets are now powerful enough.

The success of an exclusively coercive bargaining strategy is dependent on a symmetry in the resolve of the opposing sides. In a replay of the Cuban crisis, what is the likelihood of the opposite Soviet response and escalation to a nuclear war? What if both sides adopt the approach suggested by Reagan? The situation could be tragically reminiscent of Russian-Austrian relations at the beginning of the century. Having suffered two embarrassing political defeats at the hands of the Austrians in the Balkans in 1908 and 1912, the Russians adopted a ''never again'' attitude that included an intensive program to achieve military parity and a determination to seize the intitiative and force an Austrian retreat in the next crisis. The next crisis with Austria was in the summer of 1914 and it led to the Russian mobilization that preceded World War I.

President Reagan has warned that, because of their defeat in Cuba, the Soviets embarked on an arms buildup that has eliminated America's military advantage. Yet the President's belligerent rhetoric encourages another confrontation with the Soviets. If it comes, we can only hope that he is aware of the other ''lessons'' that the Soviets are likely to have drawn from their embarrassment in the Cuban missile crisis.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.