Six Decades Beyond the Cuban Missile Crisis

“Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

–    Winston Churchill

Six decades ago, today was a time of great anxiety and stress for the world. The Cuban Missile Crisis indicated the capacity of states to test the very seams of nuclear brinkmanship and to put nuclear deterrence itself through the crucible. Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) was a frenzy that separated nuclear warfighting from all learning acquired through centuries of warfare. The reality that John Foster Dulles’ Massive Retaliation no longer served its purpose allowed McNamara to add restraint and flexibility to the longstanding blueprint of nuclear deterrence. All this gave way to an arms race of unprecedented proportions and proliferation, the likes of which could not have been desirable by any standard. But six decades down the line, how far are we? Have we learned to abide by the cautions, or do we see the Cuban Missile Crisis as a mistake worth repeating?

For the world in its contemporary setting, regions witnessing vulnerabilities and producing flashpoints are quite similar to how the world was after the crisis ended. Europe, Southeast Asia and South Asia are displaying patterns similar to a Cold War environment. Such patterns are characterised by conventional force asymmetry between adversaries giving rise to military adventurism, frequent use of nuclear signalling as a brinkmanship tool for crisis termination, doctrinal variations in forcing posturing, deterrence instability and arms race instability. The one thing the world has yet to learn from the Cuban Missile Crisis, despite all other lessons mentioned herewith, is the ability to bilaterally address deterrence vulnerabilities by learning to compete against trust deficits.

We still lack bilateral confidence-building mechanisms in crisis-intensive regions, and the trust deficit is being exacerbated by our drive to checkmate our adversaries by investing in technological ascendency.

World War II can be remembered for its ferocity and ingenuity, but it is surely remembered as the birthplace of Cold War antics. The world as it is today has had its fair share of Checkpoint Charlie, ideological conflicts fueling escalation and climbed Kahn’s Ladder only to step down and restart and prepare for a war no one can win. A consistency of conflicts between Pakistan and India, North Korea’s ambitious nuclear program and Europe’s battle with Russian interests are just some convulsions of how we perceive war beyond the Cuban Missile Crisis. The bomber gap of old has been substituted by stealth capabilities, Raegan’s Star Wars has evolved into a space race, information warfare is entering cyberspace competitiveness, and the missile gap is now of hypersonic proportions. Deterrence has remained operable and is still holding the bastions that prevent a MAD catastrophe from manifesting itself. We now have more effective preventive mechanisms against arms race instability and nuclear proliferation. Despite having some Chornobyl-like moments, our nuclear overseers are more effectively upgrading and adjusting to new realities and challenges. The world had its catharsis of how bad the Cold War got on 16 October 1962, but it was not enough to deal with what the future holds. We still lack bilateral confidence-building mechanisms in crisis-intensive regions, and the trust deficit is being exacerbated by our drive to checkmate our adversaries by investing in technological ascendency.

The Cuban Missile Crisis has taught us five lessons that still hold credence today; crisis termination cannot be achieved without conflict mitigation, deterrence is evolutionary and should not be tethered to static notions of perception of national security, asymmetry is not always a scourge, but it certainly is not a stable circumstance, competition between adversaries can always have moments of bilateral risk reduction, and technological advancement does not necessarily ensure escalation dominance, but it can surely create rapid escalation. Much like how US and USSR went through comprehensive addendums to their military doctrines and deterrence positions, Pakistan and India require a similar revisit to how they are currently setting the stage for future conflicts where third-party intervention may not be as forthcoming as it used to be in the past. In the Pacific, we see the Nixon Doctrine and the nuclear umbrella working in tandem to prevent China and North Korea, much like how both these concepts were operating with full force after the Cold War gained momentum in the Asia Pacific. AUKUS, ANZUS, QUAD and extensive military assistance in the ASEAN corridor may create a Pacific Crisis similar to its predecessor in Cuba. Europe is currently having an Abel Archer 83 moment as Russia acts on the nostalgia of its Soviet years. Amid a similar plethora of comparisons, learning curves and Cuban Missile Crisis déjà vu, the world seems paradoxically entangled in a security dilemma.

Sixty years down the line, we are not far from a flashpoint moment, and brinkmanship still holds more value than strategic restraint. It has become easy, rather convenient, to create volatile incursive strategies under a nuclear deterrent and a gradual inability to adhere to international regulatory mechanisms. The new normal is to accept the possibility of conflict and crisis adjournments with the hope that the international system will eventually change subjects. The current decade is characterised by withdrawal from arms control arrangements, the inability to incentivise states to abide by treaty obligations and enforcement of global restraint apparatuses and a general tendency of flash escalations followed by crisis termination as a means to probe an adversary. It is also characterised by an arms race instability among superpowers. In all this commotion and a desire to manifest our own Cuban Missile Crises, are we “deemed” to repeat history or are we “doomed” to do so? The jury is still out on this question and what it holds for us if we do not learn. Six decades is sufficient time to understand the risks but is it enough to undo what we have terraformed ourselves for? The next event of such proportions may be a point of no return; it may be a MAD moment.

Muhammad Shareh Qazi

The author is an Assistant Professor at Department of Political Science, University of the Punjab, and author of the book titled ‘Escalation Patterns in South Asia: Future of Credible Minimum Deterrence’. He can be reached at shareh.polsc@pu.edu.pk

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