Cuban Missile Crisis 50 Years On: Nuclear Deterrence Is Still Playing a Major Role in the World

The Cuban missile crisis had a profound impact on key U.S. policymakers and on parts of the Soviet leadership, when they realized how close we had come to the nuclear abyss. During the crisis the risk of a large-scale nuclear exchanges was very real. interview with Robert Legvold, Marshall D. Shulman Professor Emeritus, Department of Political Science, Columbia University.

How would you generally assess the Cuban missile crisis after 50 years have passed? What role did it play in the development of bilateral system?

Its primary impact was on the Cold War itself and on the existing international system. I am not sure it has a major lingering effect today. At that time, the crisis constituted a critical stage altering the bilateral nuclear relationship in several aspects.

Before the Cuban missile crisis there had been a tendency to use nuclear weapons politically--to threaten the other superpower during a crisis. This was especially true of the Soviet leadership. During the Suez crisis of 1956 and the Berlin crises of 1958 and 1961, the Soviet side evoked the possibility of nuclear escalation in order to prevail diplomatically. However, after October 1962 never again did either side engage in what was sometimes called “rocket rattling” during a crisis. This is not to say that the risk of a political crisis sliding toward nuclear war disappeared. In October 1973, for example, the US forces went to DEFCON 3 alert during the Yom Kippur war, but this was an integral step in a military confrontation, not the manipulation of nuclear weapons for political effect.

The second effect of the 1962 crisis was mostly psychological. The Cuban missile crisis had a profound impact on key U.S. policymakers, such as Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and, probably on at least parts of the Soviet leadership, when they realized how close we had come to the nuclear abyss. As we learned subsequently, during the crisis the risk of a large-scale nuclear exchanges was very real. .

The psychological impact of this accelerated agreements between the Soviet Union and the United States, including the hotline established between the Kremlin and the White House in early 1963 and then the rapid conclusion of the Non-Proliferation Treaty in the fall of that year. Somewhat more indirectly the decision by the two leadership to get serious about strategic nuclear arms negotiations toward the end of the decade also doubtless was partially impelled by the lingering memory of what nearly happened in October 1962.

Do mutual assured destruction and nuclear deterrents play a vital role today, when we have no bipolar system, and when there are lots of states with nuclear weapons, or states on the threshold of possessing nuclear arms?

Yes and no. This question requires a more refined framework of analysis. But, if you start with the bilateral nuclear relationship between the United States and Russia, even though it is now unequal in many respects, it continues to be influenced by the shadow of mutual assured destruction. Although a crisis in U.S.-Russian relations that would justify reaching for the nuclear button is extremely unlikely, were such a crisis to occur, the shadow of mutual deterrence, including its specific aspect of mutual assured destruction, would still operate.

But the situation is far more complicated now. During the Cold War the arms race unfolded along a single vector between the United States and the Soviet Union, even though there were other nuclear states – Britain, France, China. The two superpowers controlled from 95% to 98% of all nuclear weapons, and the nuclear arsenals of the other states were basically an extension of the U.S.-Soviet nuclear axis. Now, however, while the United States and Russia still possess 95% of the nuclear weapons, the dynamic in today’s nuclear world is multi-vectored. For example, when it comes to the question of building missile defense or the militarization of space, China is as much a player as is Russia and the United States. Moreover, a separate competition exists between Pakistan and India, and the Indian half of this competition is also focused on China. Thus, India is developing intercontinental ballistic missiles clearly designed for Chinese targets, and, while China says it is not concerned with the Indian nuclear program, almost certainly it will also feel compelled to adjust its nuclear posture to deal with an emerging Indian threat—not simply with the nuclear challenge posed by U.S. and Russian nuclear forces.

In all of those cases, mutual deterrence plays a certain role, because in any international crisis, assuming national leaderships are rational, nuclear weapons are likely to deter their use. Each of the parties would know that were it to strike without being able to disarm the other side, the other side could deliver a catastrophic retaliatory blow. True, this deterrent effect depends on the ability of countries to sustain an initial strike and then retaliate even if with relatively minimal nuclear forces. The balance need not be equal; almost any level of nuclear retaliation is likely to be sufficient, given the destructiveness of these weapons.

However, the new concern, when it comes to nuclear weapons, is that there may be actors who cannot be deterred were they to get their hands on nuclear weapons. International terrorist groups like al-Qaeda may not operate with the same rational calculus as national leaders responsible for the survival of their state. Some would argue that same risk exists with a leadership such as that in Iran, but I doubt that. I believe that the Iranian leadership is rational when it comes to the implications of using nuclear weapons, just as I believe that so was Saddam Hussein. Were they to possess weapons of mass destruction Saddam would have operated or Iran will act within a deterrence framework.

But in this broader, more complex, multi-vector nuclear configuration, the refined elements of mutual assured destruction as the embodiment of mutual deterrence in the U.S.-Soviet relationship do not apply to the cruder and less disciplined nuclear competition underway between other players. That in some ways makes today’s nuclear world more dangerous than its predecessor.

What about North Korea, which is also on the threshold of obtaining nuclear weaponry? Can it be deterred?

I believe that North Korea's leaders, despite erratic behavior, nonetheless, understand the risks in playing games with nuclear weapons, and, therefore, that they can be deterred from using them. The real danger with North Korea, and probably with Iran, is their willingness to share nuclear technology, as Pakistan’s A. Q. Khan did with Syria, Iran, and North Korea. It is primarily the danger of nuclear proliferation rather than the danger of a state actually and recklessly using nuclear weapons that represents the key threat—and, incidentally, that is the principal reason prominent figures and many governments have rallied behind the idea of striving to eliminate all nuclear weapons.

If nuclear deterrence are still applicable and still useful in international relations, is the Global Zero initiative, or other initiatives aimed at the total destruction of nuclear weapons, or the total abolishment of nuclear arms, useful? Can these initiatives be productive in maintaining international security?

The question of whether these initiatives are useful and whether they will be productive should be answered separately. I don’t believe anyone advocating Global Zero or the elimination of nuclear weapons – including the governments that have endorsed the idea, President Obama, and somewhat reluctantly, former President Medvedev, let alone those who originally advocated the idea, Sam Nunn, George Shultz, William Perry and Henry Kissinger – believes that the complete elimination of nuclear weapons is something that will happen anytime soon, or perhaps ever.

Their basic aim is to achieve as much nuclear disarmament as possible, because they believe that in this complex multi-vector nuclear world, where nuclear weapons have a chance of falling into the hands of al-Qaeda or, in theory at least, governments that might not be deterred, the real risk comes from proliferation, not the risk of war between nuclear states. They believe that the only way to control that risk of proliferation is by making real progress toward nuclear disarmament. As some of them say, we may never reach the top of the mountain, but it is a mountain that we should climb because of the constructive things that can be accomplished along the way.

Basically, these initiatives are useful as a lodestar or an objective that helps to regulate and stabilize our nuclear world. Will they be productive? That is another matter. One of the concerns I have is that, even while governments, including the U.S. government, are endorsing the idea of eliminating nuclear weapons, they have plans over the next 10 years to modernize and improve their nuclear arsenals. Over this period the nuclear weapon states are scheduled to spend 1 trillion dollars on improving their strategic nuclear systems. In many respects this runs directly counter to shrinking and marginalizing nuclear weapons as a path to a safer world.

Thus, there is a tension between what nuclear weapon states are saying and actually doing. We will know whether initiatives, such as Global Zero, are productive, only if major nuclear weapon powers take the next steps toward strategic nuclear arms control. Right now the key leadership in that respect has to come from the two countries that have 95% of the weapons – the United States and Russia. While both governments say they're ready to think about new steps in nuclear disarmament, they are far apart in methods and approaches. Until these two states re-launch a stalled process, China or any other major nuclear power, including India and Pakistan, will not join the effort to create a more stable nuclear regime.

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