Possible Lessons from the Cuban Missile Crisis for Ending the Ukraine Conflict

Aerial view of missile launch site at San Cristobal, Cuba. (John F. Kennedy Library).

Nine months into the Ukraine war, are we allowed to imagine some diplomatic solution to end the carnage? While President Volodymyr Zelensky has put forward terms of a peace settlement highly favorable to Ukraine, most reports on the war merely describe the horrors taking place. There have been no formal negotiations between Russia and Ukraine or between the United States and Russia. Analogies with another major crisis and the process in finding its solution might clarify how an agreement could be reached.

The first situation that comes to mind is the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. Although there are numerous differences between the two crises – Cuba was a direct confrontation between two global nuclear powers while the Ukraine crisis, for the moment, is merely a regional conflict – we are interested in how the Cuban crisis was settled from an American perspective. We know that the final resolution was the withdrawal of the Soviet missiles, the guarantee that the United States would not invade Cuba, and the eventual and publicly undisclosed removal of U.S. missiles in Turkey. By what internal process did President Kennedy reach that agreement?

In his memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Thirteen Days, Robert F. Kennedy reflects on “Some of the things we learned.” Among the “things” learned would be the inclusion of different opinions in debates. Kennedy points out that there was unanimity in the decision to go ahead with the earlier disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion. As a result, he suggests having a “devil’s advocate” in future deliberations to make sure all possible solutions were presented.

As well as opposition opinions, Kennedy calls for as wide a group of opinions as possible, including different members of the government, parliamentarians, allied leaders, institutions such as the Organization of American States and NATO, and experts. In addition, he refers to such former officials as former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, former Secretary of Defense Robert Lovett, and former High Commissioner of Germany John J. McCloy. Those who had lived through previous crises were thought to be important to be listened to because of their experiences.

RFK emphasizes that to obtain “an unfettered and objective analysis,” JFK frequently invited eminent personalities because: “They asked the difficult questions; they made others defend their positions; they presented a different point of view; and they were skeptical.” As if to emphasize this point, Robert Kennedy writes: “His [JFK’s] conduct of the missile crisis showed how important this kind of questioning and probing could be.”

Let’s pause here to see if the same kind of inclusion and probing is taking place now in the United States in the Ukraine crisis, assuming that the United States will be a major player in any peace agreement. Where is the skepticism? The current policy appears simply to continue supplying Ukraine with more and more sophisticated military hardware as well as intelligence information if not public diplomacy expertise. That seems to be the accepted policy of almost all Western governments with little skepticism. Differences arise solely in what kind of hardware and how much money. Where is the probing? Where are the devil’s advocates?

And where are the allies? In the vote in the UN General Assembly, 35 countries abstained on a resolution to condemn Russia’s invasion, many from the Global South. As RFK writes: “Exasperation over our struggle in Vietnam should not close our eyes to the fact that we could have other missile crises in the future – different kinds, no doubt, and other different circumstances. But if we are to be successful then, if we are going to preserve our own national security, we will need friends, we will need supporters, we will need countries that need and respect us and will follow our leadership.”

Has the United States assured that it is respected and that other countries “will follow our leadership”? Make America Great Again at the expense of others has consequences. Years of exaggerated triumphalism at the end of the Cold War tarnishes global leadership. And examples like the killing of George Floyd, the riot in Charlottesville or the assault on the Capitol diminish respect and lessen those who “will follow our leadership.” There is no global support for the Western position towards Ukraine.

The final piece of advice in the book is also worth repeating, at the risk that I will be considered an appeaser or worse. “The final lesson the Cuban missile crisis,” RFK writes, “is the importance of placing ourselves in the other country’s shoes…What guided all his [JFK’s] deliberations was an effort not to disgrace Khrushchev, not to humiliate the Soviet Union, not to have them feel they would have to escalate their response because their national security or national interests so committed them.” That is why, Kennedy explains, his brother did not attack the missile sites or stop and search Russian ships in a “piratical way.”

Media reports from Ukraine highlight who is winning and who is losing as if reporting a National Football League game. In terms of winners and losers, and in the case of continued Ukrainian successes, can one imagine a solution accepted by Russia that does not humiliate Putin? Pierre Hazan’s latest book, Negotiate with the Devil (in French), already gives an answer by a priori demonizing the adversary, a not-so-subtle form of humiliation.

Am I being skeptical of our current policies? Am I playing “devil’s advocate”? Maybe the Cuban Missile crisis is the wrong analogy, but rereading Robert Kennedy’s memoir on the Cuban crisis in the light of the current Ukraine crisis, I propose to answer yes to both questions.

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.