Superpower Diplomacy - The superpower crises and their resolutions, 1958–1963

Although the crisis over the status of West Berlin as an enclave within Soviet-controlled East Germany nominally involved all four powers responsible for Germany, it was in effect a crisis between the United States and the Soviet Union. The failed mission of British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan to Moscow in February–March 1959 to mediate between the superpowers was indicative of Britain's inability to be accepted by them as interlocutor. Only after the end of the Cold War did archival evidence come to light showing that the Berlin crisis was more dangerous than previously believed, and that its management by both super-powers left much to be desired.

In presenting the Western powers with demands for concessions amounting to the surrender of their positions in Berlin, Khrushchev acted on the assumption that the United States would not risk a military conflict that might escalate into nuclear war, but he did not entirely rule out that possibility either. When he met with President Dwight Eisenhower at Camp David in September 1959, he was given the wrong impression that the United States was willing to yield. This encouraged Khrushchev to subsequently moderate his demands, and when they were not met, resume pressure, staking his prestige on another meeting with the president. Yet just as the summit was about to take place in Paris in May 1960, following the shooting down over Soviet territory of the American U-2 spy plane that Eisenhower had been trying to cover up, the Soviet leader chose to humiliate the president and break up the talks that he had himself badly wanted.

The debut of superpower diplomacy was thus personal diplomacy at its worst—not because of the particular personalities involved, but because of the extent of discretion and improvisation it allowed the top leaders without adequate professional preparation. As a result, critical decisions were made that were excessively dependent on their personal beliefs and assessments of each other. The pattern continued during the disastrous June 1961 Vienna meeting between Khrushchev and Eisenhower's successor, John F. Kennedy, who, unlike Eisenhower, was ready to make substantive concessions to the Soviets in Berlin. Aware of this, Khrushchev again miscalculated by pressing too hard and leaving the new president with the impression that war might be inevitable. This in turn put Khrushchev into the position of having to decide whether he should make good on his threat to nullify the Western rights in Berlin by concluding a separate peace treaty with East Germany—as he led its leaders to believe he would do—or else back down. It is still not clear when and why he decided not to go ahead with the treaty. In any case, the building of the Berlin Wall in August 1961, which insulated the western part of the city from the surrounding communist territory, eventually defused the confrontation and provided a semblance of stability, without diplomacy having been substantially involved.

This did not prevent a far worse superpower crisis from developing in October 1962 over Cuba, after Khrushchev had surreptitiously tried to install nuclear-armed missiles on the island to protect its revolutionary regime from the perceived threat of an American invasion. At least the subsequent handling of the crisis, from which the allies and clients of both superpowers were notably excluded, showed that the superpowers were beginning to learn how to live with each other. On the one hand, the concentration of the decision-making power in Khrushchev and his docile Politburo and, on the other hand, the establishment of a special executive committee from which Kennedy prudently took and applied the advice, proved to be ways to avert a military showdown. Time and communication were of the essence, as were clarity of purpose and willingness to compromise while allowing the adversary to save face.

Even so, superpower diplomacy can only be credited for resolving a crisis that it had been responsible for creating in the first place. The management of the crisis bypassed established diplomatic channels, giving critical importance to persons whose primary responsibilities and expertise were elsewhere, such as the president's brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, and Georgi N. Bolshakov, a Soviet intelligence operative in Washington, who happened to have previously established a rapport. Diplomacy was thus made excessively dependent on chance.

Although the Cuban missile crisis has often been credited with establishing the "rules of the game" that allowed the superpowers to respect each other's interests while keeping their nuclear arsenals under control, the accomplishment was more apparent than real because of the absence of adequate institutional and procedural safeguards against capricious and arbitrary politics, particularly obvious on the Soviet side. The brush with disaster over Cuba prompted Washington and Moscow to establish in June 1963 the "hot line" connection—a technological communications gadget that was hailed at the time as a safeguard against another such emergency but which never played an important role in communication between the superpowers. More importantly, in the following month the two superpowers concluded the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty—the first negotiated agreement between them that placed restrictions on the development of their nuclear arsenals.

Although the treaty has been rightly hailed in past years as a harbinger of détente, from a longer perspective it is more notable for its shortcomings. It banned nuclear tests above ground but not those under the ground, which both superpowers found it in their interest to continue to keep expanding their arsenals. Indeed, as late as 2000, the U.S. Senate voted down a treaty to ban all nuclear testing that had meanwhile been accepted by most other nations in the world. The 1963 agreement gave an air of permanence to the arms race by substituting the concept of disarmament with that of arms control. There were no more agreements for several years after the supreme practitioner of superpower diplomacy, Khrushchev, was forced out of office in October 1964.

Other articles you might like:

User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: