A Realist Analysis of the Cuban Missile Crisis

The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 is undeniably a major confrontation of the Cold War. Lasting for 13 days it is arguably the pinnacle of the Cold War. This crisis was a decisive factor in the United States’ (US) decision process of whether to engage in a nuclear war with the Soviet Union (USSR). However the essential fault of both state leaders (J. Kennedy and N. Khrushchev) which created the inevitable crisis was miscommunication. Today we recognise actions taken by both states during the crisis as consistent with a realist point of view.

Realism holds great emphasise on the obstacles enforced by human nature and the non-attendance of an international government. Creating international politics an area focused on power and state-interest. Realism consists of four focal propositions: the international system is anarchic; states are the most important actors; all states are unitary, rational actors; and the primary concern of states is survival. Through a realist analysis of the Cuban Missile Crisis, it is clear that the actions of both states reflect these realist fundamentals.

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The Cuban Missile Crisis greatly reflects the struggle of power between the United States and Soviet Union throughout the Cold War. Historical context of the crisis creates an understanding of how power was obtained, whilst the crisis itself fixates on the struggle to retain and gain power. Fidel Castro’s induction into power in 1959 was first supported by the US. Castro was not the normative corrupt Latin-American dictator of the times. However, his communist identity soon created ties with the Soviet Union and the threat of communism spread to Cuba, a state merely 90 miles from America.

In accordance with the realist proposition that states pursue self-interest and relative-gain, America refused to cede its power of intervention. This unwillingness to cede power was their downfall. Castro became more economically nationalistic later in that same year. This eventually led to the nationalisation of all foreign owned property and businesses’ in Cuba, including Americas, further deteriorating US-Cuban relations. Whilst fear of communism continued, President Eisenhower’s answer to Castro’s actions was a strict trade sanction.

White House press secretary James Hagerty issued this statement: “there is a limit to what the United States and self-respect can endure, that limit has now been reached…sympathies…to the people of Cuba who now live under…a dictator”. This statement conveys Eisenhower’s egotism and element of pride and personifies the offence which Cuba had inflicted on the US. Trade sanctions, which are still in effect today were imposed to maintain an upper hand.

It left 95% of Cuban sugar buyer-less, driving Cuba directly into the arms of the communist Soviet Union. Americas unawareness of the USSRs intentions and inability to communicate frankly, were partly to blame for the development of a security dilemma between the two superpowers. Americas failed attempt to remove Castro from power in the Bay of Pigs Invasion of 1961 inevitably furthered the Soviet Union’s force in Latin America. Due to the United States actions and miscommunications, Soviet-nuclear testing restarted in 1961.

This was closely challenged by an American nuclear test, and rapid accumulation of military support in order to safe guard the United States interests; With the constant production of nuclear weapons by both superpowers, the need to one-up each other in order to tip the balance of power in each states favour increased. This eventually led to President Khrushchev decision to construct nuclear-capable launch sites in Cuba as a check on American power. An argument can be made as to whether Khrushchev’s actions were necessary for the protection of state or whether the motivator was his personal campaign to accumulate power.

As suggested by Morgenthau, there is “a tragic presence of evil in all political actions” (Morgenthau 1946: 203), therefore, given realists emphasis on lasting egotism and passion, “conflict is inevitable” (Niebuhr 1932: xv). However, Khrushchev’s perhaps drastic movements were merely in response to the actions of the United States in 1959. The placing of ballistic missiles in firing distance from Moscow, in Britain, Italy and Turkey during Eisenhower’s administration reflect America’s social status as a powerful state with many allies.

It seems America is not accustomed to the notion of communication perhaps due to its stubborn leaders or sheer power, greatly reflecting a realist viewpoint. Thomas Hobbes forms his account of politics in the book “Leviathan”, on human nature. Hobbes implies that the greatest evil is the fear of a violent death, which a political grouping may form itself around. The Hobbesian view on realism follows the core realist propositions and describes the international system as anarchic.

When human nature and desire are taken into account “The state of nature” is effectively “a war of all against all”. An undiplomatic realm, in which un-checked violence is a common threat, solidifying the realist belief that conflict is inevitable. The United States identifies itself as a liberal-democracy following the ideology of liberalism; however in 1962 the US portrayed many characteristics of realism. Realism and liberalism both agree that the international system is anarchic, with no sovereignty or system of leadership.

Hobbes argues that the absence of a “Leviathan” in the international system leaves the dealings of inter-state relations in the hands of government officials. In this scenario, it is implied that realist states will fail to co-operate as a characteristic of realism describes the state as one of a self-interested unitary state. This realist fundamental greatly aids in the miscommunications of states, as seen with the Soviet Union and the United States during the Cuban Missile Crisis. An anarchic international system also creates a constant security dilemma between states.

In the theology of realism, there is no hierarchy above world powers to instil rules and provide state protection. This lack of security provided by an overruling power encourages states to seek security for themselves. States often believe security lies in the accumulation of power, as seen in the Cuban Missile Crisis. This often causes states to compete for power in order to maintain protection. After the destruction of World War I article 1-26 of the Treaty of Versailles outlines the creation of the League of Nations.

This was an attempt at creating an international government to which all states would answer to. However it relied on the willingness of world powers to cede a degree of power to the League of Nations, which a realism regime would not allow. The United States submission for protection to the United nations during the Cuban Missile Crisis and their ineffectiveness, further supports the notion of an anarchic international system. After the United Nations failure to protect its members, the United States then created their own security in the form of a naval blockade.

A letter sent by Kennedy to Khrushchev, communicated to the USSR to tread carefully. His reply stated that the Soviet Union would ignore the naval blockade. In his letter, Khrushchev, powerfully conveying both his own and the Soviet Union’s want for power and prideful realist regime, wrote “the soviet union cannot fail to reject the arbitrary demands of United States”. Meaning that the US holds no power over the Soviet Union and the USSR will not surrender power. The realist proposition of anarchy in the international system is somewhat contradictory in present day.

After the effects of World War II many safeguards were put in place so as to ensure a degree of state security. The United Nations (UN) is undoubtedly the international systems greatest enforcer of international law and security, using the ideology of collective security, the UN maintains a peace-keeping role on the international scale. When you become a part of the UN you become a part of collective security, meaning you must cede an amount of state power to the UN in order to share in the security of other states.

A realist state does not fit into this regime; the UN is founded on the principals of state co-operation and equality, which opposes the realist ideology of a unitary, self-interested state. In a realist point of view, this effectively makes the UN obsolete, as it relies on the cession of state power, which a true realist state would not consider. During the time of the Cold War, the UN was still very young and did not hold the power and resources that it does today. Perhaps this is why realism was a more common ideology during the Cold war, as the international system was more anarchic than it is today.

With power struggles and crisis such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, when fear for survival was a great problem, it seems understandable that many states, whether knowingly or not, adopted realist characteristics in order to stay secure. It is evident in the Cuban Missile Crisis that both states are willing to go to war in order to maintain their status as a state superpower and protect their security. However war would create a great security risk. Kennedy and Khrushchev were faced with the question of whether to create this security risk through war, or to better communicate and agree on a compromise of power.

During the crisis, opportunities were given to the Soviets to cease quarrelling. However the USSR continued on the road to war as evident in Khrushchev’s letter to Kennedy “If you have done this as the first step to unleashing war [US consideration to invade of Cuba]…then nothing remains for us to do but accept your challenge. It was not until the last days of the crisis that President Khrushchev seemed to somewhat abandon his realist characteristics. He attempted to avoid the inevitability of conflict which realism suggests.

Through diplomatic negotiations and compromise, Khruschchev submitted an offer to the US however it appeared seemingly influenced by realism. The offer to remove Soviet nuclear weapons from Cuba in return for the removal of US missiles in Turkey once again highlights a realist vantage point. As the USSR’s want to be in control seems impossible at this time, they will accept an equal-footing scenario with the US which can only be achieved through the cession of military power in these allied countries.

The United States acceptance of the Soviets terms emphases their liberal ability to compromise. If it were possible for a state to completely follow a single ideology, International Relations would become far more predictable. Unfortunately this, we will never know, for states and other actors, as seen in the Cuban Missile Crisis, can identify with many propositions from a number of ideologies. The United Sates is ultimately a liberal democracy because they identify most with the ideology of liberalism.

However, as portrayed in the crisis, the United States channels both liberalism and realism, clarifying that it is possible follow two philosophical theories. Nevertheless, it was ultimately the US and USSRs realist qualities of secrecy and the inability to communicate with other each other that created this perhaps needless crisis. Realism was the grand puppeteer of the Cuban Missile Crisis, pulling the strings of discord and blinding both states with the prideful persona and hunger for power. Copyright: Abbey Trewavas Victoria University of Wellington 8/05/2013

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A Realist Analysis of the Cuban Missile Crisis. (2016, Nov 11). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/a-realist-analysis-of-the-cuban-missile-crisis/