In my seminar on “Nuclear Weapons, Risk, and Hope,” I emphasize the need for paying attention to early warning signs before a disaster involving nuclear weapons occurs. For example, in one of my course handouts, I identify six key steps that led to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, and demonstrate how, by July 2008, we had repeated five and a half of those mistakes. But, because it stopped half a step short of becoming a full-blown crisis, almost no one is aware of it – and we continue making the same mistakes. One of the students asked whether the mistakes were only obvious in hindsight, leading me to write this post and explain how they can be seen ahead of time.
With respect to the July 2008 Cuban mini-crisis, I had been warning for about a year before it happened that our Eastern European Missile Defense system had the potential to provoke a Russian-American crisis involving Cuba. I saw an uncanny resemblance between our current missile defense plans and our 1962 Turkish missile deployment which put the idea in Khrushchev’s mind to base similar missiles in Cuba.
A paper I published in March 2008, four months before the mini-crisis occurred, warned:
we are in the process of deploying a missile defense in Russia’s backyard (Poland and the Czech Republic) over strenuous Russian objections. A possible Russian response would be to threaten deployment of a similar missile defense in Cuba, much as our Jupiter missile deployment in Turkey was the stimulus for Khrushchev deploying his Cuban missiles. While these Cuban missiles would be defensive in nature, many Americans would see them as intolerable. Among other concerns, there would likely be fears that these were offensive weapons disguised as defensive ones. (The Russians have voiced a similar concern over our deployment.)
While the Russian response involved bombers instead of missiles, the danger was the same, with Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz warning that it would cross “a red line.” It is possible to see the early warning signs if one is watching for them.
As another example, just today I came across an article in the current issue of Newsweek [October 1 & 8 edition, page 20] about the anti-Japanese riots in China which also threatened our ambassador to Beijing. The protests were provoked by Japan taking actions to assert its sovereignty over a few tiny, uninhabited, islands that are also claimed by China and Taiwan. Owned by China until 1895 when they were lost to Japan in the First Sino-Japanese War, America took control of them after World War II, and in 1972 returned them to Japan. Giving them back to “Red China” would have been unthinkable, even though China seemed to have a reasonable claim for recovering them now that Japan had lost a war in which China was on the winning side.
On September 20, this Sino-Japanese dispute gained the potential to escalate to a Sino-American crisis when, in testimony before a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee, Kurt Campbell, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, stated that maintaining the islands under Japanese control, “falls clearly under Article V” of the 1960 Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan. Article V is a mutual assistance clause in the event of “an armed attack against either Party in the territories under the administration of Japan.” Similar statements had been made in 2004 by President George W. Bush and in 2010 Secretaty of State Hillary Clinton.
I am not saying that the dispute over these tiny islands will escalate to nuclear threats (and potentially war) between China and the US. But it has the potential to do that, and if we neglect enough of these early warning signs, eventually one will explode in our faces. Before that happens, we need to reexamine whether issuing security guarantees to Japan over such trivial territory is in our national security interests. There is danger that our actions will cause hardline elements in both Japan and China to take actions they otherwise would not, making a crisis and possible war more likely than it need be.
If we start paying attention to such early warning signs, not only can we reduce the risk of a nuclear disaster, but we can avoid needless crises and conventional wars. Isn’t it time we started dong that?
Two days after posting this, new information caused me to post an update. A number of other early warning signs and ways to reduce their risk are treated in my just-released briefing paper, “Fifty Years After the Cuban Missile Crisis: Time to Stop Bluffing at Nuclear Poker.”