In their classic work “Thinking in Time,” Richard Neustadt and Ernest May developed a useful manual of statecraft designed to improve the decision-making abilities of national leaders through the proper uses of history. The key to the case studies they examined in Cold War American foreign policy was illustrating the use or misuse of historical analogies decision-makers were referencing in their choices, and making transparent how those historical cases did or did not fit the issue at hand.
A similar methodology might prove useful to U.S. decision-makers currently pondering American foreign policy objectives and instruments in dealing with the nuclear weapons threat from North Korea. If the goal is to remove Kim Jong Un’s long-range ballistic missiles, the Cuban missile crisis might prove informative.
When former U.S. President John F. Kennedy first met with his “Ex-Com” — a small group of his top foreign policy advisers — to consider courses of action in response to the discovery of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba, he had narrowed his options to four: a surgical air strike targeted at only the missiles, a more comprehensive and wider air attack including Soviet air defenses, an amphibious and airborne invasion and a naval blockade. As the choices were evaluated over the next 13 days, a combination of diplomatic and military moves seemed most prudent. Therefore, when Kennedy addressed the nation in October 1962, he announced a naval “quarantine” to deter the future delivery of missiles and warheads but offered the Soviets a chance to retreat from this military confrontation. The missiles could be negotiated out of Cuba.
And so they were. But in the retelling of this crisis that brought the Cold War to the brink of a nuclear exchange, the terms of the negotiation are often left out. In exchange for the Soviets removing their missiles from Cuba, and agreeing not to introduce offensive forces there in the future, the United States pledged not to invade Cuba. Another codicil to the agreement, largely kept secret to Americans, Russians and Cubans alike, was that the U.S. would remove its nuclear capable Jupiter missiles from Turkey — seen by the Soviets as an equivalent threat.
Might such a quid pro quo fit the current North Korean missile crisis? With the missiles in North Korea being indigenous rather than imported, there are clear differences between the two crises, and an analysis faithful to the Neustadt-May framework would require a careful balancing of comparisons and contrasts. But the all-important objective of remaining in power, to Castro then or Kim now, may override those externalities. Thus, an American pledge not to attack or invade North Korea — essentially preserving the regime for the foreseeable future — might be the diplomatic move that would convince Pyongyang to take down its missile capability. If a compensatory military move is needed (as with the Jupiters) redeploying the THAAD missile defense system would be welcome to China, as well.
Yes, China will be an important actor in this diplomatic solution. Just as the Cuban crisis was a three-way affair, China would need to be brought into these negotiations to acknowledge the agreement and, perhaps, facilitate the ensuing missile disarmament. A fourth player, the Republic of Korea, might also be party to the talks — a circumstance more likely now with newly-elected Moon Jae-in seeking a policy of engagement with the North. As each of these parties observe North Korea’s missile and nuclear weapons progress, they should welcome the chance to defuse this crisis.
This proposal is merely a diplomatic démarche, with the devil still lurking in the details. If North Korea wishes to have its own satellites in space, for example, a third party would be needed to provide the launch capability. More troublesome will be freezing Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program when their missile capability has been removed. Here the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action restricting Iran’s nuclear weapons capability may provide a useful template. But that will prove to be another opportunity for correctly thinking in time.
Robert Haffa is a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and an adjunct professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C.