The Cuban Missile Crisis was primarily a crisis based on the idea of brinkmanship. Both the USSR and USA practiced brinkmanship, each of them escalating the conflict to the point of disaster as a means of negotiation. Both the USA and USSR made threats throughout the crisis, employing escalatory brinkmanship, pushing each other toward a scenario of mutually-assured destruction. This brinkmanship was accomplished primarily through threats because commitments would push the conflict beyond the brink, into all-out war. Threats can be made without compromising integrity as much if a party does not follow through as compared to commitments.
For brinkmanship to be successful, a party must be able to escalate a conflict, while maintaining control. An escalating party must be able to convey the appearance of preparing for war without actually going to war. Brinkmanship is a risky strategy, as it also depends upon one’s strategic opponent backing down and taking a less aggressive approach. It also can present significant domestic issues, as it offers the public the appearance of a war, which is frequently met with negative domestic response.
Because of the significant risks of going to war, domestic concerns, and the lack of intelligence regarding the choices of opponents, all parties in this crisis shied away from making commitments. In the case of the USSR, committing troops to the Cuban defense in the event of invasion would escalate the conflict to all out war. Meanwhile, the United States could not commit to not invading Cuba, as they may appear soft on communism. Lastly, the Cubans could not renounce communism because of domestic political factions that may incite a coup.
One of the keys to success in this simulation was intelligent strategic play, especially with regard to negotiation. As a representative for Cuba, I had very few decisions to make. However, I was part of negotiations, try to ascertain commitments from either of the other two parties that would work in Cuba’s favor. The United States played to its strengths in asserting military dominance, while the USSR employed tactics of brinkmanship by moving transparently. However, no party could make commitments easily because of the risks associated with nuclear armament. The risk of a nuclear war, with missiles placed within striking distance of major population centers, was too high.
In the actual Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy and Khrushchev played optimally, avoiding violent conflict while still managing to assert dominance and appease domestic factions. Castro did not have many choices to make in the actual missile crisis, but managed to make the optimal decision by not renouncing communism or antagonizing the United States.
Brinkmanship is only a success if all-out war is avoided while dominance is asserted. For brinkmanship to be successful, a party’s threats must appear to be credible. Meanwhile, brinkmanship can only be a success under conditions that do not bring about mutually assured destruction. Like in a game of chicken, no one wins if both parties refuse to back down.
Nature came in to play repeatedly in this simulation. When the USSR placed missiles, if they attempted to do so covertly, nature determined if they were successful and if the conflict was to escalate. Meanwhile, with each escalatory move, odds were associated that would leave up to nature the final outcome. For example, renouncing communism left Castro vulnerable in Cuba to a faction planning a coup. However, this faction may or may not be successful, depending on the decision of nature. This faction in Cuba, along with the voting public in the United States, led the two parties to shy away from making commitments, encouraging brinkmanship as a means of strategic play.
The Cuban Missile Crisis is one of the only pure examples of brinkmanship to exist in the real world. Because the strategy is based on the moves that one’s opponent makes, it is more risky as a means of international diplomacy. More often, threats are made as escalatory measures, but are acted on swiftly. This is likely the case because of the lack of mutually assured destruction. Not since the missile crisis has the world been teetering precariously on the brink of nuclear conflict. In today’s examples of strategic decision-making, parties are more apt to use conventional weapons, and less likely to push each other in a game of chicken.
With regard to brinkmanship with conventional weapons, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the most developed example. Israel and Hamas have had numerous established ceasefires, however they have never reached a formal, permanent peace agreement. During the summer of 2014, the conflict escalated with the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers. Following this escalatory action, Israel began to impose restrictions on activity in the disputed West Bank territory, a hotbed of Palestinian activity. From there, further escalations led to traded rocket fire into occupied territories from both sides. The conflict quickly escalated into a hot war, not allowing much room for being pushed to the brink. Most of the brinkmanship tendencies came about during the ceasefire, until escalatory action was taken.
In the case of this conflict, there is no risk of mutually assured destruction. Israel, a sovereign state, has nuclear weapons. Palestine, an unrecognized nation, does not have nuclear capabilities. However, this is still one of the better examples of brinkmanship in today’s world, as neither side truly desires to engage in armed conflict. Generally, they raise stakes and make strategic moves by applying pressure. However, the two parties frequently engage in hot war, as neither party ever chooses to back down, dismissing this case as one of pure (or at least successful) brinkmanship
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