The Cuban Missile Crisis was the closest mankind ever came to a nuclear war. The United States and Soviet Union mobilized their armed forces and nuclear weaponry, bringing the world within hours of a nuclear exchange. The Realist perspective argues that the origins and outcomes of this conflict were caused by the never-ending struggle for military, economic, and diplomatic power between the United States and Soviet Union, but cannot determine why the conflict ended. Instead, the Liberal perspective explains that hostilities ceased because of the relationship developed between Khrushchev and Kennedy.
The Realist perspective argues the heavy emphasis both sides placed on expanding nuclear capabilities to serve as a deterrent resulted in a shift in the balance of power and escalation of hostilities. After World War II, two super powers emerged: the United States and its Western European allies, and Russia and its Eastern European allies. These alliances created a bipolar (two main powers) balance of power – the democratic West and the communist East. The balance of power is the process by which each state seeks to ensure that no other states dominate the system (Nau 31).
John Mearsheimer argues that a bipolar power-sharing world is the most stable because the two main powers only have each other to worry about (Nau 33), however, after the Second World War, this power equality began to fade. At the beginning of the 1960s, the Soviet Union was at a noticeable military disadvantage. The U. S. S. R. had a large stockpile of nuclear missiles that were only capable of reaching America’s allies. America had three times more intercontinental ballistic missiles than Russia, and Jupiter missiles in Great Britain, Italy, and Turkey (Allison 92-93).
Moreover, the United States had a first-strike capabilities advantage. The United States had the capability to deliver a first-strike so debilitating that the USSR would not have the resources or means to attack the United State’s homeland (Allison 92). As the Realist perspective emphasizes, in order to combat this inequality the Soviet Union was forced to take actions that would shift the balance of power in their favor. It found this shift in Cuba. Fidel Castro overthrew the Cuban dictatorship and established a communist state.
He then promptly started nationalizing American companies in Cuba, especially sugarcane. In response, the United States implemented an embargo on Cuba and actively tried to overthrow the communist regime. Because of the economic strain the United States placed on Cuba through the trade embargo and attempts to overthrow the Fidel regime, Cuba had no other choice but to grow closer to Russia. Russia quickly capitalized on this offer, allying with Cuba. In late 1962, the Soviet Union started transporting large quantities of arms, troops, and other war material in order to bolster Cuba’s “defensive” capabilities (CNN).
The Soviet Union made these military shipments public, but did not reveal that it was secretly transporting ballistic missiles. In order to protect this secrecy, the Soviet government, under Nikita Khrushchev, went so far as to issue a statement that it would not “shift its [nuclear] weapons for the repulsion of aggression…to any other country, for instance Cuba” (Allison 78-79). In October 1962, a U2 spy-plane discovered missile bases in Cuba, causing President Kennedy to implement a quarantine on the Cuban island (Johnson 356). The Soviets responded by indicating that these missiles were for only the defense of Cuba.
Yet, as the Realist perspective argues, the United States could not be certain these missiles were for defense and not offense. From the Realist perspective, there is no distinction between offensive and defensive weaponry because there is no guarantee of the opponent’s intentions. In this instance, the U. S. S. R. had already lied to the world about transporting ballistic missiles, and it was naive to trust the U. S. S. R. ’s claimed intentions that the missiles were for only defensive purposes. In addition, Cuba’s armament created a security dilemma.
A security dilemma results from the fact that, as each group amasses power to protect itself, it inevitably threatens the other groups (Nau 31). The build up of hostile forces on Cuban soil threatened the United States. The United States had to react with bellicose language and a large military force to ensure that its own wellbeing would be protected, resulting in an escalation of tension between the United States and Russia. The Cuban Missile Crisis was also a struggle for diplomatic power. The United States and Soviet Union were the leaders of NATO and the Warsaw Pact, respectively.
Each had a vested interest in appearing powerful in front of its allies and the world. If the U. S. was uninterested with the warheads in Cuba, or did not confront Russia with voracity and the might to support its rhetoric, its European allies would lose faith in their protector. Kennedy indicated that if they had not met this threat head-on then it “would convey to the world that we had been frightened into abandoning our position” (Allison 115). Likewise, the Soviet Union had to assert that it was more powerful then the West for the socialist cause.
By placing warheads on Cuba, the Soviet Union shifted the international balance of power in favor of the socialist (Allyn 155). Thus, the balance of power was also a diplomatic struggle. The forging of alliances and the strategic placement of nuclear missiles and conventional forces created an equilibrium of power: one side did not achieve a hegemonic domination over the other. When the Soviet Union used its diplomatic relations with Cuba to install missile bases, this tenuous balance shifted. The Realist perspective adequately explains the Cuban Missile Crisis in terms of military and diplomatic power as well as the origins of the crisis.
However, the Realist perspective fails to explain the outcome of the crisis in terms of a power struggle. The conflict finally ended with an agreement that Russia would withdraw its warheads from Cuba in exchanges for the U. S. ’s assurance that it would remove missiles from Turkey. Kennedy looked favorably upon this deal because it dismantled the threat in Cuba without major concessions. The Kennedy administration knew that the Jupiter missile were inaccurate and unreliable (Trachtenberg 143-145). However, the removal of any missiles by Russia or the U. S. is impractical to a Realist.
The Realist does not understand why a country would willingly disarm its military armaments, intentionally making their power weaker. Furthermore, the Soviet’s acceptance of the United States’ insurance, rather than the physical removal immediately, makes even less sense to a Realist. It is irrational to lessen one’s capabilities based on the trust that your opponent will likewise reduce its power. The Liberal perspective explains this dilemma. Before the crisis, there was almost no systematic discussion between the United States and Russia. Because of the lack of communication and interaction, a crisis inevitably rose.
However, due to this crisis, the leaders were forced to communicate with each other, increasing interdependence. Interdependence refers to the frequency and intensity with which states interact (Nau 36). Underneath the drama, they began to form a dialogue, alleviating pressure from domestic hardliners. This resulted in reassurance and mutual learning that ended in significant compromises on both sides (Nau 199). The reciprocity that occurred reduced hostilities and, consequentially, a peaceful resolution was achieved. This interaction also allowed for future dialogue between the two superpowers, creating the first rms control agreement and the Test Ban Treaty (Nau 199). According to the Realist perspective, the Cuban Missile Crisis was caused by the military and diplomatic power struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union. Each power competed to assert its superiority over the other, driving the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation. However, the Realist perspective fails to explain the reason the crisis ended, because a new balance of power configuration did not emerge. Instead, the Liberal perspective explains that the conflict ended because interdependence and reciprocity was established, resulting in a peaceful resolution.