X Welcome to International Affairs Forum

International Affairs Forum a platform to encourage a more complete understanding of the world's opinions on international relations and economics. It presents a cross-section of all-partisan mainstream content, from left to right and across the world.

By reading International Affairs Forum, not only explore pieces you agree with but pieces you don't agree with. Read the other side, challenge yourself, analyze, and share pieces with others. Most importantly, analyze the issues and discuss them civilly with others.

And, yes, send us your essay or editorial! Students are encouraged to participate.

Please enter and join the many International Affairs Forum participants who seek a better path toward addressing world issues.
Sat. June 15, 2024
Get Published   |   About Us   |   Donate   | Login
International Affairs Forum
IAF Articles
The Successful Application of Coercive Diplomacy by the United States During the Cuban Missile Crisis
Comments (0)

The Cuban Missile Crisis is an extensively studied historical episode, where for thirteen days, the two superpowers were on the brink of a nuclear catastrophe. Analyses of the crisis, in particular Essence of Decision, have been used to understand organizational cultures and US foreign policy decision-making.[1] According to Kissinger, ‘History teaches by analogy, shedding light on the likely consequences of comparable situations. But each generation must determine for itself which circumstances are in fact comparable.’[2] Leaders and policymakers often use analogies to try and make sense of the past and use it to justify actions.[3] This indicates that in employing instruments of foreign policy, understanding context is vital.

This essay demonstrates that the use of coercive diplomacy by the US in the Cuban Missile Crisis was a success because it averted a nuclear confrontation. Owing to the subsequent praise it earned, it deeply impacted leaders and policymakers who inherited its legacy.[4] This essay will go on to argue that coercive diplomacy, when applied in Vietnam during the Rolling Thunder campaign, was unsuccessful owing to a mischaracterized understanding of the crisis. In addition, coercive diplomacy, a highly contextually dependent tool, failed because the measures employed were not tailored to fit the needs of Vietnam. This indicates that although foreign policy decisions are influenced by analogies, the success or failure of an event should be determined by its merit. 

On the edge of a precipice

In his The Art of War Sun Tzu stated, ‘wherever possible victory should be achieved through diplomatic coercion.’[5] The Soviets, on their quest for strategic parity, had for the first time, placed nuclear missiles outside of its borders and had done so, clandestinely.[6] A strong response from the US was inevitable, for Cuba had become the ‘political Achilles heel’ after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion.[7] A crisis, was thus, in the making. According to Schelling, ‘the essence of crisis, is its unpredictability.’[8] It is marred by an inherent danger, where suspenseful activities can heighten or reduce the risk of war.[9] It was in this vein that Kennedy employed coercive diplomacy to diffuse the situation.

Coercive diplomacy is a defensive non-military strategy designed to persuade an adversary to stop or to undo an action.[10] Here, its effectiveness is attributed to three main factors: limited objectives, an asymmetry of motivation, and the offering of concessions.[11]  The objective was restricted to the removal of missiles from Cuba, as opposed to ambitious ones, like the removal of Castro.[12]  In addition, despite recommendations to carry out air strikes or an invasion, the means employed was limited to a naval blockade and conventional military buildup, which signaled that non-compliance would be met by additional action.[13] The chances of coercive diplomacy succeeding are heightened when there is an asymmetry of motivation that favors the coercing state.[14] In this case, it was conveyed that the presence of missiles in Cuba was a greater threat to US interests than the cost inflicted to the Soviet interests by their voluntary removal.[15] The carrot-and-stick variant of coercive diplomacy was applied, where, in exchange for the withdrawal of the missiles, the US pledged that they would not invade Cuba and would remove Jupiter missiles from Turkey, but the latter concession would not be publicly acknowledged.[16] Although the literature stipulates that there was flexibility in the approach, it could be argued that by making the knowledge of the missiles public and the urgency conveyed through private talks, the negotiations were rid of plasticity.[17] Nevertheless, the case could be construed as one where persuasion, coercion, flexibility in diplomatic negotiations, and a shared fear of nuclear war allowed the two leaders to reach a mutual settlement.[18] In this manner, success was achieved by avoiding the worst-case scenario, a nuclear confrontation.

Eyeball-to-eyeball narrative

‘Courage and commitment’ became entrenched into policy, directing that challenges abroad were to be considered as a test of American will, and this may have been a precursor to America’s escalated involvement in Vietnam.[19] For America, the Soviets backed down because of Kennedy’s masterful use of coercive diplomacy and this placed undue emphasis on the ‘ability of political leaders to steer their states through the shoals of nuclear crisis.’[20] The ‘eyeball to eyeball’ narrative gave impetus to showcasing grit, determination, and toughness.[21] In the midst of decolonization and the ideological tussle between USA, the Soviet Union, and China, Vietnam became internationalized.[22] The US firmly believed that Viet Minh was controlled by the communists and Vietnam would be subjected to the domino effect. The goal of US intervention was to ensure the place of a non-communist government in South Vietnam and contain the spread of communism.[23]

Most of the literature suggests that America’s objectives in Vietnam lacked clarity, which could be attributed to the employment of political and military strategies that were ill-suited to Vietnam. The Johnson administration was constrained by a need to display toughness as well as restraint. Credibility and firmness were to deter adversaries from adventurist tactics, while an expansion of the war beyond a certain point was avoided, as it could result in dangerous confrontations, including nuclear, with the Soviets and PRC.[24] In addition, domestic pressures were also apparent, emphasizing that no administration wanted to be the cause of the loss of Vietnam, indicating that withdrawal from Vietnam was not an option.[25] Despite the judicious limited war approach, it failed to take into consideration unique factors, such as the political instability of South Vietnam, the commitment of Viet Minh towards nationalism and communism, the terrain and climate of the region, the nature of warfare, and the support North Vietnam derived from PRC and the Soviets.[26] Instead, Vietnam was seen as a test of American credibility. Johnson once remarked that the war could easily be won and it would be a ‘filibuster - enormous resistance at first, then a steady whittling away, then Ho hurrying to get it over with’.[27] Collectively, this indicates that the intent to showcase considerable will, which was inherited in the aftermath of the missile crisis, clouded America’s ability to estimate its adversary in Vietnam.

Crisis managers

The dynamics of civilian and military relations changed during the Cuban Missile Crisis, resulting in crisis management that was left to civilian authority.[28] Amidst the crisis, they had become weary of the military’s ambition to show their potential and believed that the intelligence and the military had been unreliable, citing the delay in discovering the missiles and the frail control over the navy during the blockade.[29] The bureaucracy took it upon themselves, as civilian ‘crisis managers,’ to utilize military instruments and voiced the need for Presidential control during crisis management.[30] Collectively, with a foreign policy that needed to demonstrate toughness and civilian crisis management, American paramountcy took center stage.

Accordingly, the politico-military complex believed that ‘flexible response’ and ‘controlled escalation’ could be applied in Vietnam.[31] No longer was there fear of a Soviet-American dispute resulting in a nuclear engagement, rather the realm of international politics became fixated on escalation.[32] An air of ‘nuclear taboo’ had been created, and this followed into the Johnson administration. This meant that in the absence of a nuclear threat, each succeeding threat, which would be weaker, would need to display considerable political will.[33] Limited conventional force thus, became attractive. Ironically, despite the premise that ‘the language of military power is the only language which disciplines of power politics understand,’ the military was told that there was no role for strategy and that only crisis management exists.[34] Instead, there was an absence of an adequate understanding of conventional limited war by the military and a centralized decision-making process. This is demonstrated dubious intelligence was used to secure the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, a provision that permitted the President to secure authorization to carry out necessary actions to counter aggression.[35] Following this logic, the incremental increase in troop deployment and the use of American air power from 1965 to 1968, were attempts at coercive diplomacy. Thus, changes in the politico-military relations resulted in a widening of the gap between the necessities of force and that of diplomacy, with force becoming the dominant tool.

Operation Rolling Thunder

Conventional air power was the main instrument of coercion, but it failed to bring North Vietnam to negotiations as the strategy used was not suitable for the nature of warfare in Vietnam.[36] The objective of Rolling Thunder was to stop the intrusion of persons and materials into South Vietnam, reduce the capabilities of Viet Minh, increase solidarity in South Vietnam, and negotiate peace settlements.[37] It was a weak try-and-see variant of coercive diplomacy.[38] The civil-military relations were wrought with tensions as each advocated for a different bombing strategy and eventually, three different strategies were employed in succession.[39] The Schelling and Douhet models were employed to induce civilian damage, primarily economic infrastructure, while the Interdiction model targeted military areas.[40] Pape attributes the failure of military coercion to two main factors. Firstly, targeting North Vietnam’s industrial sector did not cause brutal hardship to the civil population or the economy as planned. It did not compel Hanoi to forsake its territorial ambitions, as territory was a symbol of national cohesion.[41] By leaving high-value targets aside, the US assumed that these targets could be reserved for bargaining later, but the demands set up by the US were vague and no urgency for compliance was conveyed to North Vietnam.[42]

The second factor that contributed to the failure was that the military-targeted bombing did not influence Hanoi’s behavior. Conventional air power is successful when it ‘exploits the opponent’s military vulnerabilities.’[43] Here, America viewed the war as conventional, while Vietnam employed guerilla tactics. In addition, there were periods of abeyance during the bombings, which allowed time for Hanoi to shield targets and adopt air defense systems.[44] The significance of bombing military targets was demonstrated during the Linebacker II air power campaign of 1972, where military capabilities were targeted.[45] This method of coercion was successful because Hanoi had begun to use a conventional war strategy, which was susceptible to air power. Thus, coercive diplomacy during Rolling Thunder was not successful because the guerilla campaign in Hanoi was immune to conventional air strikes.

Lessons from the missile crisis were not extended suitably to Vietnam. The strategy employed by the US relied heavily on non-verbal signals to communicate intent.[46] Successful coercive diplomacy is dependent on making threats known and credible.[47] In the missile crisis, the naval blockade and the possibility of escalation to nuclear confrontation were perceived by the Soviets as real threats.[48] In Vietnam, the bombing was intended to convey coercion and bring forth negotiations but instead, it increased North Vietnam’s resolve.[49] An asymmetry of motivation was not established, and escalation was matched with escalation.[50] Additionally, the strategy gave importance to context or the stakes, and how it influenced the bargaining process.[51] In the missile crisis, there were no vital stakes at risk for the Soviets, while in Vietnam, there was a failure to recognize the stakes, i.e. national cohesion.[52] The bombing was a display of America’s power to inflict pain. Through private channels, however, it was conveyed that the air strikes did not elicit concern in North Vietnam.[53] This suggests that Hanoi was able to tolerate a considerable amount of pain, more than what the US could inflict.[54] This indicates that the strategy was inept at implementing coercive diplomacy for the Vietnam scenario. It strengthened North Vietnam’s resolve for national unification, but it did not bring them to the bargaining table, and an ‘all-out limited war’ was established.[55]

Secret offerings

It is widely opined that crises attain a mutual settlement when coercion is coupled with carrots and assurances, but the form of concession offered in Vietnam was weak.[56] Soon after the Rolling Thunder campaign began, Johnson made his ‘Peace without Conquest’ speech, where he outlined America’s intent to take part in ‘unconditional negotiations’ and offered monetary assistance in the economic development of the Mekong River Valley.[57] This was a weak form of carrot-and-stick diplomacy; an incentive was offered, and the speech was laced with increased threats of aggression.[58] The administration believed that this would bring North Vietnam to the bargaining table as non-compliance would mean that high-value areas would be targeted, but this did not instill fear in Vietnam.[59] Moreover, no other concessions were offered. This is likely to be due to another mischaracterization of the missile crisis. The notion that the Soviets backed down owing to American military superiority was fueled by the premise that no concessions were offered to the Soviets upon removing the missiles.[60] Johnson was not aware that a private negotiation had occurred, where Jupiter missiles stationed in Turkey were to be removed in exchange for the removal of the missiles in Cuba.[61] Thus, Johnson’s first-hand impressions and memory of the crisis were that America did not compromise and that any concession to the communists would have been considered as a sign of weakness. Jakobsen opined that carrots should have been coupled with air power as it offers a higher probability of coercive diplomacy succeeding.[62] This highlights another faulty assumption that led to an improper strategy in Vietnam. 

Conclusion

The Vietnam War is considered one of the most debilitating military interventions in US history. Flawed assumptions from the missile crisis that seeped into America’s venture into Vietnam, include the focus on showcasing toughness, changes in the politico-military complex, and an uncompromising stance in the face of an adversary. Coercive diplomacy is highly dependent on context. America’s intervention stemmed from a need to stop the spread of communism and display toughness abroad. Coercive diplomacy failed in the Rolling Thunder campaign because there was a lack of understanding of the stakes that were at risk for North Vietnam, and it failed to implement a strategy that was suited to the demands of the situation. The coercive signal that the bombing campaign attempted to convey was not understood by North Vietnam. Instead, their response was unyielding in the pursuance of their goals of national unification. Additionally, the image of war did not deter either side’s need to de-escalate, as opposed to the image of a nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis.[63] While North Vietnam endured the bombings, no significant concessions were offered to encourage negotiations, in stark contrast to the missile crisis. The use of coercive diplomacy in the Cuban Missile Crisis was a success as it averted a nuclear disaster. Mischaracterization of the crisis led to the implementation of coercive diplomacy that was not fitting for Vietnam.

Lakshmy Ramakrishnan is pursuing MA International Relations at King’s College London. She also holds a postgraduate degree in Biomedical Science and regularly writes for magazines and periodicals. Her research interests include health, security, and diplomacy. 

 

Bibliography

Bernstein, Barton J. "Reconsidering the Perilous Cuban Missile Crisis 50 Years Later." Arms Control Today 42, no. 8 (2012): 39.

Bernstein, Barton J. "Understanding Decisionmaking, U.S. Foreign Policy, and the Cuban Missile Crisis: A Review Essay." International Security 25, no. 1 (2000): 134-164. doi:10.1162/016228800560417.

Colman, Jonathan. The Foreign Policy of Lyndon B. Johnson: The United States and the World 1963–69. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010. doi:10.3366/j.ctt1r252n.

Constantinou, Costas M., Pauline Kerr, and Paul Sharp. The SAGE Handbook of Diplomacy. Los Angeles: SAGE, 2016.

Dobbs, Michael. "Why we should Still Study the Cuban Missile Crisis." Policy File (2008).

George, Alexander L. (Alexander Lawrence) and William E. Simons. The Limits of Coercive Diplomacy. 2nd ed. Boulder, Colo. ;: Westview, 1994.

Herring, G. C. "The Cold War and Vietnam." Magazine of History 18, no. 5 (Oct, 2004): 18-21. doi:10.1093/maghis/18.5.18.

Herring, George C. "America and Vietnam: The Unending War." Foreign Affairs (New York, N.Y.); Foreign Affairs 70, no. 5 (1991): 104-119. doi:10.2307/20045006.

Johnson, Dominic D. P. and Dominic Tierney. Failing to Win : Perceptions of Victory and Defeat in International Politics. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006.

Kissinger, Henry. Diplomacy Simon & Schuster, 2012.

Lebow, Richard Ned. "The Cuban Missile Crisis: Reading the Lessons Correctly." Political Science Quarterly 98, no. 3 (Oct 01, 1983): 431-458. doi:10.2307/2150497.

Lebow, Richard Ned. "Domestic Politics and the Cuban Missile Crisis: The Traditional and Revisionist Interpretations Reevaluated." Diplomatic History 14, no. 4 (1990): 471-492. doi:10.1111/j.1467-7709.1990.tb00103.x.

Lebow, Richard Ned. "Thomas Schelling and Strategic Bargaining." International Journal (Toronto) 51, no. 3 (1996): 555. doi:10.2307/40203128.

Mumford, Andrew. "Parallels, Prescience and the Past: Analogical Reasoning and Contemporary International Politics." International Politics 52, no. 1 (2014). doi:10.1057/ip.2014.40.

Nathan, James A. "The Missile Crisis: His Finest Hour Now." World Politics 27, no. 2 (Jan, 1975): 256-281. doi:10.2307/2009883. https://dx.doi.org/10.2307/2009883.

Pape, Robert Anthony. "Coercive Air Power in the Vietnam War." International Security 15, no. 2 (Oct 01, 1990): 103-146. doi:10.2307/2538867.

Schelling, Thomas C. Arms and Influence. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.

Sorensen, Theodore Chaikin, and Lawrence Freedman. Kennedy. New York: Smithmark, 1995.

Sunzi, Pin Sun, and Ralph D. Sawyer. The Complete Art of War Sun Tzu/Sun Pin Sun Tzu/Sun Pin. Boulder, CO: Basic Books, 2007.

Yuravlivker, Dror. "Peace without Conquest": Lyndon Johnson's Speech of April 7, 1965. Vol. 36 Wiley, 2006. doi:10.1111/j.1741-5705.2006.02557.x.


[1]  Barton J. Bernstein, "Understanding Decisionmaking, U.S. Foreign Policy, and the Cuban Missile Crisis: A Review Essay," International Security 25, no. 1 (2000), 134-164. doi:10.1162/016228800560417.

[2]  Henry Kissinger, DiplomacySimon & Schuster, 2012)22.

[3]  Andrew Mumford, "Parallels, Prescience and the Past: Analogical Reasoning and Contemporary International Politics," International Politics 52, no. 1 (2014). doi:10.1057/ip.2014.40.

[4] Michael Dobbs, "Why we should Still Study the Cuban Missile Crisis," Policy File (2008).

[5]  Sunzi, Pin Sun and Ralph D. Sawyer, The Complete Art of War Sun Tzu/Sun Pin Sun Tzu/Sun Pin (Boulder, CO: Basic Books, 2007), 19.

[6]   Dobbs, "Why we should Still Study the Cuban Missile Crisis,"

[7]  Theodore Chaikin Sorensen and Lawrence Freedman, Kennedy (New York: Smithmark, 1995), 670.

[8]  Thomas C. Schelling, Arms and Influence (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), 97.

[9]  Schelling, Arms and Influence, 97

[10]  Alexander L. (Alexander Lawrence) George and William E. Simons, The Limits of Coercive Diplomacy, 2nd ed. (Boulder, Colo. ;: Westview, 1994), 7-10.

[11]   George, The Limits of Coercive Diplomacy15

[12]   George, The Limits, 116.

[13]    George, The Limits of Coercive Diplomacy124-126

[14]   George, The Limits, 124-126

[15]  George, The Limits, 124-126

[16]    Dominic D. P. Johnson and Dominic Tierney, Failing to Win : Perceptions of Victory and Defeat in International Politics (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006)96.

[17]  George, The Limits of Coercive Diplomacy124-126

[18]   Richard Ned Lebow, "Domestic Politics and the Cuban Missile Crisis: The Traditional and Revisionist Interpretations Reevaluated," Diplomatic History 14, no. 4 (1990), 471-492. doi:10.1111/j.1467-7709.1990.tb00103.x.

[19]  Richard Ned Lebow, "The Cuban Missile Crisis: Reading the Lessons Correctly," Political Science Quarterly 98, no. 3 (Oct 01, 1983), 431-458. doi:10.2307/2150497.

[20]  Lebow, "The Cuban Missile Crisis: Reading the Lessons Correctly," , 431-458

[21]   Dobbs, "Why we should Still Study the Cuban Missile Crisis,"

[22]  G. C. Herring, "The Cold War and Vietnam," Magazine of History 18, no. 5 (Oct, 2004), 18-21. doi:10.1093/maghis/18.5.18.

[23]  Herring, "The Cold War and Vietnam," , 18-21

[24]   George C. Herring, "America and Vietnam: The Unending War," Foreign Affairs (New York, N.Y.); Foreign Affairs 70, no. 5 (1991), 104-119. doi:10.2307/20045006.

[25]   Herring, "America and Vietnam: The Unending War," , 104-119

[26]     Herring, "America and Vietnam: The Unending War," , 104-119.

[27]  Jonathan Colman, The Foreign Policy of Lyndon B. Johnson: The United States and the World 1963–69 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010)43. doi:10.3366/j.ctt1r252n.

[28]  James A. Nathan, "The Missile Crisis: His Finest Hour Now," World Politics 27, no. 2 (Jan, 1975), 256-281. doi:10.2307/2009883. https://dx.doi.org/10.2307/2009883.

[29]  Nathan, "The Missile Crisis: His Finest Hour Now," , 256-281

[30]  Nathan, "The Missile Crisis: His Finest Hour Now," , 256-281

[31]  Dobbs, "Why we should Still Study the Cuban Missile Crisis,"

[32]  Nathan, “The Missile Crisis”

[33]  Nathan, “The Missile Crisis”

[34]  Nathan, “The Missile Crisis”

[35]  Bernstein, "Understanding Decisionmaking, U.S. Foreign Policy, and the Cuban Missile Crisis: A Review Essay," , 134-164

[36]  Robert Anthony Pape, "Coercive Air Power in the Vietnam War," International Security 15, no. 2 (Oct 01, 1990), 103-146. doi:10.2307/2538867.

[37]  George, The Limits of Coercive Diplomacy136

[38]  George, The Limits, 145

[39]  Pape, "Coercive Air Power in the Vietnam War," , 103-146

[40]  Pape, “Coercive Air Power”

[41]  Pape, “Coercive Air Power”

[42]  Pape, “Coercive Air Power”

[43]   Pape, "Coercive Air Power in the Vietnam War," , 103-146

[44]  Pape, “Coercive Air Power”

[45]  Pape, “Coercive Air Power”

[46]  Richard Ned Lebow, "Thomas Schelling and Strategic Bargaining," International Journal (Toronto) 51, no. 3 (1996), 555. doi:10.2307/40203128.

[47]  George, The Limits of Coercive Diplomacy27

[48]  Lebow, "Thomas Schelling and Strategic Bargaining," , 555

[49]  Lebow, "Thomas Schelling and Strategic Bargaining," , 555

[50]  George, The Limits of Coercive Diplomacy282

[51]  Lebow, "Thomas Schelling and Strategic Bargaining," , 555

[52]    Lebow, "Thomas Schelling and Strategic Bargaining," , 555

[53]  George, The Limits of Coercive Diplomacy149

[54]  Lebow, “Thomas Schelling”

[55]  Nathan, "The Missile Crisis: His Finest Hour Now," , 256-281

[56]  Costas M. Constantinou, Pauline Kerr and Paul Sharp, The SAGE Handbook of Diplomacy (Los Angeles: SAGE, 2016)484.

[57]  Dror Yuravlivker, "Peace without Conquest": Lyndon Johnson's Speech of April 7, 1965, Vol. 36Wiley, 2006), 457. doi:10.1111/j.1741-5705.2006.02557.x.

[58]  George, The Limits of Coercive Diplomacy154

[59]  Pape, "Coercive Air Power in the Vietnam War," , 103-146

[60]  Dobbs, "Why we should Still Study the Cuban Missile Crisis,"

[61]  Barton J. Bernstein, "Reconsidering the Perilous Cuban Missile Crisis 50 Years Later," Arms Control Today 42, no. 8 (2012), 39.

[62]  Constantinou, The SAGE Handbook of Diplomacy484

[63]  George, The Limits of Coercive Diplomacy272

Comments in Chronological order (0 total comments)

Report Abuse
Contact Us | About Us | Donate | Terms & Conditions Twitter Facebook Get Alerts Get Published

All Rights Reserved. Copyright 2002 - 2024