Monthly Archives: October 2012

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The Cuban Missile Crisis

President Kennedy Pauses for Reflection During the Crisis

President Kennedy Pauses for Reflection During the Crisis

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. On October 27, 1960, a US U-2 spy plane was shot down over Cuba by a Soviet missile crew. The crisis began two week earlier, when CIA flights located and identified Soviet missile installations on the island. By October 27, the options had been considered, the blockade/quarantine had been imposed, and secret negotiations were underway.

On October 27, however, the CIA reported that at least five separate missile sites appeared to be fully operational. With tensions running high, both sides were on the brink of full-scale nuclear war. Indeed, “Black Saturday” as it came to be known, marked the closest both sides would get to a full-scale nuclear exchange during the Cold War. On several occasions on that day, we were a whisker hair away. For example:

After the first U2 plane was shot down, the US sent another. It was decided at the time that the second flight was ordered that because antiaircraft missile batteries in Cuba were under direct Soviet control, a second downed plane would represent an escalation on the part of the Soviets, and the US would respond with a full-scale attack against Cuba. This would have necessitated a Soviet response, likely by invading US allies in Europe. Fortunately, according to McNamara’s recollection, Soviet Premier Khrushchev had reached a similar conclusion and ordered the Soviet commander in Cuba to refrain from responding to US over flights of the island.

In an effort to dissuade Soviet submarines from reaching Cuba, the US Navy was

Vasili Arkhipov

Vasili Arkhipov

dropping “signaling depth charges” on the Soviet Foxtrot-class B-59 diesel-electric submarine. Unknown to the US Navy at the time, the B-59 was equipped with nuclear-tipped torpedoes and had orders to launch them if the submarine’s hull was breached. The decision to launch the nuclear torpedoes required the concurrence of the three ranking officers. While two concurred, the third, Vasili Arkhipov, refused, and the torpedoes were never launched.

Another U2 spy plane accidently made an unauthorized ninety-minute flight over the far eastern coast of the Soviet Union. This prompted the Soviets to launch interceptors from their bases in the region. The US similarly scrambled American fighters armed with nuclear air-to-air missiles over the Bering Sea. The U2 spy plane was recalled, and there was no engagement between the fighters.

The same day, Khrushchev received a letter written by Cuban President Fidel Castro in which Castro urged the Soviet Union to use its nuclear force to defend Cuba in the event of an attack. In the letter, dubbed “the Armageddon Letters,” Castro writes, “I believe the imperialists’ aggressiveness is extremely dangerous and if they actually carry out the brutal act of invading Cuba in violation of international law and morality, that would be the moment to eliminate such danger forever through an act of clear legitimate defense, however harsh and terrible the solution would be.” The US had active plans to launch an invasion of Cuba, and had already warned its NATO allies in Europe that, “the situation is growing shorter… the United States may find it necessary within a very short time in its interest and that of its fellow nations in the Western Hemisphere to take whatever military action may be necessary.”

The crisis itself was averted the morning of October 28, when Kennedy and Khrushchev agreed to deescalate the crisis. The Soviet Union agreed to withdraw its missiles from Cuba. In exchange, the United States agreed to issue a speech at the United Nations in which it promised to recognize the inviolability of Cuba’s borders, its sovereignty, and to refrain from interfering in its internal affairs. The United States also secretly agreed to remove US missiles from Italy and Turkey.

In a recent analysis of the crisis published in Foreign Affairs , noted political scientist Graham Alison wrote,

Fifty years ago, the Cuban missile crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear disaster. During the standoff, U.S. President John F. Kennedy thought the chance of escalation to war was “between 1 in 3 and even,” and what we have learned in later decades has done nothing to lengthen those odds. We now know, for example, that in addition to nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, the Soviet Union had deployed 100 tactical nuclear weapons to Cuba, and the local Soviet commander there could have launched these weapons without additional codes or commands from Moscow. The U.S. air strike and invasion that were scheduled for the third week of the confrontation would likely have triggered a nuclear response against American ships and troops, and perhaps even Miami. The resulting war might have led to the deaths of 100 million Americans and over 100 million Russians.

So why were we able to avoid the devastation to which Alison refers? Realists and liberals offer competing explanations.

For realists, American military superiority made the Soviets less likely to follow through on their threats. At the time, the United States had a 17 to 1 advantage in nuclear capability. Assuming rationality, Khrushchev could not stand up to the United States nor force them to back down. Left with no other choice, Khrushchev backed down.

But what about personal motivation? Both Kennedy and Khrushchev understood that neither side could win a nuclear exchange. Both were afraid that once conflict started, it would escalate beyond control. Clear lines of communication (and thus empathy) between Kennedy and Khrushchev would allow them to recognize and overcome the no-win situation. Indeed, after the crisis was resolved, a red phone system was set up to facilitate direct communication between the White House and the Kremlin.

What do you think? Is the realist or the liberal explanation of the Cuban Missile Crisis more compelling? Or does another approach offer a richer understanding. Take the poll and let us know what you think.

Pedagogy: Teaching Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

Mark Twain

Mark Twain

Mark Twain popularized the saying (originally attributed to British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli), “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics.” The use of statistics to manipulate the reader or obfuscate the truth is an old practice. Indeed, as Thomas Carlisle noted in his 1839 book Chartism, “A witty statesman said, you can prove anything by figures.” And HG Wells argued that “Statistical thinking will one day be as necessary for efficient citizenship as the ability to read and write.”

The growing availability of data makes basic statistical literacy ever more important. An editorial in the New York Times earlier this year proclaimed that we are now living in the “Age of Big Data,” when the widespread collection and tracking of data necessitates individuals who are capable of making sense of it all. Google searches, Facebook profiles, customer profiling, and the like create mountains of information waiting to be analyzed. Employers want people who are capable of understanding and making sense of these data. The National Association of Colleges and Employers 2012 survey lists both the “ability to analyze quantities data” and the “ability to obtain and process information” among its top skills desired by employers.

Yet a recent story in the British Telegraph concludes that “statistical illiteracy leaves citizens at risk of being duped by politicians and businessmen.” Their alarming conclusion led The Guardian’s Datablog to create a simple quiz that

While political science programs across the country frequently require a methods component, many have not focused on the more basic questions of statistical literacy. It is important for our students to understand the fundamentals of research design. But shouldn’t we also be teaching them about the use (and misuse) of statistics?

A great starting point is Prof. Talithia Williams’ video lecture as part of the Distinctive Voices series at the National Academy of Sciences.

Williams’ video would make an outstanding supplemental “reading” assignment for any political science course concerned with developing data and statistical literacy skills.

How do you teach these skills? Are these skills taught in a specific course or developed throughout the major? What assignments and activities do you use to teach these skills? Share your feedback with us below.

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Scottish Autonomy and the Problem of National Sovereignty

Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond (left) and British Prime Minister David Cameron (right) sign an agreement to hold a referendum on Scottish independence in 2014.

Earlier this week, the British and Scottish governments reached an historic agreement that would see Scotland hold a referendum asking voters to decide whether Scotland would become an independent country or remain as part of the United Kingdom. Numerous issues are at stake, not least of which is control of the estimated 20 billion barrels of oil and natural gas located under the North Sea.

There is good reason to think that British Prime Minister David Cameron is making a strong political move. While the Scottish National Party has polled well in recent elections, the idea of Scottish independence is much less popular than the party which supports it. A recent poll found that only 34 percent of Scottish voters supported independence, while more than half believed Scotland’s economy would suffer if it declared independence.

What's Braveheart got to do with it?

What’s Braveheart got to do with it?

The referendum will take place in 2014, coinciding with the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, where the Scots, under the leadership of Robert the Bruce, famously defeated English forces led by King Edward II. Interestingly, the strongest level of support appears to come from those Scots who came of age in the mid-1990s, when the film Braveheart popularized the Scottish struggle.

The move towards a referendum on Scottish independence raises one of the classic challenges of global politics: the problem of national sovereignty. The idea of national sovereignty links the concepts of state (the physical territory) and nation (the people who inhabit that territory and share a common sense of belonging). Within a country, the idea of legitimacy links the people and the state through the concept of sovereignty. The right of the state to exercise power, according to political thought since the Enlightenment, is rooted in the social contract. Since the end of World War II, and particularly since the end of the Cold War, the legitimacy of nondemocratic states has been strongly questioned.

The problem, of course, is at what level such popular consent takes place. The historical patterns of development has resulted in international legal boundaries between states which rarely correlate neatly with the common identity of those who inhabit those states. Indeed, it is relatively rare for the geographic boundaries of the political entity of the state and the cultural/ethnic entity of the nation to correlate much at all. Yet the tidy nation-state represents the ideal type of international relations.

Far more common are multinational states, countries in which multiple nations often compete for control of the state. Nigeria is perhaps the most well-known example. There, more than 250 ethnic groups—the three largest of which comprise about two-thirds of the population—compete for power. One of the most important legacies of colonialism in Africa was the creation of lasting political boundaries that bare little correlation to the politics on the ground, often undermining the sovereignty and legitimacy of the post-colonial state.

The status of the United Kingdom is similarly complicated by its history. There, four distinct “countries” are united. England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland exist as “countries within a country.” Over the past twenty years, political authority has increasingly devolved from the unitary state. Political power has been decentralized away from London and towards regional governments. Independence in Scotland would represent a dramatic culmination of that (admittedly much slower) historical trend.

And other groups might be watching. Around the world, there are countless groups who identify themselves as stateless nations. The Palestinians are perhaps the most well-known, but others include the Basques in Spain, the Tamils in Sri Lanka, the Uighurs in China, the Hmong in Southeast Asia, and the Kurds in Iraq and Turkey

What do you think: Should Scotland declare independence? What would the political, economic, and social implications of such a move likely be? And how would Scottish independence affect the claims of other nationalist groups seeking independence, such as the Basques, Tamils, or Kurds? Take the poll below or leave a comment and let us know what you think.

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The Nobel Peace Prize

Jose Manuel Barroso and Herman Van Rompuy respond to the announcement of the award.

Jose Manuel Barroso and Herman Van Rompuy respond to the announcement of the award.

Most observers were surprised when the Nobel Committee awarded the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union on Friday. Newspapers from across the continent described the decision as “surprising,” “strange,” “timely,” and even “shocking.” Few anticipated the award.

In an editorial in Belgium’s La Libre Belgique, Oliver le Bussy argued that “the Nobel committee wanted to remind people that the European project… has had a civilising effect, making a large contribution to turning ancient enemies into partners and spreading democracy and human rights.” Spain’s El Pais echoed this sentiment, arguing that the prize provided “moral support and encouragement to overcome individual nations’ reservations, which impede decisive progress” towards greater integration, including “naturally, political union.”

Some, however, were more skeptical. The British papers provided a wide range of criticism. But perhaps the most powerful critique was Thomas Kirchner’s piece in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, in which he describes the EU as a “ quarreling bunch of more or less bankrupt states” and says the Nobel committee “must be careful if it wants its decisions to be taken seriously for much longer.”

And the British newspaper The Guardian offered perhaps the most humorous take.

Was the Nobel Committee off course in its decision? The answer depends on your time frame of analysis. Certainly the European Union has been plagued by fiscal crises over the past several years. Its inability to develop a coherent response to the Greek crisis (let alone to respond in a meaningful way to Portugal and Spain) raise real concerns about the future of the organization.

But the history of the European Union deserve recognition. As the European Union positions itself increasingly as a single market with a single currency, it’s easy to forget the roots of the organization in the aftermath of World War II. At that time, the primary focus of European integration was simple: prevent war between Germany and France. Guided by the principles of institutional liberalism, the founders of the European Union sought to expand political, social, and above all economic cooperation between Germany and France in an effort to prevent future wars.

And from this perspective, the Nobel Peace Prize makes much more sense. The thought of war between Germany and France—really between any two members of the European Union—appears laughable today. So while the European Union struggles with fiscal recovery and economic reconstruction, it is important to remember roots as an institution of international political stability.

Still, there were many others who might have won the award. CNN’s Frida Ghitis described the decision as a “missed opportunity” and contended the award could have been more productive in achieving its goal of promoting international peace had it been awarded to someone else. She singles out Malalal Yousafzani, the 14 year old Pakistani girl shot by Talibani militants for advocating education for girls, as particularly worthy. Ahead of the decision, the bookmaking site NicerOdds was giving best odds to Gene Sharp, a political theorist of nonviolence, and Sima Samar, chair of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Sudan.

What do you think? Did the Nobel Committee did it make the right decision in recognizing the organization’s history? Or did it miss the mark in awarding the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union? And who do you think should have won the award? Let us know what you think by leaving a comment or answering the poll question below.