war on the rocks

(W)Archives: Another Munich or Another Cuban Missile Crisis?

March 6, 2015

By now the parallels between current Russian and pre-war German expansionism are so obvious as to invite satire. Those parallels are indeed stark and sobering. It is hard not to recall the ineffectual diplomacy that preceded the First and Second World Wars; when Hollande and Merkel flew to Minsk, many people heard the echo of Munich.

It is always tempting but nevertheless fraught with intellectual danger to reason by historical analogy. Yet, because such analogies are an apparent constant of political debate, we must at least pick them well. The World Wars are not the right source of comparative basis for current Russian actions. Our analogies really must be drawn from the nuclear age. The arrival of nuclear weapons permanently transformed the calculus of great power confrontations. Russia is a nuclear power. Thus, our fight against them must begin from the assumption that the worst-case consequence is not a bitter and brutal war of many years with extensive loss of life, but the end of everything.

In that regard, it is timely to return to George F. Kennan’s 1957 Reith Lectures. Kennan, the American diplomat who was then a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, gave a series of six lectures on the logic of confrontation in the atomic age. Of these, perhaps the most interesting is the fourth, on the military logic. (Thanks to the BBC, the transcript and audio are both readily available.) Even at this early stage of the Cold War, Kennan was striving to find an approach to nuclear strategy that was both humane and practical. That struggle led him to reject graduated deterrence and tactical atomic weapons, and conclude that the only plausible option was to keep nukes out of any war.

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In coming to this conclusion, Kennan made two realizations of considerable contemporary relevance. The first is that it is essential for the continental European powers to defend themselves, without the assistance of nuclear-armed states. The second is that this is best done by the formation of militias designed to provide resistance to a Soviet occupying force, since the prospect of stopping their divisions at a rigidly defended border is remote.

The need for Europe to hold its own in defense spending has been a basic contention of American diplomacy for decades. Most recently, there were bold promises of redress at NATO’s 2014 Wales summit, but limited action since.

The suggestion that this spending be concentrated on raising the costs of Russian occupation, rather than on making conquest impossible, is more controversial. Yet it is certainly the case that we are a long way from achieving the aim of preventing invasion altogether – Ukraine’s fighting power could double or triple and it would still be insufficient to stop a full-scale Russian attack. The Baltic States may rely (we hope) on NATO’s Article 5 guarantee, but even that is only the promise of counterattack, at least until NATO divisions are positioned on the borders.

In the nuclear age, strategic reasoning rests on elegant chains of assumptions; planners must estimate first, second and third order consequences. That is because the possible implications are so great that the whole thing must be mapped out before the crisis point arrives. It is frequently a morbid exercise. Yet it is surely necessary, and it is surely wise in doing so to return to the outpouring of strategic thought from the 1950s, which retains more relevance than repeated study of the errors of 1913 and the 1930s. The lectures of George Kennan, typical of the man’s approachable intellect and pragmatism, are an excellent starting point.


Tom Wein is the Head of Programmes at the Centre for Applied Intelligence in London. He tweets @tom_wein and his writing is collected here.


Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to George Kennan as the head of the Institute for Advanced Study. He did not occupy that position, but was a professor at the institute at the time. The text has been amended.