Opinions | Diplomacy defused Cold War crises. It can help again today.

Both America’s deepening commitment to Ukraine and its widening dispute with China could escalate into a nuclear war. With such high stakes, understanding and resurrecting the successful strategies that forestalled similar disasters during the Cold War could reduce the risk of catastrophe. Today, American diplomat George F. Kennan is best known for being an architect of the policy of containment — the policy that aimed to limit the Soviet Union’s influence and block the expansion of communism in the late 1940s. However, Kennan’s most passionate advocacy was actually for a certain type of hardheaded, discerning diplomacy — a strategy that proved instrumental in helping defuse some of the Cold War’s most tense moments and could prove beneficial to easing such tense political situations again today.

President Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Indonesia for the Group of 20 summit last year.

© Alex Brandon/AP
President Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Indonesia for the Group of 20 summit last year.

In 1951, the United States was mired in a proxy war with the Soviet Union in Korea. With the Soviets fuming at the presence of foreign troops close to their frontier and the United States frustrated with the stalemated conflict, a direct confrontation between the superpowers loomed. Into the breach stepped Kennan, who after intensive study and several diplomatic postings in Russia, understood the Soviets better than anyone in the U.S. government.


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To defuse the budding tensions over Korea, Kennan contacted the Soviet ambassador to the United Nations. In low-key talks behind closed doors, he assured his Russian counterpart that while Washington disputed Moscow’s arguments, the United States could understand why the Russians thought what they did. Kennan knew that negotiators, no matter how frostily professional they appeared, remained human beings subject to emotions and influenced by culture. Extending respect to a negotiating partner could soften resistance, whereas brusque talk and attempts to inflict humiliation invariably hardened opposition.

This formula worked for Kennan and his Soviet counterpart, who, acting with the approval of their respective governments, reached an understanding about limiting the conflict in Korea. Putting a lid on each side’s military commitment to its proxy spurred further talks that eventually led to an armistice in 1953. That prevented the Cold War from inadvertently becoming hot — something neither side wanted.

Kennan’s critical insight was that despite the policy chasms that separated the two sides, and the ruptured trust, neither sought a world war. He recognized the value of back-channel, informal, personal diplomacy in bridging divides. Such talks could also create opportunities to find common ground on other vital issues.

In October 1962, another deadly crisis loomed — potentially a nuclear one. The Soviets had secretly placed missiles in Cuba to forestall a feared U.S. invasion of the island and to counter American missiles close by Russia in Turkey. Discovery of the missiles in Cuba enraged American policymakers given the island nation’s proximity to the United States. Moreover, the uproar threatened to derail Democrats in the midterm elections that November.

Most of President John F. Kennedy’s advisers urged bellicose action: bombing or invading Cuba. Yet, Kennan’s friend, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Adlai Stevenson, counseled the president to take another course — diplomacy and a naval blockade. Although Kennedy personally disliked Stevenson, he recognized the good sense in these arguments.

The president undertook an exchange of personal letters with Soviet Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev. Kennedy emphasized that while he and Khrushchev could not escape disagreement on key matters, they could manage how they handled these disputes. Though Kennan didn’t advise Kennedy during the crisis, the private diplomacy the president embraced embodied the kind of hardheaded empathy for the other side that Kennan saw as so crucial, particularly in moments of tension. The personal letters translated the geostrategic crisis into human terms.

Diplomacy led to a secret trade: Kennedy pledged to remove obsolete U.S. missiles in Turkey in exchange for removal of the Soviet missiles in Cuba. The president also pledged not to invade Cuba. Reaching this settlement through negotiations — rather than by force — allowed Moscow to back down with less humiliation. Keeping the withdrawal of missiles from Turkey secret enabled Kennedy to make a concession without paying an immediate political price.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that in 1962 diplomacy saved the world. Kennedy and his advisers remained unaware that the Russians had already installed tactical nuclear missiles in Cuba. The Soviet commanders on the island had orders to use those weapons to counter a U.S. invasion. The resulting slaughter could have triggered an all-out war with the Soviet Union.

Diplomacy enabled both leaders to back away from a catastrophe that neither wanted. Chastened by the impending doom they had faced in the crisis, Kennedy and Khrushchev developed a measure of mutual trust. They negotiated a limited nuclear test ban treaty and installed a hotline ensuring that misinterpreted signals or errors would not ignite a nuclear war.

This successful diplomacy did have one long-term cost — in 1964, hard-liners in the Kremlin deposed Khrushchev, in part because of the perception he had backed down in the missile crisis. That consequence reinforced the importance of letting the opposition save face, lest a deal create political problems at home.

These episodes reinforce for policymakers today Winston S. Churchill’s reminder that “jaw jaw is better than war war.” But their lessons tell us even more. Kennan championed a particular type of diplomacy — patient talks by experienced diplomats familiar with the language, history and culture of their opponents. Negotiators needed to be able to pick up on the subtle signals and gestures from the other side as well as grasping their imperfectly articulated fears and desires. Diplomats had to enter the conference room cognizant of their opponents’ long-term resentments and bottom-line aspirations. Secrecy was necessary to make concessions more palatable and politically achievable.

That philosophy offers much in the way of counsel for addressing China and Russia. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Kennan cautioned that expanding NATO eastward could spark a conflict like the current war between Russia and Ukraine. Having suffered multiple invasions, Russia remained fearful of foreign troops and alliances on or near its border. Kennan insisted that the Russians, despite their suspicions, ideology and bluster, remained human beings susceptible to feelings of pride and humiliation. They suffered from a persistent inferiority complex and resented American success while disdaining the United States’ supposed decadence.

Such insight into the Russian worldview and fears could help guide American diplomats today. The steady escalation of U.S. and NATO military aid to Ukraine has heightened the risk of a war with Russia, but it has also given Washington and its allies leverage in Kyiv. With absolute victory by either Russia or Ukraine unlikely, both sides need to save face to avoid a potentially catastrophic outcome.

The United States and its allies can acknowledge and seek to alleviate Russian complaints about their security concerns being ignored without endorsing these claims. A Russian military withdrawal coupled with genuine autonomy for Ukraine’s eastern, Russian-speaking regions, for example, might work. An internationally supervised referendum in Crimea might also be possible. Both solutions would aim to address the Russian fears that Kennan identified decades ago — and which persist today.

Similarly, the United States has adopted a hawkish posture toward China as it scrambles to lessen American economic and technological dependence on its rival while bolstering Taiwan. A top U.S. Air Force general recently predicted in a memo to the troops under his command that the two nations could be at war within two years. In the early 1950s, similar statements by Americans of inevitable war or of preemptive war with the Soviet Union heightened perceptions of peril.

But the lesson of Kennan’s career is that this bellicose rhetoric will be far less effective than quiet, hardheaded, informed diplomacy that accounts for Chinese fears and ambitions, deals with Chinese negotiators on a human level and demonstrates respect for China’s accomplishments. The United States canceled Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to China because of the spy balloon discovered over the United States. But rescheduling that meeting can help ensure that conflicts over Taiwan and economic and technological competition do not grow into something more dangerous. There is also room for cooperation on climate change, nuclear proliferation and other common concerns that could benefit both sides and create momentum and trust necessary to make headway in the most perilous areas.

While diplomacy offers no abracadabra waving of the wand, it can offer an escape from Armageddon. Indeed, in view of the tectonic tensions building from China’s aspirations grinding against America’s predominance, diplomacy offers the only safe way forward. As Kennan liked to point out, seemingly irreconcilable positions were only the asking price. Patient bargaining can often yield a compromise not apparent at the outset, saving the world from disastrous wars that no one wants.

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