Perspective and empathy — according to a signature lecture recently held in the CIGI Auditorium — are two critical lessons that should be taken away from the most studied crisis in world history.

On October 25, 2012, CIGI hosted “Empathy or Death: Applying the Lessons of the Cuban Missile Crisis in the 21st Century,” a panel discussion featuring expert analysis from Philip Brenner, professor of international relations and history at American University, and Kingston Reif, director of nuclear non-proliferation at The Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. The discussion was held as part of the publication launch for The Armageddon Letters — a first-of-its-kind transmedia project led by Balsillie School of International Affairs (BSIA) professors James G. Blight and janet M. Lang.   

Fifty years after the crisis, most historians now accept that one of the most perpetuated lessons from the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962 is actually false. Formerly, it was believed that leaders needed to be uncompromising in international relations, as US President John F. Kennedy was believed to have been; but Philip Brenner argued that this is simply a myth. Kennedy, he suggested, both compromised and showed flexibility during the 13-day confrontation in 1962. And yet, despite historical facts, the myth that American tenacity and unrelenting positioning solved the Cuban missile crisis continues to be applied to looming stand-offs, such as the current situation with Iran.

While stressing the importance of perspective and arguing that it is necessary to consider three narratives (the Caribbean crisis, as experienced by the Soviet Union; the Cuban missile crisis, as experienced by the United States; and the October crisis, as experienced by Cuba) in order to understand how October 1962 unfolded, Brenner also spoke about the importance of analysing the crisis at an individual level, rather than a state or organizational level. Brenner said that individual-level analysis allows us to understand the roles of individual agents and the significance that emotions — particularly fear and empathy — play in either resolving or escalating crises. He explained that the Cuban missile crisis shows us, for example, how impactful empathy can be in resolving crises. Brenner argued that, in 1962, misperceptions between the three key parties could have been resolved through an understanding of each other’s concerns and perspectives. Critical to achieving and understanding empathy is putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, Brenner said, seeing yourself as others do, believing that your adversary wants peace, recognizing that your opponent has justified fear, acknowledging that your opponent may have reasonable anger and accepting the legitimacy of the other’s existence.

The audience also heard from Kingston Reif, who supplemented Brenner’s perspective on what the missile crisis tells us about nuclear Armageddon. He said that while just enough empathy was exhibited at the end of the crisis, its total absence in the lead-up to the standoff made crisis management necessary. Reif said that those who support maintaining the nuclear status quo nowadays argue that nuclear weapons keep us safe through deterrence; however, as Reif pointed out, the Cuban missile crisis and other close calls during and after the Cold War provide clear evidence that deterrence is not foolproof — the use of nuclear weapons is possible even when nobody wants it, he explained.

janet Lang served as moderator for the event. You can watch this event by visiting: www.cigionline.org/videos.

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