Big powers’ game

Published March 26, 2022
The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai.
The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai.

THE Ukraine conflict is, at its core, a superpower affair. In the first crucial test of his presidency, President Joe Biden has failed with sad consequences.

During the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, Dean Acheson advocated strikes on Russian missiles in Cuba. Thirty years later, the Russians revealed that their missiles had nuclear warheads. On at least two occasions American commanders sent memoranda to the president and defence secretary, urging the use of nuclear weapons if China helped North Vietnam.

Secretary of defence Robert McNamara wrote, “The president and I were shocked by the almost cavalier way in which the chiefs and their associates … accepted the risk of the possible use of nuclear weapons. Apart from the moral issues raised by nuclear strikes, initiating such action against a nuclear-equipped opponent is almost surely an act of suicide. … [E]ven a low risk of a catastrophic event must be avoided. That lesson had not been learned in 1964. I fear neither our nation nor the world has fully learned it to this day.”

Why not have talks on Ukraine in Turkey?

McNamara wrote that three years later, on May 20, 1967, the chiefs “sent me another memo repeating their view that invasions of North Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia might become necessary involving … quite possibly the use of nuclear weapons in southern China”.

Last month, Biden showed restraint towards Russian President Vladimir Putin’s warning that his country’s “deterrence forces” would be transferred to a “special mode of combat duty”. But the threat should not translate into inaction and ruin Ukraine. Alternatives do exist.

Was the US really unprepared for this? Were all the studies and debates in academia and media on deterrence a wasteful game? The brilliant Labour MP Denis Healey advocated a limited war in his seminal article ‘The Bomb that Didn’t Go Off’ as far back as July 1955.

Henry A. Kissinger’s work Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy shook the nation. He wrote: “There would seem to be no sense in seeking to escape a limited defeat through bringing on the cataclysm of an all-out war, particularly if all-out war threatens a calamity far transcending the penalties of losing a limited war. It simply does not follow that because one side stands to lose from a limited war; it could gain from an all-out war.”

The debate did not ignore the possibility of a “mad” or “reckless” leader. Neither did it ignore the fact that no such leader has the capacity to act alone. President Biden’s rest­raint is commendable. Not so his failure to craft an appropriate military and diplomatic response backed by appropriate limited threat of force, directly and through allies.

Early in the day, he suggested a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. But he did not press or pursue it — a summit at Geneva or Vienna backed by concrete proposals which included Ukraine’s exclusion from Nato and left room for consideration of Russian proposals. But now he has gone to the nadir. He has abused Russia’s president as a “war criminal”. Such indulgence is unforgivable in a head of state. Just before World War II, Hitler’s foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop told the British ambassador Sir Nevile Henderson “So you see, Sir Nevile Henderson, the situation is damned serious.” This was too much for his guest who rose from his seat and exclaimed angrily, “You have just said ‘damned’. That is not the language of a statesman in so serious a situation.”

Why not propose a conference in Istanbul which would include, besides the host Turkey, all the permanent members of the Security Council plus the UN chief? Ukraine’s Nato membership ruled out, it could consider formulae on its neutrality without hurting its pride. The contested regions can receive guaranteed autonomy within Ukraine.

In July 1962, members of the Inter­national Conference on the Settlement of the Laotian Question signed a declaration on the neutrality of Laos. This declaration incorporated, as an integral part, a statement of neutrality by the royal government of Laos, and together the two instruments were regarded as constituting an international agreement. In their declaration, 13 states declared that they “recognise and will respect and observe in every way the sovereignty, independence, neutrality, unity, and territorial integrity of the Kingdom of Laos” and appealed to other states to do the same.

In addition, they undertook, “in the event of a violation or threat of violation, of the sovereignty, independence, neutrality, unity or territorial integrity of … Laos, to consult jointly with the Royal Government of Laos and among themselves … to consider measures which might prove to be necessary to ensure the observance of these principles and the other provisions of the … declaration”.

This model can be applied to Afghanistan. One hopes President Erdogan will take to lead here.

The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai.

Published in Dawn, March 26th, 2022

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