When shaking hands means much more

Ruminating on memorable events this year the handshake between the President of the USA and the President of Cuba comes to mind and shows that 2013 is a very different world to the Black Saturday of 27th October 1962 and the Cuban Missile Crisis. This historic moment at the already momentous occasion of Nelson Mandela’s memorial service in South Africa is one that will stay in public consciousness for years to come.

In the 2008 Presidential election a powerful TV ad tried to highlight the then Senator Obama’s youth and lack of experience.  Over the sound of an unanswered telephone came the worrying voice-over: “It’s 3am and your children are asleep.  But somewhere in the White House a phone is ringing. Who do you want answering that phone?”

That ad would never have been run in last year’s election, but it’s still an important reminder of the pressures of the job and the need to have the right man in the right place at the right time. Much has been made in recent years of the fact that there are a multitude of fiftieth anniversaries, for example cultural icons: the Beatles and James Bond. Additionally, November 2013 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of President John Kennedy (JFK). But rather surprisingly very little has been said about the fiftieth anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis last year, probably the closest that the Cold War ever came to turning into nuclear conflagration, and the first documented instance of mutually assured destruction being discussed as a determining factor in global politics – and thus a case study in high stakes negotiation.  The ultimate WATNA (worst alternative to a negotiated agreement) if you will.

The nuclear threat is still out there, even if popular wisdom has it that the main risk is no longer a government finger on the button but a fanatic with a suitcase. And of course the whole episode has been mythologised by the movies, particularly with regards to the pivotal roles of JFK and his brother, the Attorney-General, Robert (RFK).

For those who don’t remember it, the crisis was triggered by the US discovery that Soviet missile batteries, probably with nuclear capabilities, had been sited in Cuba, just 60 miles from US shores.  From a Soviet and Cuban perspective, this was a logical response both to the earlier US attempt to overthrow the Cuban regime and to the siting of an equivalent US missile force in Turkey, threatening the Soviet’s own borders.  For the US, however, the Cuban missiles were just too close for comfort.

As the historical records now show, from 15 October 1962, the President’s advisers were locked in heated debate about how to respond to the increasingly desperate warnings that the missiles were approaching launch-readiness.  Building on the reputation that would later make him the role model for the out-of-control Air Force general in Kubrick’s Doctor Strangelove, General Curtis LeMay campaigned for an immediate and devastating first strike – against the Soviet Union, not just Cuba. Calmer heads argued for cautious dialogue.

And so the world came to Saturday 27 October – Black Saturday, or “one minute to midnight”.  The US military blockade of Cuba, or “quarantine” in lawyer-speak, was already in full effect, with Soviet and US submarines and warships coming into close proximity – and even exchanging fire on a few occasions.  And then an American U-2 spy plane was shot down over Cuba, whilst another blundered into Soviet airspace.

Unlike today, diplomatic communications in the early Sixties were a slow and tortuous affair.  Letters from Khrushchev to JFK came in by telex and took hours to be decoded and passed to the President.  So called “back channels” were regularly used for communication, but by their very nature these were informal and prone to misinterpretation – one apparently secret communication from Moscow via a journalist later turned out to have been a complete misunderstanding.

But the real challenge that confronted JFK, beyond keeping his Cold War warriors from getting too heated, was what seemed like mixed messages from Moscow.  For just two days after receiving a private letter from Khrushchev, setting out workable peace proposals, JFK received reports that Khrushchev had made a belligerent speech in Moscow, threatening severe consequences unless the Cuba blockade was lifted.  So what to believe?

Now I like to believe that JFK had the insight to regard Khruschev’s belligerence as simply playing to his domestic audience and that it was a masterpiece of negotiation wisdom for him to ignore this move, and instead continue the peace process, in his case sending his brother to talk directly to the Soviet ambassador.  Recent historians suggest a more prosaic interpretation, that maybe the Executive Committee in the White House was simply paralysed by its own internal conflict.  But, whatever the intention, the message delivered by RFK proved the way forward – the Soviets withdrew their missiles, the blockade was dropped, and the US secretly agreed that, when the dust settled, they would quietly remove their missiles from Turkey (although RFK emphasised that they would deny this proposal if the Soviets leaked it).

One important outcome of the crisis was that a Hotline was established to provide a direct link between Moscow and Washington, a tangible recognition of the need for better communications between leaders even in times of crisis.

Other negotiation lessons: sometimes managing your own team is as hard as managing your opponent; there are many different ways of communicating; some messages are meant only for domestic consumption but can easily be misunderstood ; even for the most powerful leaders, some things are out of our control, but you need to manage them anyway. This is why it helps to know what’s truly important to you and to the other guy – if you can address what pushes your opponent’s buttons, maybe he won’t have to.

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