The Lost Art of Compromise: Sustaining American Security in the 21st Century

On the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Foreign Policy published two compelling, yet opposing, viewpoints by Leslie Gelb and Stephen Sestanovich concerning the lessons learned from those thirteen fateful days.

Gelb asserts that Kennedy’s strategic decision to keep crucial details of the Crisis settlement secret – namely, that the United States would remove its missiles in Turkey in exchange for the Soviets withdrawing their weapons from Cuba – was key to the president’s successful resolution of the crisis. In other words, by showing only half of his hand to the world, Kennedy appeared to have “won” his game of chicken with the Soviets, thus institutionalizing a mindset in American foreign policy that would prevail from that point forward.

Gelb charges that this mindset has handicapped American leaders since by removing the notion of compromise from the national security toolbox. Sestanovich argues that the importance Gelb places on compromise is misplaced, and that Kennedy over-compromised when what really “softened Khrushchev up—unhinged him, really—was the threat of U.S. military action.” Although Gelb overemphasizes Kennedy’s singular effect on future policymakers, he is right to focus on measured compromise as a useful, yet undervalued, tool of American statecraft.

Gelb points out that there is a deeply engrained viewpoint in our national psyche that characterizes “leadership” as never backing down in the face of constant adversity. But he is mistaken to assign so much credit to President Kennedy for implanting this mentality into the minds of American policymakers after October 1962. More likely, American leaders, including Kennedy, have taken their cues from uncompromising styles of leadership dating back to George Washington, and living on through Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. In other words, this winner-take-all mentality has dominated the way our leaders have thought about national security since the dawn of the Republic, and it continues to dominate today.

Just recently in the final presidential debate, both Governor Romney and President Obama sought to appear uncompromising on key national security issues. Mr. Romney claimed, “One of the challenges we've had with Iran is that they have looked at this administration, and felt that the administration was not as strong as it needed to be. I think they saw weakness where they had expected to find American strength.”

Responding to these charges, President Obama stated that he would not take any option off the table. However, when asked directly by CBS News Washington Correspondent Bob Schieffer about recent reports of U.S.-led, multilateral negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program that are supposedly in the works, the president stated unequivocally that those reports are untrue. Obama further stated that his administration would not “allow Iran to perpetually engage in negotiations that lead nowhere.”

So even as “crippling sanctions,” tough multilateral pressure, and threats of military action fail to dissuade Tehran, political negotiation itself is still characterized as an unacceptable concession. Perhaps things would be different today if President Kennedy had not scored such a victory in 1962.

Yet, Kennedy did not succeed “without giving an inch,” as Gelb says, and he did not panic and pay a “higher price” than he should have, as Sestanovich intimates. What made Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis so successful was that he appeared to do these two things to different audiences simultaneously. Kennedy understood that ensuring the Soviets fully pulled out of Cuba was worth the national security price of removing obsolete missiles in Turkey. But, as a skilled politician and leader of the free world, he also realized the immense power that perception plays in both domestic politics and foreign policy. By agreeing to keep the quid pro quo silent, the Soviets handed Kennedy the total victory he needed to both ensure U.S. security, and appear strong in the U.S. and abroad.

The problem with Kennedy’s success in the Crisis is that it holds our leaders, as Kennedy himself was held, to an impossibly high standard of absolute victory. This mindset once served our country well, and may have even been necessary at times. After all, we emerged from the twentieth century victorious over imperialism, fascism, and communism. However, if we wish to avoid being included amongst the fallen great powers of old, the U.S. needs to adapt with the times. We can no longer afford to think that getting one hundred percent of what we want is possible, or even desirable, for our country and for the world.

Warren Ryan is a graduate student at Georgetown University.