Graham Allison: ‘Time to Search for an Off-Ramp’ in Ukraine
Editor-in-chief of Russia in Global Affairs Fyodor Lukyanov interviewed Harvard professor Graham Allison for a program that aired in Russian on Oct. 21. Allison, an expert on the Cuban missile crisis, believes the contending parties in Ukraine have escalated far enough. The discussion is transcribed below, lightly edited for length and clarity.
Fyodor Lukyanov: On this anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis, we hear so many comparisons between then and now. So my first question is this: That crisis was an example of both recklessness and responsibility. Looking back 60 years, which of the two was more important in that episode?
Graham Allison: I would say in retrospect, the responsibility, thank goodness, outweighed the recklessness. Obviously, the decision by Khrushchev to try to sneak nuclear missiles into Cuba was reckless adventurism, as his colleagues called it afterwards. It was actually created to some extent by the conditions that Kennedy had set in motion, so it's a more complicated story, but, nonetheless, a pretty reckless act. You could even argue that Kennedy's decision to respond by confronting Khrushchev publicly—in what historians regard as the most dangerous moment in recorded history, where there was a real, serious chance this would end in nuclear war—that was pretty gutsy too. You could even say reckless. If it had ended in war, that would have been reckless; it certainly was taking risks. On the other hand, when both parties got to the end of the road, on the final, the 12th of the 13 days of crisis, each of them was looking for a way out, for the other and for themselves. And the culmination—Khrushchev's willingness to withdraw the missiles in response to an American commitment not to invade Cuba, and Kennedy's willingness to make a deal that included a secret agreement to withdraw U.S. Jupiter missiles from Turkey—both indicated a responsibility to find a way out, short of nuclear war.
FL: Let’s talk about escalation. It seems from time to time, looking at current affairs, that a protracted, serious conflict could be very dangerous. And there is an idea, at least here [in Russia], that it’s probably better to escalate—in order to achieve a culmination and thus create an atmosphere to solve [the underlying problems]. What do you think about this recipe?
GA: If we go back to the cannon of nuclear strategy and a book like Herman Kahn’s on escalation, or the general theories involved, then, obviously, if two parties are competing and one has an advantage, there's a temptation to move up to that next rung on the escalation ladder, and therefore there’s an incentive for escalation. And if, indeed, one party has a significant advantage over the other party in that dimension, this changes the facts on the ground for the competitor and may lead to a solution. So, for example, in the Cuban missile crisis, when John Kennedy decided to impose a blockade or quarantine on the island of Cuba, he was taking advantage of the fact that the U.S. had overwhelming conventional military advantage in that arena—and, therefore, that, from the perspective of the Soviet Union, it was dealing with a situation in which it really was looking at somebody that had meaningfully superior military capabilities, if it should have come to them, as one is 90 miles off of American shores, the other is 7,000 miles away from the Soviet Union. So, the proposition that, in some instances, by moving up the escalation ladder you can create a more advantageous position for your team as opposed to the other team is certainly right. Now, as one moves up the escalation ladder, the fact is that if you take one step up the ladder, but at the next step up I have an advantage, then I'm highly tempted to take that next step. So, the question is really the relative power of the parties at various steps up an escalation ladder.
FL: The situation today is not good at all. Would you recommend that the sides--I mean, first and foremost, Russia and the United States—escalate in order to deescalate afterwards?
GA: If it were up to me, if I were the adviser to the adults in both Moscow and Washington, I would say we've escalated far enough to see how bad things could become if we end up in a world where nuclear weapons are used. I think the fact that over seven decades now states have concluded that nuclear weapons are not usable as part of ordinary international relations between great nuclear powers is a significant factor in the fact that we have had seven decades without great-power war—something that's historically very anomalous. So, I believe that where we are now, both for Putin's Russia and for the Biden-led U.S. and the Western alliance, it's time to search for an off-ramp for all the parties. And I know there's some energy going into that by the governments and I wish there would be more. I think we've escalated far enough to settle at this point.
FL: You mentioned Putin and here’s something I’m very curious about: Both in the Cuban crisis and now, what is the proportion between personal and structural? Is the standoff between Moscow and Washington a product of the nature of [the countries’] development or, as many people in the U.S. believe, is it that Putin's role as an individual is very significant, as it was with Khrushchev?
GA: These are old chestnuts about the relative importance of structural factors, on the one hand, and agency or individuals and personalities, on the other. And, obviously, the answer is both. I think the structural factors in both the missile crisis and in the current U.S.-Russian standoff are the fundamentals. I would say they account for probably 70% of the variance in the activity, but I wouldn't discount the individuals and the personalities. You can think about it for yourself for Russians that you know: For Russians I've known over the many decades, the idea that Crimea would be part of a foreign country that was part of a foreign alliance, if Ukraine should have ever become part of NATO, would be totally unacceptable. So, just the structural facts there—if it were not Putin but some other leader—I think would be relatively the same. On the other hand, Putin both thinks of himself as a great historical figure and has a great set of aspirations for Russia, including, if I believe what he wrote in his long essay about Ukraine, that Ukraine is inherently a province of Russia, a part of Russia; Kyivan Rus was a part of the origin of Russia. So, I think he has a somewhat mystical conception of Ukraine that I do not think is shared by all Russians and, so, if you had a different Russian leader, you might end up with a different outcome. Similarly, it'd be interesting to try to think about how this would be playing out if we had President Trump as opposed to President Biden, and I think my perception of President Trump is that he's highly erratic, highly individualistically erratic, in which you could actually imagine him doing something extreme in either direction—which I could not imagine Biden doing, since he's a seasoned, old Cold Warrior, who's learned the lessons of the Cuban missile crisis and the rest of the Cold War and who's very careful, cautious, deliberate. In short, both personalities and structure matter.
FL: Okay. The relationship between Soviets and the U.S. back then and the relationship between Russia-the U.S. and China-the U.S. now. What is the difference?
GA: Oh, my goodness—that's a big complicated one! So, for your listeners, for your viewers, if they're like Americans—though I know Russians pay more attention to history than, unfortunately, Americans do—they probably find it hard to remember that there really was a Cold War, that it consumed four decades of the energies of both the Soviet Union and the U.S., that it was conceived by both parties as a struggle between good and evil. Each just thought it was the good and the adversary was the evil. And [they probably also find it hard to remember] that the Cold War came very close from time to time—and never more so than during the Cuban missile crisis—to ending in World War III, which, if it had occurred in 1962, would have meant the deaths of hundreds of millions of people. And in the latter stages of the Cold War, I worked for Ronald Reagan. If there had been a full-scale nuclear war at that point, you might actually have extinguished human beings' life on Earth. So, you might end up killing everybody. This is almost impossible for students in my class here at Harvard to believe. [They think] that was some bygone past; it's not today. But it still is the case today that the nuclear arsenal that Putin commands—and, similarly, the nuclear arsenal that Biden commands—is fully capable of totally destroying the other country. We still live in what strategists called a MAD world, a world of mutual assured destruction. So if we ended up in a full-scale nuclear war between Russia and the U.S. both nations could be destroyed. That reality is constant across the spectrum. In the current situation, you've had the ups and downs of the end of the Cold War, the efforts to try to build some relationship between a new Russia and the U.S. and then, ultimately, the failure of that, in what was first the circumstances that led to Crimea and then the ongoing conflict with Ukraine and now the invasion of Ukraine. So, I would say the similarity is a structural reality that both parties still have superpower nuclear arsenals, but the strength of the parties and their relative position in the world have changed pretty fundamentally.
FL: Then, my last question, referring to your famous book [“Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides's Trap?”] of five years ago: Who could be disrupted today, both between China and the U.S. and maybe now even Russia and the U.S.?
GA: At Davos this year, Klaus Schwab [executive chairman of the World Economic Forum] asked me the same question. He said, well, Graham, here you are five years on, what would Thucydides say now about the U.S.-China relationship? And I said, I think that if Thucydides were watching, he would say, in the case of U.S.-China, both parties are right on script, almost as if each was competing to show which could better exemplify the role of the rising power or the ruling power, and that he thinks they are accelerating toward what could be the grandest collision of all times, one that could be catastrophic. In the Russian story, because you don't have a rising-ruling power dynamic, it doesn't quite fit into the Thucydidean framework. But it's relevant, in the same way as if you take the analogy of World War I, another dramatic instance of a Thucydidean rivalry: You had the rise of Germany and the fear that this instilled in Great Britain, which was the ruling power, but at the same time you had a Russia that was—as it was completing the railroads that would have allowed the tsar to bring troops up to the German border—a relevant factor. In this instance, too, I think the Russian factor is a third element that doesn't ultimately disrupt the basic Thucydidean dynamic but that nonetheless is significant.
The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the individuals quoted. Photo by Harvard Kennedy School.