On Friday, the world's media reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin - speaking after a summit with European Union leaders in Portugal - said that U.S. plans for a missile shield with bases in Europe could precipitate a situation similar to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis:
"Analogous actions by the Soviet Union when it deployed rockets on Cuba provoked the Cuban missile crisis," he said.Thank goodness for that. Let's hope that policy-makers on both sides of the Atlantic don't really believe they're living through a historical parallel of the "thirteen days".
"For us, technologically, the situation is very similar."
He added that current tensions had not reached the pitch attained during the Cuban crisis."
There are signs that the Russians don't really think so. In a Moscow Times op-ed about President Putin's "rather audacious comparison" with the Cuban Missile Crisis, Alexander Golts opined that:
"It is clear that Moscow has no desire to reach a compromise on the missile defense issue. On the contrary, the Kremlin has a vested interest in preserving an ongoing, smoldering conflict with the United States over nuclear weapons and missile defense. Putin and his inner circle are convinced that this is the only way Russia can regain its status as a superpower and stand on equal footing with the United States - at least in the nuclear sphere."Whether or not this is true, historical analogies like President Putin's make for evocative rhetoric, which is no doubt what they're intended to do - to underline Russia's strategic concerns.
On European missile defence, President Putin is by no means the first to pull the draw card of history. Earlier this month, for instance, the New York Times reported that Tomas Pojar, the Czech Republic's Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs, said "his government's support for the defense plan is based not only on a shared worry about future missile threats but also a "moral, historical" sense of appreciation for American support for Czech democracy."
Solidarity with our friends is good, provided we don't categorize actors only in terms of their identities and so fail to take into account interests. Once we entrench ourselves - and others - into categories based on what they are, rather than how they actually act, we can make it difficult for ourselves to see the world any other way, and almost invariably the way it really is. It makes it that much harder to problem-solve.
History is a narrative we impose on a complex reality. Without extreme care, we can create views of the past that reinforce our pre-dispositions, rather than enlighten us.
And it means most historical parallels don't bear close examination. Issues related to missile defence issue in Europe are complex, long drawn out and involve multiple actors in an evolving strategic context. It's exactly the sort of situation in which historical analogies aren't going to help, because they over-simplify a fine-grained reality by ignoring some of its subtler but defining features.
Golts argued in his op-ed that, actually, "the nuclear factor plays an increasingly minor role in U.S.-Russian relations" - a gradual diminishing of importance that began soon after the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Today, Russia and the U.S. have a broad range of strategic interests potentially in common, and these are where the emphasis should be, rather than on the past. Moreover, there are a number of ongoing or unfolding international crises - whether over missile defence, Iran, North Korea, the situation in Iraq, climate change or whatever - in which open-minds and ideologically flexibility are at a premium.
We need more finer-grained - not course-grained - analysis to see our way through these challenges. Maybe historians need to remind those on all sides of the missile defence debate about what history doesn't tell us, and that any attempt to read the past into the present is fraught with risk. History is at best an uneven guide - certainly not a road-map.
"Putin warns of new missile crisis", BBC News, 26 October 2007.
Alexander Golts, "Dreaming of New Conflicts", The Moscow Times, 30 October 2007.
Associated Press, "U.S. Considering Missile Defense Delay", New York Times, 23 October 2007.
The October issue of U.S. Arms Control Association's magazine Arms Control Today focuses on issues surrounding European missile defense.
Photo of a U.S. Air Force Jupiter intermediate range ballistic missile from the Cuban Missile Crisis period courtesy of Wikipedia.