Beyond the Hotline: How Crisis Control Can Prevent Nuclear War
By William Ury
Summary written by Tanya Glaser, Conflict Research Consortium
Citation: William Ury, Beyond the Hotline: How Crisis Control Can Prevent Nuclear War, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1985).
Ury examines ways to prevent or control international crises. Although Ury was particularly concerned with ways to avoid a nuclear crisis between the Cold War superpowers, his suggestions remain relevant today.
How Crises Develop
Ury reviews five crises which brought the superpowers "uncomfortably close" to nuclear war. These crises include the 1948 Soviet blockade of Berlin, the 1961 U.S.-Soviet confrontation at Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin, the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, the 1967 Israeli war in the Middle East, and the Israeli siege of the Egyptian Third Army at the close of that war in 1973. Ury examines these cases to discover which contexts are likely to produce crises. Each of these crises arose from some trouble spot which had the potential for runaway escalation. In each case a relatively minor encounter between the great powers escalated, unintentionally, into a full crisis. Opposing nuclear powers often operate in close proximity. For instance, the American and Soviets both had military forces present in the Middle East. Close and routine proximity increases the chance of an encounter between the opposing forces, and such unintended, chance encounters can lead to a crisis.
Regional conflicts draw the attention and presence of the major nuclear powers and often set the stage for a superpower crisis. Given the general levels of tension between opposed nuclear powers, an accidental missile launch could spark a nuclear exchange. Similarly a nuclear detonation by third parties or terrorists could produce a crisis. Crises are even more likely to occur when more than one of these circumstances are present, even coincidentally.
The danger of crisis encounters is their potential to escalate out of control, and beyond anyone's intentions. Ury examines why crisis encounters get out of control. He identifies four factors which contribute to runaway escalation: high stakes, pressing time constraints, great uncertainty, and apparently limited options. Actors in a crisis may be uncertain as to the other side's intentions, or as to their likely response, or may simply lack information on the situation. The tension and time constraints of the situation often makes actors focus on simplified, and extreme, options. In addition, actors often intentionally foreclose options in order to show their commitment to some particular outcome.
Ury explains that taken together, these factors "create a warp' in human decision making that can cause seemingly rational decision making to yield an irrational outcome."[p. 36] Actors in a crisis situation are under intense stress. Ury explains that "research has shown that people under stress tend to focus on the threats facing them and overlook feelers toward negotiation. As a result, decision makers often do not take steps that might be open to them to reduce the crisis factors."[p. 40] This warped decision making can lead to a vicious cycle of escalation. Each side focuses on the threat posed by the other and responds assertively to that threat, which in turn intensifies the other's sense of threat and further increases their decision warp and their tendency to respond assertively. Perversely then, stress often causes people to act in ways which actually intensify the stress.
Crisis Control Center
Ury seeks to develop a system to prevent and control crises. He likens such a system to commonly accepted fire prevention and control systems. Fires, like crises, arise unpredictably and escalate rapidly. Yet combinations of monitoring, prevention, and rapid response have sharply limited the danger from fires.
The handling of the Cuban missile crisis illustrates three basic principles behind crisis control. First, each side should avoid unnecessarily provocative actions. This keep both the stakes and the time pressure from rising Kennedy, for example, chose the less provocative response in choosing a quarantine over an air-strike. Second, parties to a crisis should maximize mutual consultation. Communication reduces uncertainty and often creates new options. Third, it is best to prevent a crisis from arising in the first place. This may be done by anticipating and avoiding encounters which might trigger a crisis.
Ury points out that some of the basic elements of a crisis control system are already in place between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The hotline allows for direct, immediate communication. A series of agreements made during the early 1970s established procedures for dealing with unintended naval encounters between the superpowers, notification procedures for accidental missile launches, ground-rules for superpower activities in the Third World, and obliged the superpowers to consult each other in any situation which involved an above-normal risk of nuclear war. Unfortunately, some of these agreements have lapsed or been neglected. In addition, the SALT I Treaty created a joint Soviet-American Standing Consultative Commission (SCC). Through the SCC the U.S. and the USSR shared and coordinated information which both sides needed to comply with the terms of SALT.
In this book, Ury proposes creating a joint crisis control center. This center would have been jointly staffed with Americans and Soviets. In the event of a crisis, the center would perform five general tasks. First, it would act as a communications center. Staffers would act to minimize misunderstandings by exchanging data, and by jointly authenticating and analyzing information. Second, the center would implement emergency safety procedures. For example, the center would respond to violations of national airspace by coordinating and implementing identification procedures. Third, the center would serve as a problem solving resource. The center staffers would be well-informed but would not have much authority. Ury suggests that this lack of authority could allow the staffers to be more creative in exploring the available options, since the staffers could suggest options without committing either side to a course of action. Fourth, the center would also provide an expert resource. Staffers would make their accumulated expertise available to leaders in crisis. Finally, the center could serve as a public symbol of the nations' efforts to avoid war and resolve crises. Such symbols can play an important role in reassuring the public and preventing panic. The center would also perform important work during normal times. During calm periods the center staff would continue to develop and test technical procedures for use in a crisis. They would develop strategies to anticipate crises, and to identify the sorts of coincidental events which can spark unexpected crises. The center would also coordinate superpower efforts to control nuclear proliferation and to prevent nuclear terrorism. It would identify and explain suspicious events, such as troop movements. It would also provide crisis control experts for cabinet-level planning during peaceful periods.
Crisis Control Strategies
A key element of crisis control is establishing emergency safety procedures. Emergency procedures generally aim to either prevent crises, or to reduce the uncertainty as to how to proceed when a crisis does erupt. The Incidents at Sea Agreement is an example of an effective crisis prevention procedure. With the growth of the Soviet Navy in the late 1960s, encounters between American and Soviet vessels became more common. Naval captains on both sides began to engage in competitive attempts to test and disrupt the other sides' operations. Increasingly serious games of chicken developed; it was a matter of time until a full crisis resulted. In order to avert such a crisis, American and Soviet leaders crafted the Incidents at Sea Agreement. This agreement established rules of the road for naval operations. These rules were designed to minimize naval encounters, and to provide definite procedures for handling encounters. The agreement also signaled to naval officers that their competitive behavior was unwanted. Ury suggests that this model could be used to handle unintended air and land encounters also.
Regional conflicts are another source of crises. Procedures for dealing with regional conflicts could include the use of regional congresses, international mediation services, and rapid deployment peacekeeping forces (RDPF). A regional congress would be composed of the nations immediately involved in the particular conflict and other interested nations. Together, these nations could then agree on ground rules and rules of engagement for the conflict, and could work toward resolving the conflict. Congresses can be slow to react. A permanent, standing international mediation service could provide conflict resolution services on short notice. Establishing regional mediation services would also be useful.
When war is immanent, mediation services may not be enough to avert crisis. Rapid deployment peacekeeping forces are needed. An RDPF would be a neutral, standing multinational force, armed only for self- defense, which would occupy the border area between the opposing forces, thus buying time for the negotiators to avert the crisis.
Another key element of crisis control is cabinet-level talks. This element was largely absent during the Cold War. Ury notes that, "with...one exception, the highest military leaders in each nation, responsible for controlling immense military machines in constant daily contact, have not met since World War II."[p. 93] During calm periods, high level officials should consult regularly to establish and reaffirm shared understandings and crisis control institutions and procedures. They might also review past crises, and current trouble spots. Officials will also need to consult closely with their allies, to avoid the appearance of superpower collusion.
When a crisis does arise, adequate presidential briefings play a very important role in controlling the situation. The psychological pressures on a national leader during a nuclear crisis are intense and can be overwhelming. Ury suggests that during times of calm leaders should try to familiarize themselves with the stress of a crisis by reviewing previous leaders' accounts of crises and films of past crisis events. Undergoing a simulated crisis would be an excellent way of preparing leaders for the pressures of the real thing. Another important kind of preparation is the development of a general "game plan" for dealing with crises. "Such a game plan may be as simple as running through the four key elements of a crisis and asking how one could deal with each one."[p. 108] In a time of crisis it is particularly important for leaders to try to understand the other side's view of the situation. Simulations can be helpful both in developing a general game plan and familiarizing the leadership with the views of their potential opponents.
During the Cold War, crisis control was made easier by the fact that both sides strongly wanted to avoid any escalation into nuclear war, and that many crises were unintentional. Ury considers the hard case of crisis control, when the confrontation is intentional and one side seeks to win. Rather than accommodation or escalation, Ury suggests a third strategy in such cases, a strategy of stabilization. The goal of this strategy is to "persuade the leaders on the other side to revise their calculation and change their behavior, not to impose a defeat on them."[p. 118] The first step in this approach is to stalemate the situation, as for instance, the Berlin airlift stalemated the Soviet blockade of that city. The second step, taken at the same time, is to open negotiations aimed at resolving the crisis. Negotiations must give each side a way to back away from the crisis situation without losing credibility. Appealing to international principles of legitimacy can help to preserve both sides' credibility and to persuade the aggressor to change their behavior.
Implementing a Crisis Control System
Many will feel that, while the crisis control system described above is a good idea in principle, it is not feasible in practice. There are too many political blocks to instituting such a program, and nothing that private citizens could do to see it put in place. Ury, however, reminds the reader that the hotline, the direct communication link between the U.S. and the Soviet leaders, was itself invented by private citizens, and that persistent public pressure and support was largely responsible for its implementation. Ury believes that the success of the hotline initiative can be repeated with further crisis control initiatives. He notes that there is no political opposition to crisis control, merely political inertia. Because the principles of crisis control are simple and commonsensical, they appeal to the general public. Change will have to begin with many local initiatives, and with many citizens groups communicating their interest and support for crisis control measures to their congressional representatives.