The Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 is widely viewed by historians as the closest the world has ever come to nuclear war. Fifty-four years ago this autumn, we still stand aghast at how narrowly we escaped total global devastation. And while the men who made those fateful and ultimately successful moves of political diplomacy -- John F. Kennedy, his brother Robert Kennedy, Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara and Russian President Nikita Khrushchev -- have long since passed on, the horrific thought of what might have been remains alive in those of us who are left to preserve peace for our children and grandchildren.
And so the recent news that U.S. president-elect Donald Trump has spoken to Russian President Vladimir Putin about "equality, mutual respect and noninterference in the other's internal affairs" brings more questions than answers. Putin no doubt considers his illegal acquisition of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 as one of the "internal affairs" he speaks of; and make no mistake -- how the next president reacts to Putin's posturing could make or break America's standing as the major world power preserving Euro-Atlantic security.
By the time Kennedy assumed office at age 43, his views on war and conflict, and how to deal with foreign aggression, were well-established. At the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, in which he faced off with a duplicitous and belligerent Russia, he was a fully formed statesman; he had read and written extensively on history and international affairs, he had served eight years in the Senate, and he had served and been wounded as a naval officer in the Second World War. It was in no small part his skill as a statesman -- as a leader who was calm, reasoned, articulate, informed on global affairs and armed with the skill of persuasion -- that the world avoided a large-scale nuclear war.
And what can be said of Donald J. Trump as we approach his inauguration day on Jan. 20, 2017? At age 70, his worldview is both well-formed and well-known. And what we know of Donald Trump's worldview, from his own statements, is this: that he admires dictators, and that he likes to win.
Trump has repeatedly praised Saddam Hussein, Mussolini, Muammar Gaddafi, Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin for being "strong" leaders and for their ability to "get things done."
How the next president reacts to Putin's posturing could make or break America's standing as the major world power.
And despite Putin's aggressive and provocative tone in global affairs, his instigation of foreign wars, and his alleged willingness to murder both journalists and political foes when they do not do his bidding, Trump continues to excuse and justify Putin's actions.
When asked in an ABC interview earlier this year about the annexation of Crimea, Trump had this to say: "I'm going to take a look at it. But you know, the people of Crimea, from what I've heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were." The terror that this statement has inspired in Ukraine, in Europe, and in most of the Western world, cannot be overstated.
What would JFK (or any other president of the U.S., Republican or Democrat, in the last century) have said to Putin? That no European nation had annexed another European nation since the 1949 Geneva Convention, that it is completely unacceptable to do so, that as far as he and his country are concerned, Crimea is still part of Ukraine, and that the world is aware that the referendum was staged by the Kremlin after Crimea had already been invaded by Russian troops.
As if that were not enough, only eight countries other than Russia have recognized Crimea as Russian territory -- and if you are judged by the company you keep, we must judge Trump by the standards of Venezuela, North Korea and Cuba. The result is an ugly one.
Trump may be correct in implying Barack Obama could have done much more to prevent the Russian invasion of sovereign Ukrainian territory; yet instead of standing with his fellow Americans, he chooses to cheer Putin on instead. Going even further, Trump has suggested that Russian troops will not go into Ukraine when he becomes president, although it is a known fact that two whole Russian army corps (nine brigades plus five regiments) already occupy a large territory in eastern Ukraine and are involved in an ongoing daily war against Ukrainian troops -- fighting that has, incidentally, escalated substantially since November 8.
Putin's behaviour over the last three years has been nothing short of terrifying: his annexation of Crimea; his continued war in Eastern Ukraine whose death toll is approaching 10,000, and his preposterous denial of any involvement in this war; continual buzzing of NATO aircraft; hacking of U.S. email servers; financial backing of extremist politicians in Western Europe such as Marine Le Pen (not to mention other extremist parties in Austria, Czech Republic, Moldova and Hungary); and perhaps most alarmingly, warning Russian citizens to prepare for an American nuclear attack while placing his own nuclear missiles within 100 kilometres of NATO borders.
All the while, Trump publicly questions the usefulness of NATO, the glue that has held together Euro-Atlantic security since the last World War.
Ukraine and the world are right to be terrified.
The chief question for the world is this: if Vladimir Putin was so bold with Barack Obama in the White House that he felt free to plunder the sovereign territory of a neighbouring state, what will he do when he has a "friend" as U.S. president who has already put a tacit stamp of approval on the Crimean annexation? The test case could very well be Narva -- a border town in NATO-member Estonia. Newt Gingrich, potentially the next U.S. secretary of state, is already on record saying, "Estonia is in the suburbs of St. Petersburg" and that he wouldn't risk going to war over it.
If and when there is a second Cuban Missile Crisis, we need to ask ourselves how the next president of the United States will handle it. Will he react as JFK did 54 years ago, with a clear head, with reason and persuasion, with a strong aversion to the destruction of war, and by appealing to the Russian President's humanity?
Let us all hope Donald Trump will make a study of history and past presidents as he embarks on his path to become one of the most powerful leaders in the world.
In the meantime, Ukraine and the world are right to be terrified.
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