The tension around the contested Spratly Islands in the South China Sea continues to ratchet up and forces nations in the region to take sides. One of my favorite books about an earlier crisis, the Cuban Missile crisis, is Thirteen Days, which chronicled how JFK navigated his way to a peaceful resolution of the situation. My impression from the book was that we were able to walk Cuba and Russia back away from the ledge because President Kennedy was able to give Russia and Cuba room and allowed them to save face.
This will be difficult today where there isn’t such room to maneuver, where the geopolitical standoff is taking place in full view of the world and our tightly bound 24/7, interconnected networks.
But this new age brings danger as well. Such immediate transparency increases pressure on governments to respond to developments that may have been handled deliberately and privately in the past. For example, both Beijing and Washington made public statements within a day of the exposure of China’s missile deployment to Woody Island. In contrast, during the much more dangerous Cuban Missile Crisis, President Kennedy had six days to plan a response before his first public statement.
Transparency may undermine stability in a brewing confrontation, as each move and countermove is broadcast worldwide. Thus, transparency may undermine stability in a brewing confrontation, as each move and countermove is broadcast worldwide. Transforming global standoffs into spectator sports will increase public pressure on leaders, reduce the time they have to react, and may foreclose politically sensitive options for de-escalation. Such compressed timelines can only increase the odds of misperception and mistakes, as transparency cannot banish uncertainty or decision makers’ biases.
One can only hope that into this hot house cooler temperaments prevail and we have leaders that are not driven to mouth off half-baked threats.