Summer of ’61: The Berlin Crisis and Great Power Rivalry

President John F. Kennedy arrived in Vienna sixty years ago with lofty expectations for a Cold War breakthrough. But rather than alleviating U.S.-Soviet tensions as Kennedy had hoped, his conference with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev instead precipitated a summer of crisis in Berlin, the perennial flashpoint of the Cold War. Probing Kennedy’s resolve, Khrushchev reissued his ultimatum that the Western allies withdraw their military forces stationed in West Berlin within six months. Stung by Khrushchev’s imperious demand, Kennedy responded by activating 150,000 reservists, asking Congress for increased defense expenditures, and dispatching General Lucius Clay, hero of the Berlin airlift, to the divided city. While neither Kennedy nor Khrushchev judged Berlin worth the peril of superpower war, both were publicly committed to an uncompromising defense of their position. The crisis culminated in August, when East Germany’s leader Walter Ulbricht commenced construction of the Berlin Wall, encircling West Berlin. Tensions flared as American and Soviet tanks confronted one another across Berlin’s newly barricaded checkpoints. Now on the brink, Kennedy and Khrushchev decided to deescalate. Meter by meter, Soviet and American forces pulled back. Moscow accepted an American-aligned West Berlin, and Washington acquiesced to the Berlin Wall. 

Though overshadowed by the Cuban Missile Crisis of the following year, the Berlin Crisis of 1961 offers an uncomfortably pertinent example of how a low stakes dispute (Berlin was not an existential interest for Kennedy or Khrushchev) can escalate into a high stakes confrontation, even one portending nuclear war. The modern world abounds with potential Berlins: the border between Russia and the Baltic member states of NATO, unoccupied islands claimed by Japan and China, or Himalayan mountain peaks vied over by China and India. In all of these cases, seemingly minor disagreements could stoke major conflagrations involving the world’s leading militaries. Just as during the Cold War, today’s great powers are challenged to balance their interests in manifold disputes with the risks of escalation. 

The challenge is daunting, but Michael O’Hanlon’s The Senkaku Paradox: Risking Great Power War Over Small Stakes provides policymakers with a handbook for managing it. In O’Hanlon’s analysis, many U.S. security commitments could provoke conflicts disproportionate to their immediate significance, thereby presenting Washington with the thankless choice of reneging on its commitment or entering into a major war on scanty strategic grounds. As an alternative, O’Hanlon proposes a mix of diplomatic, economic and military strategies that deter and contain aggressive actions likely to trigger escalation. The danger of modest disputes becoming serious conflicts can only grow in a period of great power competition, making O’Hanlon’s work, and the example of Berlin sixty years ago, urgently timely.


The Senkaku Paradox: Risking Great Power War Over Small Stakes
Michael O’Hanlon, Director of Foreign Policy Research at the Brookings Institution 

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