What John Kerry Can Learn From John F. Kennedy

How small concessions can help ease massive conflicts, from the Cold War to the Middle East.
Kerry mideast peace banner.jpg
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is joined by Israeli President Shimon Peres (left) and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (right) at the World Economic Forum on the Middle East and North Africa at the King Hussein Convention Centre near the Dead Sea in Jordan, on May 26, 2013. (Jim Young/Reuters)

"Some say that it is useless to speak of peace... until the leaders of the Soviet Union adopt a more enlightened attitude. I hope they do. I believe we can help them do it. But I also believe that we must reexamine our own attitudes, as individuals and as a Nation, for our attitude is as essential as theirs," said former President John F. Kennedy as he stood at American University on June 10, 1963. The rarely discussed reset of U.S.-Soviet relationship that followed Kennedy's speech has significant implications when it comes to both present-day U.S.-China relations and the restarted Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

As John Kerry attempts to revive the foundering peace process in the region, he and the Israelis and Palestinians may start following Kennedy's approach to the Soviet Union.

Kennedy's "Strategy for Peace" speech was delivered at the height of the Cold War, only eight months after the Cuban Missile Crisis had pushed the world to the brink of nuclear war. He called for a change in how the two superpowers related to one another and emphasized the need for the United States to reexamine its hostile orientation towards the Soviet Union. Going beyond just changing drastically the tone that had previously been adopted when discussing the U.S.S.R., Kennedy added a major unilateral move. He announced that the US would stop all nuclear tests in the atmosphere. Although there is no evidence that President Kennedy proceeded on the basis of a particular theory of international relations, in effect the announcement served as an experiment highly relevant to an issue debated among IR experts at the time. Most IR experts viewed negotiations as an essential tool of diplomacy. Unilateral concessions were considered a show of weakness and were often criticized that they amounted to appeasement. A few theorists (including Charles Osgood and myself) argued that limited unilateral moves would elicit similar responses and would serve to improve the context which, in turn, was necessary to allow for productive negotiations.

Here is what followed Kennedy's transformational speech: The U.S.S.R. -- in an unprecedented move -- permitted the speech to be broadcast without interruption within its territories and allowed Soviet media outlets to publish the text of the address. The next day, the U.S.S.R. withdrew its objection to Western-backed proposals to send UN observers to Yemen. Superficially, this might have seemed a completely unrelated move, but it was, in fact, one clearly aimed at what today would be called confidence-building, a unilateral one. There followed a series of tit-for-tat unilateral concessions.

Thus, the U.S. next withdrew its objection to giving the Hungarian delegation to the UN full status. Four days later, Khrushchev delivered a speech with a similarly reconciliatory tone, welcoming the Kennedy initiative. And Khrushchev announced that the production of strategic bombers had been halted. Soon thereafter, Khrushchev agreed to a U.S.-U.S.S.R. communications link. The U.S.S.R. announced it would not test nuclear weapons in the atmosphere. In late September, Kennedy suggested a possible exchange of observer posts at key points to reduce the danger of a surprise attack, the expansion of the test treaty to include underground testing, direct flights between Moscow and New York, and the opening of consulates in Leningrad and Chicago. Meanwhile, the U.S.S.R. Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko called for a NATO-Warsaw Pact non-aggression pact. In October, Kennedy called for reducing the trade barriers between the East and West, approving the sale of $250 million worth of wheat to Russia.

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Amitai Etzioni is a university professor and professor of international relations at The George Washington University. He served as a senior adviser to the Carter White House and taught at Columbia University, Harvard University, and the University of California at Berkeley. His latest book is Hot Spots: American Foreign Policy in a Post-Human-Rights World.

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