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.

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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.

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.

Some points are particularly worth highlighting. For each move the U.S. made, the U.S.S.R. reciprocated and those reciprocations were proportional to the U.S.' initial actions. Hence, neither side made a disproportionate gain in the process. None of the moves were costly in monetary or any other terms; indeed, they were largely for effect -- largely symbolic. Thus, the U.S. halting of atmospheric nuclear testing came after it had conducted twice as much testing as the U.S.S.R., and experts expected that it would take at least a year to digest the data collected from the recent rounds of testing. In terms of halting strategic bomber production, the U.S.S.R. was likely to phase out production of those bombers anyhow and no verification was offered to corroborate that their production was actually stopped. In terms of East-West trade, overall trade policy did not change. Indeed the total value of the wheat ultimately sold was not $250, but only $65 million.

Overall, the unilateral-reciprocation approach led to reduced tensions and to what was called a détente instead of a reset.

Those who seek to apply this approach these days, may wish to note that, initially, both sides reacted to the unilateral steps by the other side with considerable suspicion; they viewed them as designed to mislead or lull them into complacency or military self-immolation. Only when several measures followed, one another, in rapid succession, did these measures have the predicted effect.

The lessons of what might be called the Kennedy Experiment can be applied to the Middle East. Most notably, Israelis and Palestinians have been locked in a conflict for two generations -- a hostile standoff characterized by mutual mistrust and tension. These psychological factors are not the only ones that stand in the way of finding a peaceful resolution, but they clearly stand in the way of trying to find an end to the conflict.

Thus, as John Kerry attempts to revive the foundering peace process in the region, he and the Israelis and Palestinians may start following Kennedy by trying small, largely symbolic unilateral concessions in order to de-escalate tension. Indeed, several such moves have been recently suggested. For example, Israel could put a freeze initially the construction of select settlements within Palestinian territories as well as lift some of its restrictions on goods imported into and exported from Gaza. Meanwhile the Palestinians could stop the vitriolic anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish TV series and revise the textbooks used in schools to remove offensive caricatures. Allowing more Palestinians to work in Israel -- and Palestinians stopping their call for boycotts on Israeli products -- could also help.

The Kennedy détente was interrupted when he was shot, and it took a long time before it was followed by bilateral agreement by the U.S.S.R. and the United States to reduce arms. There are no ways to guarantee that confidence building moves in the Middle East will work faster or better, but their success under Kennedy suggest that they surely should be given a chance to see what contribution they may make to ending of a conflict that has been simmering much too long.

For more, see: "The Kennedy Experiment Revisited" in Political Science Quarterly.