M.L. Sondhi*

International Studies, vol. 15, no. 4 October-December 1976

There is urgent need for students of International Politics to address themselves to the question as to what the use of the study of crisis management could be.  Are the criteria used in scenario-writing, war-peace games, and contingency plans a kind of fetishism evolving from the tensions and anxieties of global Powers which seek to preserve arbitrariness as the basis of their “manipulation of crisis”?  Or, alternatively, are these criteria the source of some valuable insights into problems that stand out as being pervasive in all countries (including the countries of the Third World) if contradictions between political and military aspects of policies are not to lead to a breakdown and collapse of decision-making systems?

The pretensions and claims of the literature on crisis management need to be examined strictly for their scientific validity, and the main contributions of the “theories” of crisis management have to be carefully examined to find out whether these are merely rationalizations of those who have a vested interest in preserving the present unjust structure of international relations.  The papers delivered to the seminar on ‘Crisis Management in International Politics” held some time ago by the Centre for International Politics and Organization of the School of International Studies of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, dealt with wider global problems as well as the special perceptions of the countries of the Third World (including India) which have important divergences in their practice and prescriptions in crisis situations.  The seminar helped to bring to an appropriate focus questions of peace and security as faced by newly independent Governments in countries which were not long ago victims of colonial domination and still face the problem of safeguarding themselves from hegemonial pressures.

Apart from Indian scholars specializing in the study of different crisis areas, the seminar attracted participation by Ministers and officials who were uniquely placed to give an inside view of their missions overseas in delicate negotiations and of their work on intra-Governmental committees dealing with highly  sensitive issues connected with the ultimate security of the nation. The contributions by Krishna Menon (who brought to bear his acumen and imagination in serious international initiatives taken by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru) and P.N. Haksar (who was a member of the primary group around Prime Minister Indira Gandhi during the Bangladesh crisis) brought a greater awareness of the psychological drama in the practical issues of international political action.  Both Krishna Menon and Haksar drew cautious generalizations from Indian experience, and explained that India had through its own experience “learnt” how to protect itself from outside Powers which 


*Mr. Sondhi is Associate Professor of International Politics at the School.  He was assisted by Dr. K. Mathews of the University of Delhi, an alumnus of the School, in the preparation of this report.

wanted to take advantage of India’s political, strategic, and economic problems.  Valuable comparative generalizations were provided to Indian scholars by J.L. Richardson (University of Sydney, Australia) and Kenneth Boulding (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Mich., United States).  They also pleaded the case for a close working relationship between academics of different countries to find causal links to maintain peace in the entire world, including both the developed and the developing countries.

The first session on “Theoretical Aspects of International Crises” had the following working papers: “The Relevance of Crisis Management Studies” by M.L. Sondhi; and “Theories and Models of Crisis Management” by J.L. Richardson.

There was considerable discussion on whether analysis based on American-Soviet crises with a “distinct competitive-co-operative flavour” could be regarded as adequate.  Instead of focussing on the weak spots in the functioning of the international system, these crisis theories merely led to confusion and delay in policy recommendations.  It was noted that with changes in the structure of international relations away from bipolarity the deviousness of the behaviour of the Super Powers was illustrated by their exclusive concentration on keeping the crises “localized” in the areas of the Third World.  Foreign interference had the result of reducing the room for manoeuvre in countries of the Third World and created serious obstacles to the effective control of crises.

It was felt that if extensive validity was to be claimed for a crisis theory, the “sociological imagination” must be enlarged by studying the decision-making environment over a very wide spectrum of countries.  Specific cases in point which were mentioned included crisis management by the Chinese decision-makers in averting threats of nuclear war from the United States and the diplomatic-strategic behaviour of the Indian crisis managers during the Bangladesh crisis.

The seminar expressed concern that literature which drew exclusively on American-Soviet bilateralism resulted in false premises for the study of the stability and independence of the developing countries.  It was felt that the virtues of the crisis managers of the “central nuclear balance” were greatly exaggerated. The priorities and yardsticks of the Soviets and the Americans did not provide a cornucopia for the Third World.  A participant in the seminar asked for a shift in thinking from “interventionist” crisis management to “abstentionist” crisis management.

It was suggested that since there was no accepted definition of the term “crisis management”, a less value-laden term such as crisis diplomacy might be used.  The overemphasis on techniques such as content analysis and simulation to the neglect of substantive problems was criticized.

The deficiency in the definition of a crisis as a situation with restricted “decision-time” was underlined.  Primarily crisis diplomacy requires learning how to prevent deterioration of conflicts to the point where the effects of stress come to dominate the situation.  The interpretation of the problem of rational decision-making in any number of recent cases does not suggest the criterion of stress created by severe time pressure.  The experience of the Third World was one of calculated interference and external pressure by the Great Powers.

It was pointed out that there was need for further theorization along the line of analysis of major organizational pressures against changing established policies.  Several case studies had brought home the fact that since bureaucratic bargains produced a precarious consensus, the pressure to restrict change to the barest minimum was tremendous.  It was urged that these consequences of bureaucratic politics should be recognized and a conscious effort made to overcome the relevant organizational constraints.  This was also relevant in the highly topical sphere of relations between the Super Powers and the countries of the Third World.  

The basic measures to counteract deterioration of an international crisis should also include efforts to prevent each party from being caught off balance and becoming trapped in a vicious spiral.

It was also pointed out that crisis studies should not distract attention from the basic problems connected with structural features such as the crisis in contemporary capitalism or the transformation of international communism.  The importance of correct evaluation of basic systemic and structural influences by crisis decision-makers was strongly urged.  It was pointed out that analyses would be inadequate and misleading if issues connected with these deeper processes were pushed aside.

The opinion was expressed that conflicts had to be contained in order to “buy time”, and this was one of the tasks of crisis diplomacy.  Some members of the seminar refuted this argument by saying that it had often led to “messing up of issues and confusion in conceptualization” as well as “ambiguous commitments” and “paternalistic stances” towards the demands of the Third World for ending unequal relations.


The working papers on crisis case studies were prepared by H.S. Chopra (“The Berlin Crisis of 1961”); R.L.M. Patil (“The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962”); G.P. Deshpande (“The Sino-Soviet Crisis”); Maya Rao (“Sino-Indian Relations: Crisis Mismanagement”); M.S. Agwani (“The West Asian Crisis”); P.K. Das (“The Vietnamese Crisis”) and R. Ramakrishnan (“The Pueblo Crisis of 1968”).

There was general consensus in the seminar that the Berlin crisis was primarily an “adversary crisis of the central balance” but brought about seemingly by psychosomatic disorders caused by mutual fear and distrust between the two Super Powers.  It was pointed out that the exploration of the nature of the Berlin crisis must take into account the fact that it was largely a “manufactured crisis”.  A point elaborated in the discussion was that at the time the crisis developed the Sino-Soviet schism was widening fast.  One of the participants explained that Soviet behaviour was linked to the fact that they were overly impressed by the achievements of the European Economic Community and feared its emergence as an economic Super Power.  Another view that was expressed was that the crisis resulted from the Soviet move to alleviate the internal politico-economic crisis in the German Democratic Republic.  The crisis passed through three main phases.  The first lasted from the Kennedy-Khrushchev meeting at Vienna on 3-4 June to the end of July 1961, when intense diplomatic bargaining took place; but the most dangerous period which climaxed the Berlin crisis was during its second phase, which lasted from 3 to 20 August 1961, when the German Democratic Republic decided at the prompting of the Soviet Union to seal its frontiers with West Berlin by constructing the “Berlin Wall”.  Signs of physical confrontation between the two Super Powers became acute when the German Democratic Republic clamped control over the access routes, stopped the movement of persons between East and West Berlin, and took other harsh measures.  During the final phase lasting up to the end of October 1961, the crisis continued but in a low key.  For the new Kennedy Administration in the United States this crisis was a test case for its credibility in the North Atlantic system.  The basic feature of the crisis, however, was that the stakes were higher for the Soviet Union than for the United States, i.e. to maintain the coherence of the territorial boundaries in Europe after the Second World War.  The military balance of terror was reflected in the “strategic bargaining” and “flexible response” in search of a magic formula which would eventually add weight to the respective systems of regional order in Europe.  Although the low degree of mutual confidence aggravated the situation, there were important constraints in translating US commitments to its allies in Europe.  There seemed little doubt that Soviet perceptions of risk-taking in Berlin were not in terms of black-and-white formulas.  In fact Soviet hawkishness did not rule out reasonable behaviour once excessive pressure against the German Democratic Republic was controlled by the “Berlin Wall”.

In the discussion on the Cuban missile crisis, it was stressed that the dilemmas of choice for Khrushchev and Kennedy were accentuated by the serious “loss of face” which would be the likely outcome in the tense international atmosphere if the Armageddon was to be avoided.  During the eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation Khrushchev played his cards very well in spite of the vituperation heaped on his head by the Chinese.  (Some participants also referred parenthetically to the Chinese invasion of India at the same time as the Cuban missile crisis, and surmised that there would not have been a Sino-Indian war if the Soviet Union had not been involved in the Cuban crisis.)  A section of the seminar favoured the view that the missiles installed in Cuba were of little military significance for the United States.  This view assumed that the whole episode was a piece of “bluff” on the part of the Soviets to claim that they were superior in missile power to the United States.  Other members argued that the missiles in Cuba were in fact extremely “dangerous” for the United States.  Moreover, it was important to understand that the Russians were able to secure a declaration from the United States that it would not invade Cuba.  This loss of option was significant as the United States had earlier suffered much loss of face in the Bay of Pigs incident.

Some attention was paid by the seminar to the argument that the groundwork for crisis management had been laid earlier in the Berlin crisis when the United States “accepted” the construction of the “Berlin Wall”.

The behaviour and attitudes of the chief decision-makers, Kennedy and Khrushchev, were discussed at some length.  It was accepted that it was an inescapable requirement that there should be intimate contact and fusion of key advisers with the chief decision-maker if flexibility was not to disappear in watertight sections of the administrative machinery. 

It was felt that staring Third World Governments in the face was the stark fact that in the Cuban missile crisis the Cuban Government was wholly left out:  the management of the crisis became the exclusive concern of the two Super Powers.  From the point of view of Third World Governments Super Power bilateralism could hardly be regarded as an appropriate focus of crisis management.  Such crisis management would only develop a sense of frustration in countries which were deprived of political impetus in the context of wider political-strategic issues between the Super Powers.  To avoid such a predicament states should devote greater attention to conflict avoidance.

The seminar viewed the armed conflicts on the Sino-Soviet frontier, including the well-publicized Sino-Soviet clash on the Ussuri River, as partaking of the character of an adversary crisis, much (or probably more) as any Soviet-American crisis would be.  The seminar assessed the view of the Soviet Union, which, in this context, takes the existing power distribution among states for granted and regards any challenge to this status quo (by China, for example) as a “crisis”.  A view was expressed that the Sino-Soviet crisis related not so much to conflicting views on frontiers and strategic points as to China’s demonstration of the fact that “the international distribution of power was neither final nor sacrosanct”.   There was consensus in the seminar that China’s verbal assaults on the Soviet Union (or, for that matter, on India) did not always reveal the underlying schemes by which China sought to fulfil its long-range ambitions.

There was considerable discussion on whether India had failed to use instruments for crisis management in the context of Sino-Indian relations.  It was emphasized that India would have to take a fresh look at the arrangements for obtaining information on China’s motives and capabilities in respect of India.  The seminar was inclined to the view that adequate forums for negotiation and bargaining between India and China did not exist in the Asian setting, that the 1975 conflict was like the tip of an iceberg, and that the full dimensions of the Sino-Indian problem remained concealed.  Both India and China would have to overcome many political inhibitions if their relationship was to restrain conflict between themselves in particular and in Asia generally.

It was noted that it was not so much Chinese ideological hostility to India which brought on the crisis.  India should have shown greater percipience in understanding Chinese designs as evidenced in their “cartographic errors”.  It was extremely disquieting that a strange sense of complacency had prevailed in Indian attitudes despite serious military preparations by China.  India was hamstrung by “casualness, general confusion, and a sudden sense of urgency”.  The seminar believed that India’s power and diplomatic strength could be mobilized to evolve a better relationship with China. India should not entertain naïve expectations from China in the light of its previous sad experience, but at the same time it should retain freedom of manoeuvre to accommodate mutual interests.

Next, the political considerations of the two Super Powers in the West Asian crisis were taken up for discussion.  There was anxiety on the part of both the Soviet Union and the United States to “save détente”, and thus, contrary to popular understanding, the American support for Israel was not total.  Similarly, the Soviet Union, unlike in 1967, adopted a very cautious approach.  Both the Super Powers had persuaded President Sadat of Egypt not to go in for military action.  The Soviet Union, while talking about a resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict, maintained that the consequences of the Arab-Israeli War of 1967 should be liquidated.  At the same time it discreetly urged that the security of all the states in the region (including Israel) should be guaranteed.  On his part Henry A. Kissigner stated that “détente was a fact” and did not want to jeopardize it.  It was to be observed that this was a new kind of management decision taken by the two Super Powers.  The view was expressed that Nixon’s alert was a “big hoax” because there was no question of taking extreme measures by either party.  It was indicated by some members that Israel had thought it highly improbable that the Soviet Union would do anything detrimental to them as a direct result of the détente.  This was a wrong perception.  The Arabs in this crisis were more practical, and Egypt’s objective was modest and limited.

The position of a small Asian Power like North Korea in relation to a Super Power was closely examined in the case of the Pueblo crisis of 1968, in which the naval vessels of the Korean People’s Army seized the US intelligence ship Pueblo with a crew of 83 and took it into the North Korean port of Wonson.   Pyongyang charged that the Pueblo had intruded deep into the territorial waters of North Korea and conducted espionage as a preparation for unleashing a war, and warned that the crew would be tried for criminal acts.  This led to a crisis, a direct confrontation between a Super Power, the United States, and a small Power, North Korea.  In the United States, many Congressmen demanded military action, including dispatch of a naval armada, if necessary, to secure release of the Pueblo and its crew.  The US response could be characterized as an attempt to de-fuse the situation while trying out various options.  Short of military retaliation it did try to intimidate North Korea by sending USS Enterprise 200 miles off Wonson.  Prolonged direct negotiations led to the release of 82 of the ship’s crew on 23 December 1968 and the United States signing documents of apology.  From the North Korean point of view the management of the Pueblo crisis was a symbol of success of their political cohesion.  The upshot tends to be that substantial value elements are involved in determining the orientation of a small Power which are outside the purview of narrow politico-military considerations. 

The credibility gap in Indo-US relations was noted in the context of the crisis situation in the South Asian region in 1971.  This was followed by what one of the participants described as the “worst phase of Indo-American relations”.  The American intervention on behalf of Pakistan positively ran counter to Indian interests and alienated India.  The United States seemed to lack any prognosis of the future of Bangladesh.  Nixon’s new policy emphasized improved relations among the five centres: the United States, the Soviet Union, China, Japan, and Western Europe, but did not perceive South Asia as making its contribution towards the ultimate political structure of the world.  There was a sharp divergence of views with India when Nixon refused to denounce Pakistan publicly for its atrocities in East Bengal and equated India and Pakistan in urging restraints on both countries.  The crisis in Indo-American relations had its origin in US abetment of Yahya Khan’s crimes in Bangladesh, but was aggravated by callousness and indifference to Indian feelings as a result of Sino-American rapprochement.  The seminar took the view that a promising line of approach to better Indo-US relations would lie not in aggravating the strain over minor issues but in obtaining a clearer and less ambiguous understanding of India’s present and potential importance in South Asia. India had no alternative to signing the Indo-Soviet Treaty, but it had been more confident and independent-minded since the emergence of Bangladesh and could achieve a process of readjustment with the United States if only the latter would move away from its policy of a “tilt” against New Delhi.


The final session, on “Patterns, Styles, and Techniques of Crisis Management”, had the following working papers:  “Crisis Management: Chinese Style” by K.N. Ramachandran; “Crisis Management: Indian Style” by Bhabani Sen Gupta; and “Crisis Management under UN Auspices” by Swadesh Rana.

The seminar discussed at length whether the Chinese conceptual basis of international relations gave high priority to national liberation movements and global revolution.  It was pointed out that although many of China’s goals were ambitious, its behaviour in crisis situations was infused with “pragmatism”.  Chou En-lai’s role as a decision-maker was positively evaluated in terms of his accumulated experience in the field of both Sino-Soviet and Sino-American relations.  Even the Taiwan Straits crisis of 1958 showed that the Chinese had not opted out of the bargaining processes.  This crisis escalated suddenly on 23 August 1958 with the intensification by China of artillery bombardment aimed primarily at the offshore Quemoy island group.  There were also some indications that China might attempt to occupy the offshore islands which were controlled by Taiwan with the support of the United States.  On 4 September, American determination to prevent China’s take-over of the islands was announced.  China treated the crisis as a discreet operation and avoided a military confrontation with the United States.  In spite of mutual deep distrust the two states were not averse to bilateral negotiations.

The Chinese had an ability to manipulate revolutionary rhetoric and had shown their ability to formulate guidelines for crisis management under conditions of controlled tension.

India’s experience of handling crisis events in 1962, 1965, and 1971 were taken up for extended discussion.

It was pointed out that Indian crisis decisions were more potent and effective when they were taken by a small group of decision-makers.  The difficulties faced by Parliament as a forum for dealing with crisis situations were outlined.  There was also the important question of adequate and accurate information.  A view was expressed that in 1962 Indian intelligence about Chinese troops mobilization across the border and their level of equipment was unsatisfactory and that this was what was responsible for the wrong decisions.  (It was also mentioned that a major American weakness in Vietnam was that the Americans never correctly understood the strength of the North Vietnamese social and political revolution and the ability of North Vietnamese leaders to mobilize the people in the face of the most savage bombings in history.)  After its vulnerability was exposed in 1962, India had improved its information and knowledge about the adversary, together with a realistic assessment of its own capabilities and resources, so that the decision-makers might arm themselves with a number of alternative courses of action.  In 1971 Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had maintained firm control over decision making, and there was a small group in her personal confidence from whom policy-oriented recommendations emanated.  It was stressed that India was well aware months in advance of the various possible contingencies that might arise in the subcontinent.  India was particularly aware of the tensions building up inside Pakistan.  While accepting the prospect of sweeping changes, India adopted a cautious attitude.  The decision to help the Mukti Bahini was carefully balanced with the decision not to give formal diplomatic recognition to the Government of Bangladesh.  Since political friction was mounting, contingency plans for a possible war with Pakistan were made, but at the same time support was sought from the world Powers for a peaceful solution.  It was a requirement of Indian policy that India would not launch an attack on Pakistan but would utilize the opportunity fully if Pakistan attacked India first.

It was pointed out that it was unrealistic to expect that India should not experience new threats to its security.  The mistake of 1962 had to some extent been remedied in 1965 and 1971.  For the future India must give top priority to relevant factors relating to intelligence, information, formulation of alternatives, communication, and the possibilities of compromise in place of existing antagonisms.

The seminar concluded with a discussion on whether crises were inherent in the dynamics of the international system.  The operation concepts of the United Nations in dealing with threats to international security were examined, and the limitations of the world body were emphasized.  As far as international law was concerned, it was evaluated as “being neither a panacea for all crises nor is it totally irrelevant to crisis management”.  The principles of the UN Charter and their corollaries serve as a normative apparatus for both political and judicial organs of the United Nations engaged in crisis management.  It was noted that the recent trend in international relations and law was that states showed a marked preference for negotiation as a technique of crisis management, particularly summitry.

In order to manage future crises it is necessary that by proper judgement and compromise the decision-makers of the countries of the Third World should safeguard themselves against interventionist strategies which sought to “manufacture” crises.  India and other developing countries should utilize the institutional nexus of the United Nations and at the same time retain the initiative for quick and effective negotiations to restrain and eliminate conflicts in the developing world.   

JUNE 1976

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