Once more, Cuba is in the news. The latest reference to Fidel Castro's fortress is by Russia's President Vladimir Putin, incensed by Bush administration plans to deploy an antiballistic missile system close to his border.

Putin draws dramatic parallel with Nikita Khrushchev's 1962 effort to place Soviet offensive nuclear missiles on the island. In response, President John F. Kennedy initiated a naval blockade of Cuba and steadily ratcheted up pressure until the offending weapons were removed.

There are some very obvious differences between then and now, and Putin in response to intense criticism has backpedaled a bit on his parallel. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the United States competed literally around the globe. Western-occupied West Berlin, deep inside Soviet territory, led to great tension. There were also two very dangerous confrontations over Taiwan in 1955 and 1958, though a very skillful President Eisenhower was able to minimize public concern — and headlines.

The two superpowers avoided direct general war, but not more limited combat. Wars included Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan. Middle Eastern stakes were raised by the close American alliance with Israel and Soviet backing of a variety of Arab client states. The Cuban missile crisis, however, remains particularly frightening — then and now.

The current international system is very different from the Cold War period. The United States is often described as the sole remaining "superpower," given our combination of economic and military strength. The effectiveness of American influence is debatable, but there is no denying the massive extent of sheer physical resources available to this country. In combined quantitative terms, we have no equals in the world.

The international relations realm is considerably more fluid, and consequently more unpredictable, than during the Cold War. As 9/11 demonstrated in especially stark and bloody fashion, contemporary technology provides greatly enhanced opportunities for destruction to those willing to use such means. Thanks in particular to technology, large-scale killing is possible without large-scale support, human or physical. In this sense, traditional militaries and nation-states are far less important than in the past.

Despite contrasts with the Cold War era, Putin's Cuban missile crisis reference is eminently understandable. Above all, that confrontation demonstrated the degree to which Moscow and Washington had grown out of touch with one another. The Kennedy administration had become convinced that Khrushchev would never take such a gamble, while Kremlin leaders were certain the American president was too uncertain and weak to resist.

After the missile crisis, Kennedy's political standing rose considerably. During the following holiday season, he held an expansive informal television interview with representatives of the networks. JFK stressed in particular how far out of touch Moscow and Washington had been and that this had to be remedied. Arguably the detente policies which followed, and achieved important success during the Nixon years, were one positive consequence.

The Bush administration has demonstrated unprecedented unilateralism. Putin's Cuban analogy is probably motivated by concern over this more than about the missiles per se.


Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Wisconsin.

Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.