Diplomatic history

How the third world war was narrowly averted

Nuclear weapons carry a payload of cold logic: if both sides have them, neither will ever use them. But in 1962, when the Soviet Union and US squared up to one another over Cuba, that logic broke down. As this superb new book shows, the Cuban Missile Crisis was the product of miscalculation, ignorance and staggering recklessness. The main culprit was Nikita Khrushchev. His first error was to mistake the US president for a callow weakling. ‘Don’t worry,’ he assured his Cuban friends, ‘I’ll grab Kennedy by the balls.’ After their first meeting, JFK remarked that negotiations with Khrushchev had been the ‘roughest thing in my life’. The argument concerned

The true diplomat considers the future more than the present

The 17th-century diplomat Sir Henry Wotton said that an ambassador was ‘an honest man sent to lie abroad for his country’. It is a neatly punning definition. An ambassador is a messenger, who has to live (lie) abroad long enough to understand the interests, the preoccupations and the driving emotions of the people he deals with. He has to be honest if his own government and his foreign interlocutors are to trust him to manage their business effectively. He may occasionally have to be economical with the truth to further his government’s interests. If he doesn’t relish that, he can resign; few do. He may find himself disobeying his masters’