How To: Cause an International Crisis


---A perilous (and paranoid) diplomatic climate
---Weapons of mass destruction
---Human error

First: Don't Read Your Mail
That way, you can remain blissfully uninformed about important events that you (and your staff) are likely to misinterpret. Case in point: One the night of January 25, 1995, Boris Yeltsin found himself dusting off the old Cold War-era nuclear command briefcase when an early warning radar station detected a missile rising out of the Norwegian Sea and heading for Russia. Several tense, finger-on-the-trigger minutes later, Yeltsin received word that the rocket, though real, was actually part of a Norwegian scientific mission to study the northern lights—a mission Moscow had been informed of months previously. Turns out, bureaucratic error had stalled the message before it could reach the folks over at the early warning defense system. Worse, this wasn't the first time simple mistakes have pushed the world close to mutually assured destruction.

Second: Put Off That Eye Appointment
Things are not always what they seem. And, if history is any indication, when what you see seems to be a Russian nuclear threat, you probably ought to take a closer look. On November 5, 1956, the American military received four disturbing security warnings: Unidentified planes were flying over Turkey, 100 Soviet fighter planes were spotted over Syria, a British bomber had been shot down over Syria, and the Soviet naval fleet was moving into an attack position. Taken together, those reports sounded like a prelude to a Russian attack on American allies and almost triggered NATO nuclear air strikes against Russia. That is, until further study revealed that the Soviet fleet was just doing routine exercises, the bomber had had a mechanical failure, and the "Soviet fighter jets" were actually a large flock of swans. The lesson here, by the way, went unlearned. Six years later, in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the United States sent several nuclear-armed jets taxiing down the runway in response to an alarm triggered after an intruder was spotted climbing the fence at a defense station in Duluth, MN. Officials had to drive out onto the tarmac and flag the planes down just in time to stop takeoff after the mysterious intruder was revealed to have been a bear.

Third: Mix Work and Play
War games can be very useful tools and certainly have their place—but that place probably ought to be somewhere where they aren't mistaken for the real thing. At 8:50 a.m. on November 9, 1979, hardened warriors at four of the U.S. military's top command centers were plunged into a blind panic when their computer systems started showing a full-scale Soviet nuclear attack on the United States. Immediately, a retaliation to end all retaliations was prepped for launch. Luckily, before we fired anything, somebody decided it might be a good idea to make sure those hostile enemy missiles actually existed and made a couple of quick calls to Pacific radar stations. The result: Nada. There wasn't so much as a cloud in the sky. Turns out, a computer tape loaded with a first strike scenario war game had been accidentally inserted into a computer that was being used for real-life surveillance.

Fourth: Don't Relax
To cause a really good international crisis, you'll need to be as edgy and paranoid as possible. In 1983, that's how the Soviet Union ended up closer to the brink of nuclear war than it had been since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. To be fair, "˜83 was a really tense year. The United States had invaded Granada, putting it within spitting distance of Cuba; a bombing that killed Americans in Beirut was being blamed on Soviet forces; and the Russkies themselves had recently mistaken a passenger airliner for a spy plane and shot it down—killing hundreds of civilians. In between the hard-line rhetoric coming from the States and their own monstrous screw up, the Soviets were expecting some kind of show down. On November 2, NATO command posts around the world began moving nuclear weapons into attack positions. The Soviets knew it was time for the annual NATO training exercise, but feared this wasn't a test. After all, they'd once seriously considered using war games as a cover for a first strike themselves. For the next nine days, the U.S.S.R. was on high alert. According to some sources, nuclear-armed jet fighters were waiting on the tarmac--engines primed and ready to go--until November 11, when NATO ended what had been just a training exercise after all.