Last week, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan held their first conversation on a newly installed prime-ministerial hotline intended to diffuse tensions between the two countries. In an e-mail interview, Haraldur Þór Egilsson, Professor at the University of Akureyri and author of “The Origins, Use and Development of Hot Line Diplomacy” (.pdf), explains the history and current use of diplomatic hotlines.
WPR: When were diplomatic hotlines first introduced, and how has their use expanded and evolved?
Haraldur Þór Egilsson: The need for reliable and swift communications between governments has always been essential. Such a need was further enhanced with the introduction of the atomic bomb. Early in the 1950s, the idea was first brought up to establish a direct communication link between the superpowers. But it was the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 that highlighted the need for such a communication tool. Such a link was established only a few weeks after the world came back from the brink of annihilation.
A hotline is by definition an emergency link between the highest echelons of the government and not to be used for “normal conduct of business,” as Dean Rusk put it. From the outset, it was only to be used in the gravest situations to avoid conflicts. This has not changed. There are and have been other kinds of direct communications links — often telephone links — but they are not hotlines by definition.
WPR: Have they ever played a determinant role in averting conflict?
Egilsson: During the Six-Day War in 1967, the U.S.-Soviet hotline proved to be an effective tool to clear up misunderstandings, clarify intentions and avoid miscalculations that otherwise could have led to escalation of the conflict.
WPR: Which countries currently employ them, and which would benefit from establishing them?
Egilsson: A hotline does not ensure peace and goodwill among states. It is intended for use in the most critical moments in international relations. That is why the U.S., Russia and China have bilateral hotlines and the Korean states have established a direct link. States with nuclear capabilities and hostile relations should have the means of swift and secure communications to ensure that a nuclear war or incident doesn’t break out by accident. That was the lasting lesson of the Cuban Missile Crisis.