Détente

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Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

During the Cold War when both the United States and the Soviet Union possessed nuclear arsenals sufficient to destroy each other and much of the rest of the world, the late 1960s to the middle of the 1970s stands out as a time of relative cooperation between the two superpowers and among their respective blocs of nations. This period came to be known as that of détente, from the French for “relaxation” (in Russian разрядка). There was no event that precipitated the adoption of the term détente, no individual responsible for coining it, and no moment when it suddenly appeared on everyone’s lips. Rather, the word had been part of the language of diplomacy at least since the early twentieth century and was used fitfully thereafter. But, even more so than “reduction of tensions,” “thawing,” and other metaphors, it came to serve as the dominant characterization of superpower relations during the years of the Nixon-Ford and Brezhnev administrations.

Several bi- and multi-lateral agreements punctuated the period of détente. Among them, the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I) of 1972 and the 35-nation Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe leading to the so-called Helsinki Accords (1975) generally are regarded as the most significant. The latter in particular, with its mutual recognition of post-World War II borders and implicitly spheres of domination, represented a major victory against what the Kremlin labeled revanchism (from the French for “revenge,” usually motivated by ambitions to recover lost territory). But these agreements themselves need to be explained – as part of the political calculus of respective leaders, their responses to unanticipated events or those over which they did not exercise control, and third-party initiatives. From the Soviet perspective, détente represented the culmination of a policy pursued since the mid-1950s, namely, to obtain formal recognition of peaceful coexistence and military parity with the United States and the West which implied acceptance of Soviet interests in various parts of the world. Previously reluctant to acknowledge the end of Pax Americana, the United States for its part was weary of global disorder, exhausted financially and in terms of morale by the war in Vietnam, and increasingly desperate for comprehensive agreement with “the Russians.” At the same time, Nixon and his National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger complemented their pursuit of détente by seeking out regional powers (Iran, Turkey, Indonesia, Brazil) to stave off Communist or other leftist insurgency movements and then, beginning in 1971, by “playing the China card.” Neither war in the Middle East, nor the subsequent defection of Egypt to the West, nor the US-backed overthrow of the Allende government in Chile disrupted détente.

Détente coincided with and was reinforced by separate initiatives undertaken by several European powers to improve relations with the USSR. Fiat’s “deal of the century” with the Soviet Union in 1966 to upgrade the Soviet car industry, Charles De Gaulle’s determination to break free of Anglo-Saxon tutelage with respect to French foreign policy, the Ostpolitik of West German chancellor Willy Brandt, and the popular revulsion throughout the continent against US neo-colonialism in Vietnam and elsewhere all played a role in persuading Washington to enter into serious negotiations with Moscow.

But the election of Jimmy Carter as president in 1976 and the increasing incoherence of Soviet foreign policy owing to Brezhnev’s incapacitation and widening divisions in the Soviet bureaucracy slowed down and eventually reversed the momentum. By the time of the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan to prop up a client regime against US-backed rebels and the subsequent US-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, détente was over. Many historians date the coming to power of the Regan administration in 1981 as marking the definitive onset of Cold War II.

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