Detente gets a second chance as superpowers meet early in 1985
The new year of 1985 in world affairs will open with an interesting experiment in whether Moscow and Washington can achieve a second ''detente.'' No one can possibly foresee what will come of the experiment that opens on Jan. 7 in Geneva, when the foreign ministers of the two superpowers are scheduled to meet to present preliminary proposals to each other.
Everything else that happens in world affairs in 1985 will be shaped within the framework of what emerges from that meeting in Geneva. It can be the beginning of a second detente. It conceivably might even lay the groundwork for a long-term era of relatively stable coexistence between today's two superpowers.
But it could also amount to nothing more than a breathing spell in the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union that has dominated the world scene since the end of World War II.
One reason one cannot forecast the course that US-Soviet relations may take from the meeting in Geneva is that history offers little guidance. Another reason is that the first detente had such a sad and early decline. A third reason is that there is a rivalry based on conflicts of national interest that could not be entirely dissolved or resolved even with the best will on both sides.
Consider the last of these three facts first. Every Russian, whether he be Communist or anti-Communist in his personal feelings, wants Moscow to control its Western approaches. All Russians believe that their national security depends on the Soviet Army sitting on top of Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, East Germans, Romanians, and Bulgarians.
But Americans have several reasons for resenting the imposition of satellite status on those peoples of Central and Eastern Europe who would, except possibly for the Bulgarians, prefer to be truly free and independent. The US also sympathizes with the East and West Germans yearning for reunification.
There is no reconciliation of this conflict of interest. Moscow is going to hold on to its satellite fringe in East Europe as long as it has the power to do so. The US is not going to acquiesce in this imposition of Moscow control over Eastern Europe or cease to encourage hopes of ultimate freedom among Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, East Germans, etc.
The Middle East and Central Asia are a second area of conflict of interest. Moscow wants to control that neighborhood under its southern doorstep just as much as the US wants to control Central America - and for similar reasons. But the Middle East holds the world's largest pool of oil. Access to that oil is essential to the economic life of the Western industrial world.
Detente was wrecked on this conflict of interest in the Mideast-Central Asia region. Moscow chose to extend its direct control over Afghanistan, which lies next door to Iran. Iran is a major oil-producing country. The entire Western world shuddered at the implication that what Moscow did in Afghanistan might be a prelude to other moves deeper into the Middle East.
Detente was launched in 1972 by President Richard Nixon when he went first to Peking, then to Moscow. He charted out a broad plan for cooperative and even friendly coexistence with the Soviets. The idea in its wilder versions gave rise to the possibility of a sort of condominium over the world. The NATO allies took alarm. The idea of a Washington-Moscow axis running the world caused deep anxiety in London, Paris, Bonn, and many another capital.
But they need not have been deeply concerned. The heyday of detente was short lived. The blush came off the rose in 1975 when the Soviets moved into both Angola and Mozambique. They took it for granted that they had every right to seek clients and recruits among the former colonies of the West Europeans.
In Washington it is taken for granted, although seldom stated, that somehow all former colonies of the former European empires belong in the new US economic and military system. In Washington the Soviet move into Angola and Mozambique seemed an aggression against the West. In Moscow it was merely something the Soviets had a right to do in the furtherance of their national interest.
That first detente survived for another four years. SALT I was followed by SALT II. The mutual interest in putting limits around the race in nuclear weapons proved to be the strongest and longest-lived feature of the first detente. It is to be noted it is precisely the mutual interest in possible arms control that is the first and main item on the agenda at Geneva when George Shultz and Andrei Gromyko meet there on Jan. 7.
But the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 proved to be the last straw. President Jimmy Carter withdrew the SALT II treaty from the Senate when the facts came in. He had signed it. But Senate ratification had become impossible as Soviet armies fanned out through the Afghan passes.
History teaches that rivalries such as that which now prevails between the Soviet and American systems are extremely difficult to manage and control. They usually end in war and the ultimate victory of one over the other. Rome and Carthage tried both war and coexistence. In the end Rome destroyed Carthage.
In the Napoleonic era Britain and France tried both war and coexistence. In the end it was war till the final overthrow of Napoleon on the field of Waterloo.
The only clear case in history of two superpowers coexisting over a long period of rivalry without a final and decisive war was that of Rome and Parthia. They fought many a limited border war, but their power centers were too far from each other to make a decisive war rational or necessary.
The USA and the USSR live on opposite sides of the world. Their power centers are remote. Their areas of rivalry are secondary rather than vital. They could work out rules for a condition of controlled rivalry. It is possible. The main thing at this turn of the year is that they are going to try once more to find a set of rules for a detente that might last longer than the first detente.
But no one can foresee today whether the new beginning at Geneva in January will be a short-lived truce such as the Treaty of Amiens, which gave Britain and France a breathing spell in the middle of the Napoleonic wars, or a long-term coexistence.
All one can say with certainty is that the experiment will be worth watching.