Politics: Whatever Happened to Detente?

The 1970s were a roller-coaster decade.

They opened with the high point of Western optimism about the Soviet Union, East-West relations, and taming the nuclear Frankenstein. They closed with the nadir of American gloom about Soviet ossification, expansionism, and ''window of opportunity.''

Not that everyone agreed, of course. There were - and are - almost as many interpretations of Soviet foreign policy in the West as there are experts on the Soviet Union. But in the 1970s there was an operative consensus, called detente. It failed, according to its detractors. It was never given its full chance, according to its advocates.

The detente executed and articulated by US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was an attempt to cope with an adversary superpower that was on the rise militarily while on the decline economically and ideologically.

The hope was that the Soviet Union, having achieved relative prosperity and approximate nuclear parity with the United States, might finally mature from a revolutionary into a status quo power. That is, in setting foreign policy priorities, the Kremlin might come to the conscious calculation that it had more to gain from preserving its attained position than from trying to broaden its world influence by military means.

The obverse fear was that this still young imperial power, unless it was tied into a web of cooperation with the West (with fairly clear limits on how far each side could press the other), might increasingly meddle militarily in the turbulent third world.

It was in this context that the US attempted to encourage Soviet restraint abroad by a system of incentives (predictability in the East-West contest, sales of technology and grain, and credits on a scale amounting to investment) and disincentives (military aid for local resistance to any Soviet encroachment, plus the threat of an informal Western alliance with China if Moscow misbehaved).

Partly logically, partly illogically, the 1972 Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) became the cornerstone of detente.

Until then, even without any comprehensive theory labeled ''detente'' and without any signed agreement, the two superpowers had acted with relative restraint in any regional conflicts that ran the risk of escalation to nuclear confrontation. However, both of the superpower scorpions imprisoned in the nuclear bottle - as Robert Oppenheimer's famous metaphor put it - feared that groping caution might not keep the two scorpions apart forever. They therefore sought to codify their caution, to set mutual limits on their rivalry both in weapons and in politics, to make manageable the most dangerous elements of their continuing rivalry.

For the US the prerequisites to such an agreement involved abandonment of the goal of rollback of the Soviet East European empire; recognition of the fact that the Pax Americana of the immediate postwar years was a temporary historical quirk; and development of technological means of verifying Soviet compliance with any nuclear weapons restrictions.

The first step was signaled by the Eisenhower-Dulles decision not to intervene when the Hungarians revolted against Moscow and were crushed in 1956.

The second could be dated, in the nuclear sphere, from the early 1960s, when Defense Secretary Robert McNamara put a ceiling on the number of America's nuclear missiles (after first building an impressive missile lead over the Soviet Union). It could be dated in the conventional sphere from the early 1970 s' cutting of American losses in Vietnam.

Implicitly, both of these steps acknowledged that the period was ending in which the US was the only real superpower, with the sole global military reach of balanced land, sea, and air forces, and with the kind of economic might in a war-ravaged world that could single-handedly guide the international trade and financial systems and the reconstruction of Europe and Japan.

The realization of limits on American power - and the subsequent acceptance of rough Soviet-American nuclear equality in SALT I - did not come easily to a self-confident nation that had so recently enjoyed a monopoly on the A-bomb, a lead on the H-bomb, and a virtual monopoly on nuclear delivery systems in the pre-missile era. Come it did, however.

The third, technological, prerequisite to arms control on the US side fell into place in the late 1960s, with the orbiting of spy satellites capable of monitoring Soviet missiles.

For the Soviet Union, the prerequisites or corollaries to arms control involved abandonment of the notions of inevitable war with capitalists and of possible victory in any nuclear war, as well as surrender of the goal of military superiority over the US.

The first step was taken with Nikita S. Khrushchev's proclamation of the ''noninevitability'' of war in the 1950s, and the transformation of Lenin's fleeting ''peaceful cohabitation'' into an indefinite period of ''peaceful coexistence of states with different social systems.''

The second prerequisite began to be met when Khrushchev refused to use the brief Soviet post-Sputnik missile ascendancy to seize the Quemoy and Matsu Shan Islands for Mao Tse-tung. To Chinese taunts Khrushchev warned that war would cause all -- and not just capitalist -- participants ''unprecedented sacrifice, devastation, and suffering.'' The US and the Soviet Union, he added, should not come at each other like ''two cocks ready to lay hold and peck each other.''

More formally, Leonid I. Brezhnev's delegation to the SALT I talks said the same thing at the first negotiating session in 1969, stating that ''war between our two countries would be disastrous for both sides. And it would be tantamount to suicide for the ones who decided to start such a war.''

The third corollary was accepted by the Russians in January 1977, when Mr. Brezhnev first denied explicitly and publicly that the Soviet Union sought military superiority.

On both sides these new assumptions proved to be controversial, from the 1970 s on up to the present day. The current Reagan Defense Department call to respond to any Soviet troublemaking, not in the trouble spot itself, but at some other point of weakness in the Soviet empire carries strong hints of American meddling in Eastern Europe after all.

Similarly, the Reagan campaign platform of military superiority over the Soviet Union suggested a nostalgia for the 1950s era of Pax Americana. So does the Defense Department's continuing wish to build a position of strength before getting down to the real bargaining in strategic arms talks - and to outspend Moscow in military procurements into a real Soviet economic crisis.

In a pattern that emulated the evolution of almost every American president in the nuclear age, however, President Reagan shifted away from the uncompromising line of his election campaign, once he had the awesome responsibility of the finger on the button. After 16 months in office he overruled his Defense Department to resume strategic-arms-control talks on much the same premises as his predecessors. Significantly, on the eve of the opening of the SALT - rechristened START, or Strategic Arms Reduction Talks - Reagan even pledged formally not to undercut the very SALT II treaty he had branded, while out of office, as ''fatally flawed.''

On the Soviet side, too, there has been resistance by ideologues and some military commanders to the nuclear age's undermining of Leninist verities. The status quo ''stability'' imposed on relations between potentially mortal enemies contradicts the whole dialectical model of a fluid ''world correlation of forces'' which can find no stability until the final worldwide triumph of the communist system. The concept that there can be no real winners in a nuclear exchange violates the fundamental precept of the inevitable historical victory of the communist camp.

After some squabbling, the ideologues squared this circle by proclaiming that detente itself would advance the ''world correlation of forces'' in a direction favorable to Moscow.

The new nuclear parity would allow ''a more hospitable environment for success of the Soviet global offensive, short of war with the United States and particularly short of nuclear disaster'' (commentator Alexander Bovin in the Communist Party journal Kommunist, as paraphrased by Johns Hopkins University Prof. Dimitri Simes.)

To Western hard-liners, this new Soviet ideological formulation seemed to be a very accurate description of the detente they opposed: Detente was shifting the ''world correlation of forces'' in Moscow's favor; it was lulling the West into a misplaced conception of amity; it was, through the Western fear of escalation from local to nuclear war that was unreciprocated by the Russians, paralyzing Western resistance to local Soviet interventions.

Some top Soviet commanders didn't hold such a rosy view of Soviet prospects under detente and nuclear parity.

They resisted Brezhnev's stated goal (1971) of equal security for both superpowers, his warning (1974) about nuclear devastation for both sides, and that explicit 1977 rejection of a goal of Soviet superiority. By 1977 the generals, too, fell into line, however, echoing these sentiments in their own public declarations.

At this point there is considerable uncertainty about the overall political environment surrounding the new START talks. And the confusion is only compounded by the superpowers' failure ever to resolve, even in the heyday of detente, such issues as ''linkage,'' military doctrine, and reasonable force postures.

Initially, the US and the Soviet Union thought they had worked out a mutual political understanding with their 1972 vow accompanying SALT I that neither side would seek ''unilateral advantage at the expense of the other, directly or indirectly.'' This turned out to mean very different things to Washington and Moscow, however, and became the subject of endless recriminations.

For the US it meant roughly that the Soviet Union, though it might supply arms to ''national liberation movements'' in the third world, wouldn't introduce into local fights its own or proxy troops in numbers that would sharply alter the local balance. For Moscow it meant that the Soviet superpower should be accorded equal status with the American superpower around the world - while Soviet promotion of national liberation movements around the world would proceed as usual.

The American hope was shattered in the mid-1970s with the Soviet ferrying of 12,000 to 15,000 Cuban combat troops into Angola to give victory in the post-colonial civil war there to the minority Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) faction. (The cachet of legitimacy bestowed on the MPLA by the intervention of South African troops against it helped obscure this event, but the fact remained that the Cuban troops were decisive in the fighting.)

Angola was shortly followed by the Soviet introduction into Ethiopia of three Soviet generals, 20,000 Cuban troops, and $1 billion worth of tanks, armored personnel carriers, artillery, and other military equipment. This was approximately double the amount of America's military input in that country in the previous quarter century.

In Moscow's interpretation, this first-ever turning of the tide in Africa by Soviet rather than Western-sponsored military force was the natural adjunct to full superpower status. In Kissinger's view the Soviet entry into a region where Moscow had little discernible national interest suggested instead a kind of automatic aggrandizement for aggrandizement's sake. It showed precious little Kremlin willingness to set rational priorities in Soviet foreign policy and subordinate marginal Soviet gains in the world to the shoring up of the wary cooperation forced on the superpowers by the nuclear era.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 provided an even sharper contrast in interpretations. For Moscow the action was a natural ensuring of Soviet security in a border region where political instruments were failing.

In any case, the advantages of detente had proved to be more meager than the Kremlin had hoped. The Soviet Union - thanks to US Senate linkage of most-favored-nation tariff status to the domestic Soviet issue of Jewish emigration - never won the full trade benefits the Nixon administration had promised. US acknowledgment of Soviet nuclear parity turned out not to mean quite the Soviet-American condominium the Kremlin had in mind. Nor did it give the Kremlin the hope for free hand, as Columbia University Prof. Seweryn Bialer has put it, in exploring all targets of opportunity under the umbrella of detente.

The United States was not blocked from full normalization of relations with China. The US further turned out to be unreliable on SALT, and was stalling on ratifying the signed treaty even before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. And the US kept using the Helsinki agreement on European security to nag the Soviet Union about the domestic issue of human rights.

At the same time, a US preoccupied with its hostages in Iran and still hobbled by memories of Vietnam was clearly not going to react vigorously to any Soviet military adventure in far-off Afghanistan.

All in all, then, the Soviet Union had little to lose in the way of incentives and little to fear in the way of disincentives. As Dimitri Simes put it, the US was ''demonstrating hostility from a position of weakness'' rather than ''being generous to the USSR from a position of strength.''

For their part, Western policymakers rejected this gloss on the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Instead, they were shocked by the Kremlin's casual breaking of the Soviet Union's own cautious postwar rules. This marked the first time the Soviet Union ever sent its own army to occupy territory outside the area of Soviet hegemony wrested in the wake of World War II. This suggested a dangerously lowered threshold of risk-taking and increase in assertiveness in Soviet actions abroad.

To the West, the Kremlin definition of security as demonstrated in Afghanistan again seemed to be so all-encompassing as to require the insecurity of all Soviet neighbors. Again, the witticism was resurrected that the Soviet Union has such terrible defense problems because it's the only nation in the world surrounded by hostile communist lands.

Whatever the judgment, Afghanistan sounded the final death knell for Senate ratification of SALT II - and may have been a factor in the election of Ronald Reagan to the White House. The principle was firmly established in Washington of ''linkage,'' of general Soviet behavior and arms control talks - with the latter regarded more as a reward to the Soviet Union for good conduct than as a joint attempt at survival.

Military doctrine is a more abstruse issue than political linkage. Briefly, the Western debate about Soviet military doctrine has centered on the concepts of nuclear ''war fighting'' and ''war winning'' that Soviet military manuals have consistently adhered to. (After the debate about this issue started in the US, Soviet commanders generally avoided public mention of the topic. It was, however, reaffirmed in Pravda in July of 1981, when Marshal Nikolai V. Ogarkov, chief of the general staff, bluntly asserted that if deterrence failed, the Soviet Union could conduct and win a major war.)

The Western debate about Soviet military attitudes has also touched on such issues as the extraordinary Soviet emphasis on surprise and on the role of the offensive in battle operations, and preparations for civil defense.

Worst-case analysts in the West interpret Soviet military doctrine as refusal to restrict the role of nuclear weapons to war prevention, and a Soviet intention to use nuclear weapons virtually routinely in war. They further see in Soviet doctrine an implicit threat of some surprise nuclear attack if the East-West balance gets tipped to Soviet advantage (and if domination over the West cannot be achieved through a simple failure of Western will).

More politically oriented Western analysts, on the other hand, do not see an inherent conflict between ''deterrence'' and ''war fighting,'' and regard Soviet nuclear war-fighting capability as intended primarily to give credibility to Soviet nuclear deterrence. (The same feud rages about Western nuclear intentions within the Western security establishment, if in somewhat different terms.)

The politically oriented analysts also warn against overinterpreting Soviet military doctrine. Military manuals and journals, they point out, give few trustworthy clues about Soviet thinking about the role of war in foreign policy or the use of nuclear weapons in war, peace, and diplomacy. Their scope is much narrower, restricted to providing generalized guidelines about the nature of future war, should war come.

On force postures, the Soviet evaluation of US nuclear capability seems to be that the US has maintained a perpetual advantage over the Soviet Union (with the possible exception of a few post-Sputnik years.) To be sure, Washington formally recognized Moscow as a nuclear equal in SALT I. But before the treaty ink was dry, the US was already exploiting its technological innovation of multiple, independently targetable warheads on single missiles (MIRVs) to surge far ahead of the Soviet Union in the key figure of total warheads.

The Soviet Union has since perfected its own MIRVs and has greatly narrowed the warhead gap. But Soviet suspicion that American military technology will always be one step ahead of Soviet technology (as has in fact generally been the case) reinforces the Soviet perception of a constant American nuclear advantage.

In the obverse Western view of the Soviet force posture, worst-case analysts descry an American ''window of vulnerability'' and Soviet ''window of opportunity'' in the balance of strategic land-based missiles. They point out that an all-out, bolt-out-of-the-blue Soviet attack could destroy up to 90 percent of America's silo-based missiles in the early 1980s and leave the US with an inferior balance of remaining warheads for any retaliatory strike.

This fear featured prominently in President Reagan's election campaign. Since coming into office, however, the Reagan administration has played down this concern. And in its own military planning, the administration seems tacitly to have accepted the counterargument that deterrence still holds after all. (That is, cutting President Carter's MX program in half and basing the MX initially in vulnerable fixed silos makes sense only if it's true that the existing American bombs and submarine missiles could still wreak unacceptable retaliation on the Soviet Union even without the land-based missiles.)

For the West the more worrisome aspect of the Soviet force posture, then, is the steady Soviet military buildup in Europe, both in conventional firepower and mobility and, in the past few years, in an unambiguous regional nuclear superiority. This buildup - to a present almost 3-to-1 tank superiority and almost 4-to-1 artillery superiority in north central Europe, plus a monopoly in land-based long-range theater nuclear missiles - seems far in excess of Soviet-bloc defense needs.

The relationship of this European buildup to the superpower strategic balance is an intimate one: The real strategic parity that has now been established calls into question that part of European deterrence that is based on America's willingness to use its own intercontinental weapons in a last-resort defense of Europe.

In the 1980s all of these factors are coming into new focus with the Soviet succession that is shortly to replace President Brezhnev's 18-year rule. If past succession periods are any guide, there will probably be a three- to five-year hiatus before a single new leader establishes his dominance in the Kremlin. And if past history is any guide, this hiatus will be a period of particular Soviet caution in foreign policy.

Given the stagnation of Soviet politics and society under Mr. Brezhnev, there is likely to be considerable ferment on the domestic scene - and possibly also in foreign policy - once the new leader is firmly in place. At that point the Soviet leadership will have to decide how to solve the nation's severe problems of empire, economy, and ideology.

One way might be to loosen domestic controls, allow more individual initiative, reward that initiative with more consumer goods - and lubricate this process by increasing trade with the West, deemphasized confrontation with the West, and diversion of scarce resources from the military to the economic sector.

A contrary way might be to seek domestic legitimacy by a display of force abroad that could rouse patriotic fervor and drown out domestic complaints.

Even before that fundamental choice comes before the settled leadership, however, the transition leadership will have to face the most fundamental choice of all: what to do about nuclear weapons and arms control. And whatever the demands of nuclear survival, it will be very difficult indeed for any contender to risk accusations of weakness by making the kinds of concessions that will be required for an equitable arms control agreement.

For its part the West will have to decide how it might best influence - even if only marginally - the Kremlin perception of choices and the choices themselves in the succession period.

One school of thought, eloquently articulated by the Reagan Defense Department and by Richard Pipes, a National Security Council Soviet expert, holds that only unremitting Western toughness and exploitation of Soviet economic weakness will deflect the Kremlin from military adventures abroad.

A second school of thought, apparently supported by pragmatists in the State Department but not clearly articulated by them, holds that Western bellicosity simply fuels Soviet bellicosity, and that only some 1980s package of incentives as well as disincentives might help nudge the Kremlin toward more moderation.

In this period the role of nuclear arms control will be a peculiar one. It can no longer be the cornerstone of detente. That was the kiss of death for SALT II once detente broke down - and in any case no reconstruction of the hopes of the 1970s detente seems possible today.

Yet at the same time arms control has never developed any other convincing rationale for public or political elites. It has never been salable (either in the US or in the Soviet Union) on security merits alone. It has required far too radical constraints on sovereign decisions about military defense to be acceptable to centuries-old conventional wisdom.

As a result, arms control at this point floats in a political vacuum.

The urgent demand on Washington today is to figure out just what the political environment for nuclear survival should be - that is, how best to cope with a superpower adversary that is still on the rise militarily, on the decline economically and ideologically, and entering an uncertain period politically.

The urgent demand on Moscow today is to figure out just what the political environment for nuclear survival should be - that is, how best to cope with a superpower adversary that is once again on the rise militarily, is exuberant technologically, and erratic politically.

The 1980s, too, may well turn out to be a roller-coaster decade.

Next: The dangers of nuclear weapons Suggested further reading:

Soviet Strategy, by J. Baylis and G. Segal. London: Croomhelm. 1981.

''The Harsh Decade: Soviet Politics in the 1980s,'' by Seweryn Bialer. Foreign Affairs, Vol. 59, No. 5, summer 1981.

Stalin's Successors, Leadership, Stability, and Change in the Soviet Union, by Seweryn Bialer. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. 1980.

American and Soviet Military Trends Since the Cuban Missile Crisis, by John Collins. Washington: Georgetown University. 1978.

Commissars, Commanders, and Civilian Authority: the Structure of Soviet Military Politics, by Timothy J. Colton. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. 1979.

Soviet Strategy for Nuclear War, by Joseph J. Douglass Jr. and Amoretta M. Hoeber. Stanford: Hoover Institution Press. 1979.

Soviet Military Power and Performance, John Erickson and E. J. Fechtwanger, eds. Hamden, Conn.: Archon. 1979.

Soviet Military Thinking, Derek Leebaert, ed. London: George Allen & Unwin. 1981.

The Two-edged Sword: Armed Force in the Modern World, by Laurence Martin ( 1981 Reith Lectures). London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson. 1982.

The East-West Strategic Balance, by T. B. Millar. London: George Allen & Unwin. 1981.

''Why the Soviet Union Thinks It Could Fight and Win a Nuclear War,'' by Richard Pipes. Commentary. July 1977.

From the Yaroslavsky Station, by Elizabeth Pond. New York: Universe. 1981.

''The Death of Detente?'' International Security, Vol. 5, No. 1, summer 1980.

''Deterrence and Coercion in Soviet Policy,'' by Dimitri Simes. International Security, Vol. 5, No. 3, winter 1980-81.

The People, the Army, the Commander, by M. P. Skirdo. Washington: US Air Force translation. Undated.

The Soviet Strategic Culture: Implications for Limited Nuclear Operations, R- 2154-AF, by Jack Snyder. Santa Monica: Rand. September 1977.

Soviet Military Strategy, by V. D. Sokolovsky (English translation). New York: Crane Russak. 1975.

Stalin's American Policy: From Entente to Detente to Cold War, by William Taubman. New York: Norton. 1982.

''President Brezhnev and the Soviet Union's Changing Security Policy,'' US foreign broadcast information service, analysis report. May 25, 1979.

The Soviet View of War Peace and Neutrality, by P. H. Vigor. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. 1975.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Politics: Whatever Happened to Detente?
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today