Definition, causes, events, limitations, end of detente

  • Created by: georgie
  • Created on: 15-04-10 13:08


Détente was a more permanent relaxation in tension and an improvement in relations between the USA and the USSR in the period between the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Detente was characterised by an increase in trade links, treaties on arms limitations and agreements on human rights as set out in “Basket Three” of the Helsinki Accords.

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The USA had several reasons for pursing detente with the USSR in the 1970s. There was a desire to avoid a nuclear war, as by 1969, both superpowers had enough nuclear missiles to destroy the other in the event of a first strike. In terms of conventional weapons, the Warsaw Pact forces outnumbered the NATO forces in Europe. It was hoped that this balance of power would act as a deterrent, but the pressure to forge ahead in the arms race constantly threatened to disrupt this balance. The necessity of reducing the risk of future nuclear war pushed both East and West towards détente.

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Causes continued

Detente was also pursed as a matter of economic necessity. The Vietnam War had lead to inflation and a budget deficit (and a reduction in America’s international status). This coupled with the impacts of the oil crisis in 1973 meant that the Americans could not afford to participate in an arms race (the rise in oil prices led to a mood of panic and uncertainty which manifested itself in panic buying, a rise in the prices of goods and shortages). Other reasons for the need to cut military spending were the government’s desire to reduce the influence of the military- industrial complex, and to release money to be spent on social issues, such as the widening gap between rich and poor.

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Causes continued

The increased power of Europe also pushed America towards a policy of detente with the Soviet Union in the 1970s, as it threatened America’s economic and political interests. The US had to fall into line with Brandt’s policy of Ostpolitik to prevent them from becoming isolated in Europe. Ostpolitik involved improving relations with East Germany, and Eastern Europe as a whole. The policy produced key agreements such as the Basic Treaty which abandoned the Hallstein Doctrine, and the Warsaw Treaty which recognised the borders of post-war Europe.

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Causes continued

The pragmatism of Nixon and Kissinger also led to the adoption of a policy of Detente to manage the USA’s Cold War diplomacy with the USSR in the 1970s. The introduction of realpolitik led to the downplaying of ideological differences and helped to make detente possible. As Nixon and Kissinger were known to be right wing and anti-communist, they maintained public support for the policy.

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Arms Limitation

One of the USA’s aims in pursuing a policy of detente with the USSR was arms limitation. In some ways, they were successful. The ABM treaty (within the SALT I treaty) limited ABM systems to two sites, providing a deterrent in the knowledge that the other side could strike back. The Interim Treaty limited the number ICBMs and SLBMs on both sides of 1618 and 740 respectively for the USSR and 1054 and 740 for the USA. The Soviet Union was allowed more of these missiles because in other areas, such as strategic bombers, the USA had a large lead. This treaty was advantageous to the USA, as the treaty omitted new technological developments in which the USA had the initial advantage. In the Basic Principles agreement both sides agreed to avoid confrontation and set down rules for the conduct of warfare (for example no warheads on the seabed). The arms limitation treaties enabled the US government to spend money on social issues, rather than the defence budget.

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Arms Limitation Continued

However, arms limitation was not entirely successful as the treaties did not go far enough, and a situation of MAD still remained. The Interim treaty expired in 1977, as a long term agreement could not be reached. The omission of new technological developments also meant that the arms race did not stop; it was merely reduced in intensity. The Basic Principles agreements were little more than statements of intent; they were not concrete agreements. At the end of détente, SALT II was withdrawn from the Senate and never ratified. It had drawn opposition from right wing politicians in the Senate and neo conservatives.

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Arms Limitation Continued

Arms limitation could also be seen to have made US politics unstable, as opposition towards it aided the rise of the neo-conservatives. Evidence for this can be seen in President Carter’s oscillation between Vance and Brzezinski. As John Garraty stated in The American Nation Carter fluctuated between approaches; complaining about Soviet human rights violations one day, and praising the idea of a new arms limitation agreement the next. The influence of the neo-conservatives was also worrying for Moscow. In 1978 Brezhnev addressed the Politburo, and stated that a deterioration in relations had occurred, and stated that the growing aggression of Carters government due to the influence of Brzezinski as the cause.

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The role of Europe

Events in Europe helped to push America into a policy of detente with the Soviet Union, as Brandt’s policy of Ostpolitik would leave the US isolated in Europe if they tried to pursue a hard-line policy against communism. In some ways, détente helped the US to retain its political and economic influence in Europe. This is shown by their presence at negotiations and influence in agreements over Berlin (for example, the Four Power Agreement). By accepting the post war borders of Europe as “inviolable” in Basket One of the Helsinki Accords, they were able to gain other concessions from the Soviets in the form of human rights. However, the acceptance of the Soviet sphere of influence in Eastern Europe can also be viewed as a disadvantage. Many right wing politicians felt that accepting the new borders in Europe was a sign of weakness.

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Helsinki Accords

One of the key agreements of détente was the Helsinki Accords in 1975. Basket Three contained concessions the West had tried to gain from the USSR. It included an agreement to respect human rights, such as freedom of speech and freedom of movement across Europe. For the communist states of Eastern Europe to accept these terms was seen in the West as a significant step forward. One diplomat described Basket Three as a “time bomb”.

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Helsinki Accord violations by the Soviets

However, the Helsinki Accords were not entirely successful. The Soviets violated the treaty and continued to mistreat dissidents. A case in point is the treatment of the Czechoslovak rock band “Plastic People of the Universe”, who formed in 1968 after the invasion of that country. Given to performing in secret while dodging the police, they were caught and arrested in 1976. Their trial provoked several hundred intellectuals into signing (on January 1st 1977) a manifesto named Charter 77, which politely but pointedly called upon the Czech government to respect the free expression provisions of the Helsinki Accords which they had signed with Brezhnev’s approval. The Charter was smuggled into the West where it received considerable publicity. The Czech government clamped down hard on the 242 signatories, and imprisoned many of them.

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Helsinki Accord violations by the Soviets

The treatment of Alexander Solzhenitsyn (a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature) also shows the Soviets violating the Helsinki Accords. Through his writings he helped to make the world aware of the Gulag, the Soviet Union's forced labor camp system – particularly The Gulag Archipelago and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. He was exiled from the Soviet Union in 1974 and only returned to Russia in 1994, despite the USSR agreeing to the Helsinki Accords in the meantime.

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Helsinki Accord violations by the Soviets

The Soviets also infringed human rights agreements with their treatment of Solidarity, an illegal, independent trade union. The popularity of the leader Walesa, and the encouragement given by Pope John Paul II, gave Solidarity considerable influence over the industrial workers of Gdansk. Gierek, the Polish Communist Party leader, decided to negotiate with Solidarity, leading to an agreement that gave Solidarity legal status as an independent trade union. The USSR was concerned that this concession would encourage other groups elsewhere within the Soviet Bloc and threaten the hold of communism over Eastern Europe. As the USSR undertook army manoeuvres along its border with Poland, the new Polish leader, Jaruzelski, declared martial law and used the army to quell the unrest. Solidarity was abolished, but millions of trade unionists continued to work together underground.

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Helsinki Accord violations by the Soviets

The promise to allow freedom of movement through Europe was also constantly ignored by the Soviet authorities. One distinct group pressing for this right were Soviet Jews who campaigned for the right to emigrate to Israel or the United States. The publicity this group received all around the world saw the numbers of Jews permitted to emigrate rise from 14,000 in 1975 to 51,000 in 1979, although the number fell following the invasion of Afghanistan.

These treaty violations troubled the conscience of many in the American government, and many right wing politicians felt that the USA’s inaction made them look weak.

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Soviets in the Third World

Increasing Soviet influence in the Third World, especially Angola, Ethiopia and Mozambique, and the Middle East (the site of US oil interests) were used by the neo- conservatives as evidence of continuing ambitions to spread communism. The USSR was described as an “empire on the march”, gaining influence in Old Portuguese colonies, and using Saigon as a new port in the Pacific. Brzezinski saw the policy of détente as a sign of weakness, as the Soviets felt safe enough to intervene in places where there was political unrest and support revolutions with money and/ or troops, thinking that the USA would not intervene, and would continue to negotiate.

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Rapprochement with China

Détente was advantageous to the management of the USA’s Cold War diplomacy with the USSR in the 1970s, in that as rapprochement with China was ongoing, the USA could reduce tension with both communist powers simultaneously. Rapprochement with China also enabled America to put pressure on the USSR for concessions when negotiating, and prevent the Soviets from “imposing hegemony in Asia”. Kissinger had prepared the way for an official visit to China by the American President by visiting China secretly in July 1971. In February 1972 the trip went ahead; amidst great fanfares and media coverage Mao and Nixon shook hands. Photo opportunities and trade and travel agreements followed. The trip was of great symbolic value, though few concrete agreements were made, and it served to bring new pressure to bear on the Soviet Union.

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Impact on trade

Détente also benefited the USA in terms of increased trade links and cultural exchanges. The USSR was suffering food shortages as a result of a severe winter 1971-72 followed by a poor harvest; the US dollar was weakening and an economic deficit was looming – the Soviet bloc could prove to be a lucrative market for American goods. Trade and arms agreements also meant that the USA could restrain the USSR. The Soviet Union became fairly dependent on the USA for grain supplies, so grain supplies became a valuable bargaining chip during negotiations.

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The end of Détente

Détente can be seen to have ended in 1979. In November of that year, Islamic militants occupied the US Embassy in Tehran and held US diplomats and their family’s hostage. Carter refused to negotiate with the militants. The hostages were not released until January 1981, and the whole incident seemed to symbolise America’s growing impotence in world affairs. The American right called for a firmer stance against aggressors. Brezhnev’s failing health complicated Soviet decision making, as there was no firm guidance. This made it easier for the Americans to adopt the hard-line approach advocated y the neo –conservatives. These factors, added to the Soviets expansionism and human rights violations meant that détente was breaking down by the late 1970s. The Soviets invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 was the deciding factor in the collapse of détente. Carter was unwilling to let the USSR get away with another intervention in the affairs of a foreign country so easily. His language in condemning the Soviet action was more strident than had been expected. Arms’ spending was increased, as was the American nuclear arsenal, and SALT II was withdrawn from the Senate. The era of arms limitation was at an end.

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