The Emergence of Detente and Detente under Pressure

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Interpretations of Detente


Nixon admin regarded detente as a process based on negotiation rather than confrontation - not about ignoring self-interest, but minimalising confrontation. Means of controlling and managing Soviet Union. It represented a strategy designed to prevent a nuclear conflict as the SU became increasingly powerful. Creating a network of mutually advantageous relationships so that it would not be in the SU interest to base its policies on confrontation with the USA - thereby more to gain by cooperation rather than confrontation. 


Brezhnev saw detente as a means of overcoming the Cold War and the route by which normal, equal relations could be restored between the states. The legitimate interests of each side would be respected and recognised. Mutually advantageous for both sides. This was made possible because the Soviet Union had reached a balance with the USA in terms of nuclear capability. The Soviet Union took the view that the USA was no longer the dominant world power and the SU was now in a position to gain by being able to cooperate with the USA. This was a way for SU to preserve world socialism and protect it from the threats of the West. 

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Sino-American relations 1969-1972

During the 20 years after communist takeover of China, USA had previously refused to recognise its existence PRC. At this point, there was no Sino-American relationship. Nixon and Kissinger presented a new approach in which the USA could benefit from bringing China into the global arena through improved relations. China similarly came to realise that self-imposed international isolation was of no advantage to them. Further impetus for these relations was the worsening Sino-Soviet relations. Mao and Stalin resented each other - one saw them as a threat to the others global power as communist leader. This became publically open by 1960. Mao criticised the Soviets for backing down in the Cuban Missile Crisis and there were clashes between Soviet/Chinese troops on the borders. Thus China moved to diplomacy with the West. Nixon realised that China was a developing nuclear power and a major political and strategic force in Asia and most importantly, a communist power independent of the SU. First steps in July 1969, USA removes trade controls and travel restrictions. Used diplomatic connections with China to promote idea of US willingness to work towards improving relations. In 1970, Zhou Enlai became Prime Minister and opened improved relations with USA. Policy shift from dual confrontation towards recognition that SU was more of a threat than USA. Mao realised there was a changing balance of power, and the detente with USA would help combat the SU growing. What delayed this was the attacking of Laos and Cambodia from 1970-1 but these did not have a fundamental impact as troops were already moving out of Vietnam. In April, the US table tennis team goes to China. In Julu 1971, Kissinger visits China and soon Nixon was to follow. Lin Biao - future successor of Mao and opposition to relations died. Nixon's visit inforced possibility of triangular diplomacy between the 3 - gains China's cooperation in ending Vietnam war. 

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Ostpolitik and the development of European Detente

Adenauer had previously established the Hallstein Doctrine stating that West Germany would not recognise the GDR and not establish diplomatic relations with any state that did recognise it with the exception of the SU. This came to represent a barrier to any future detente. Appointment of Willy Brandt in Oct 1969 triggered new phase in relations. Introduces Ostpolitik - reducing the consequences of division. His objectives were to recognise East Germany and the post-war territorial changes - particularly the creation of the Oder-Neisse border with Poland. Negotiate with the Soviet Union, settle the fronteir with Poland and negotiate with the GDR. Brandt's talks with the Soviet Union led to a join Non-Aggression Pact in August 1971 and a treaty in 1970 with Poland recognising the border. Ulbricht resigns and is replaced by Honecker - removal of an obstacle. Two Germanies seemed to be plausible. The Hallestein Doctrine was dead with the Basic Treaty. Kissinger realised that the USA must develop an American detente with the SU in order to prevent a West German driven detente from marginalising US inflence in Europe and possibly splitting the Western Alliance. The USA's superpower influence was not to be undermined by intiatives taken by West Germany. THE BERLIN AGREEMENT SEPT 1971: Agreement on Berlin would greatly advance the prospects of American-Soviet detente and both sides were keen to reach a consensus. Soviets expressed interest with Brandt to come to negotiation. Nixon keen to use Soviet interest in Berlin to advance SALT. Soviets guaranteed western access and cultural and economic ties were recognised between West Germany/West Berlin. West recognised that the East Berlin was integral part of East Germany and not merely in Soviet occupation zone. Neutralises continuing source of conflict and opens way for further Ostpolitik. 

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The Basic Treaty 1972

21 December 1972: important in development of Ostpolitik. Treaty concerning the relations between the FRG and GDR - an attempt to normalise relations with the two Germanies. Faced some resistence form hardliners opposed to any thawing in relations. Agreed to develop normal, neighbourly relations with each other on the basis of human rights. Both to be guided by aims of UN - especially those of soverign equality, independence, territorial integrity, right of self determination and protection of human rights. Disputes to be settled peacefully and refrain from using force. 

This was embedded with potential economic relations, recognition of the sovereignty of the FRG and GDR. 

This was a critical moment in European detente. It not only settled relations between East/West Germany but also provided the route by which other European nations could establish relations with the GDR - starting with Australia and the UK. 

By the end of Sept 1973, both states were admitted separately as members into the UN.

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The Helsinki Accords 1973-5

High point with convening of European security conference - CSCE. Total of 35 states participated including all of Europe and USA.

Basket 1: Security in Europe - respect for states, rejection of use of force, recognition of existing fronteirs, non-intervention in the affairs of other states, respect for human rights and freedoms, self determination of peoples. 

Basket 2: Cooperation in the field of economics, science, technology and the environment.

Basket 3: Cooperation in Humanitarian and other fields. 

The Soviets had three main interests in the CSCE: to expand Ostpolitik to develop wider acceptance of the status quo in Europe, increase economic trade and further detente. Less interested in detail of human rights issues - concern of external interference in internal concerns of Soviet Union - it was their wider aim of detente that led them to accept these conditions."Time Bomb".

USA was not fully commited to accepting the political status quo in Eastern Europe which the accords seemed to accept as permanent. Fears that if Western Europe began to become secure, there was a possibility that this would mean less support for NATO. But both welcomed the relaxation of tensions - high point in detente - real political solutions to European security.

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SALT I & SALT II and arms limitations in the 1970s

SALT I finalised in May 1972. ABM treaty which limited both sides to only 2 anti-ballistic sites in their countries - one on a capital city and the other to protect ICBM sites. Meant there would be no significant competition to further develop ABM defence tech and race to develop offensive strategic nuclear weapons less critical. Showed that both sides had interest in preventing what would be a mutually destructive conflict and recognised each others destructive power.

The Interim Agreement on offensive weapons established a freeze on strategic missiles

  • 1,054 ICBMs for USA and 1,618 for the Soviet Union
  • 656 SLBMs for the USA and 740 for the Soviet Union
  • 450 strategic bombers for the USA and 140 for the Soviet Union

Made no provision for limitations on newly devloping tech, particularly MIRVs. Also no defined limits on cruise missiles - only interim to be addressed at SALT II. Significant step towards arms control and contributed to relaxation of tension, opening way for more agreements. Some say SALT was a catalyst in detente - reinforced political advantages to be gained by both if they backed policies on stability. Foundation of political achievement making detente possible. Era of negotiation rather than confrontation. By accepting SALT, USA accepted parity with itself and the Soviet Union - equal status - both sides have something to gain. Balance of power had been acknowledged and this necessitated the construction of new non-confrontational detente.

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Strategic Arms Limitations 2

NIXON-BREZHNEV MOSCOW SUMMIT MAY 1972: Agreements to expand American-Soviet cooperation in science and tech as well as environment, health and space exploration. 

BASIC PRINCIPLES AGREEMENT: outlines code of behaviour between two superpowers. Committed to developing normal relations based on principles of non interference in internal affairs, determination to avoid situations that could damage commitment to peaceful coexistence. Avoid nuclear war and reject the idea that one side should be free to gain at the expense of the other, and right of each state to protect its security interests. Promotion of peace. The problem with this was the fact that the principles had no legal status and everything depended upon each side abiding by the guidelines. As far as America was concerned, the Basic Principles represented aspirations rather than solid basis for future detente. Soviet Union reacted differently and considered the Basic Principles to be of great importance as it recognised parity between the two. 

NIXON-BREZHNEV WASHINGTON SUMMIT JUNE 1973: Kissinger was eager to ensure that America should not have its influence in Europe sidelined by European detente. Did not want Europe making unilateral agreements with the SU - but this failed. Thus, they were primarly interested in protecting USA's global power rather than world peace. Agreements on agriculture and cultural exchanges. Considered situation in Middle East - Brezhnev pushed for joint support to make Israel withdraw - USA unwilling. Brezhnev wants SU to come before China in relations. Nothing truly concrete, but agreement on Prevention of Nuclear War.

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Strategic Arms Limitations 3

AGREEMENT ON THE PREVENTION OF NUCLEAR WAR 1973: Removal of Nuclear Weapons and aversion if crisis did come about. Crisis prevention strategy builds on Basic Principles. Americans reluctant to agree on non-use of nuclear weapons as it would remove a vital deterrent. Some in the SU had reservations as detente might weaken SU defences and lead to divisions in Eastern bloc. Tied the SU down and restricted its freedom to act globally in socialist interests. SU saw agreement as way to ensure that the USA would be unable to threaten use of nuclear weapons and necessary incentive for Soviets to keep them committed to detente. 

THE THIRD SOVIET-AMERICAN SUMMIT JUNE-JULY 1974: Progress on SALT II. Americans knew they had superiority in MIRVs and did not want this to be given up. Soviets rejected the idea that the USA could maintain a permanent advantage. Both agree to limit ABM sites to one. Ten year agreement on cooperation but no real progress on laying foundations for SALT II. 

VLADIVOSTOK ACCORD NOVEMBER 1974: With Ford and Kissinger. Some movement in position of strategic missiles and MIRV's. 10 year plan move towards future SALT II treaty. Soviets agree to equal number of ICBM's and SLBM's. Congress passes the accord by Feb 1975. However, there were disagreements over limit on air to surface missiles as USA said only applied to ballistic missiles and Soviets argue it includes cruise missiles. Still far from SALT II. Impact of Watergate on detente undermines USA foreign policy and opponents of detente become stronger. Kissinger faced opposition back home and Brezhnev rejects the new approach - nothing to happen in 1976, especially with US elections coming up 

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The Carter Administration 1977-1981

Carter was largely concerned with human rights. Began to be far more ambituous in arms negotiation for SALT II than had been laid out at Vladivostok. This proposed huge reduction in ICBMs, new limits on testing and bans on new tech. These would have greater impact on SU than USA and Brezhnev saw Vladivostok as binding - Carter acting in unacceptable manner. Proposal demanded reduction in Soviet forces compared to those of USA and appeared if USA was abandoning several years of hard won progress. However, it seemed that SALT II was back on track towards end of 1977 after USA modifies proposals. Carter launches drive for human rights focused on the situation in USSR and Eastern bloc. In JAN 1977 Carter admin accuses Czech of violating human rights in Charter 77. Carter also begins to welcome Soviet dissidents - directed at SU. Some felt Carter was risking East-West detente by adopting a too robust human rights stance against the SU. Carter faced conflicting advice on America's attitude towards the SU. Cyrus Vance, the Sec of State was pro-detente. Brezinski, National Security Advisor was anti-detente - wanted superiority over SU and developing relations with China to marginalise the SU. SALT II was not the primary route to this. 1978: Carter turns to China in face of advancement of Soviets elsewhere in the world - to counter forces in Africa. Carter failed to see this would significantly damage Soviet-American relations. 

9 May 1979: SALT II treaty was announced to be signed in June 1979. The Vienna summit showed that leadership could talk and communicate directly with eachother rather than intemediaries. Some take the view that this just interrupted the inevitable decline of detente.

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Arab-Israeli Conflict: The October War 1973

Conflict over changes in developing countries brought detente to a halt. Middle East War over the Sinai caused confrontation between the two powers. Both had an objective of preventing themselves being drawn into the war and preserving detente. Soviets helped Egypt and the USA backed Israel - as in previous wars indirectly. America's primary aim was to ensure it emerged as a driving force in brokering peace in the Middle East. Kissinger wanted to demonstrate the road to peace was through Washington whereas Soviets wanted to retain Arab confidence. Cease-fire broken within hours by Israel. Soviets wanted to send joint troops; but USA would not allow troops after years of hard work to reduce Soviet military in the area. Kissinger was willing to use force to prevent it - shuttle diplomacy - shuts SU out. SU's influence was being marginalised. Crisis was diffused under UN. But the crisis raised issues about the Soviet and American perceptions of detente. It was thought that SU had violated the agreements signed at Moscow and Washington Summit Meetings - but both supplied arms to their allies and both sides equally breached the Basic Principles by seeking to gain a unilateral advantage in the crisis. But neither accused the others of violating the principles of detente. The Russians had thought detente was building up on cooperation and 'progressive' developments in the world should proceed without direct Soviet or US involvement. Raises concerns over US pereception as it was determined to remove Soviet presence in the Middle East. Was detente with the USA then serving Soviet interests? Arab states wary of the claim that Soviet-American detente was compatible with the Soviet Union's claim to support national liberation struggles facing developing countries. October War fuelled opposition to detente within the USA -amongest those who were friends of Israel - what alarmed anti-detente was the fact that it succeeded. 

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Angola 1974-6

Some argue that it was conflicts over changes in developing countries that brought a halt to the detente process. Soviet perception was that instability was inspired by American neo-colonialism. Those Americans who were anti-detente and its value to US interests saw Soviet policy in a similar way. Revealed the nature of US-Soviet competition. In Angola, the revolution against Portugal left 3 parties scrambling for power - all communist. FNLA was supported by USA and China and MPLA under Cuba and SU. As Soviets start a large scale military involvement, the USA did not regard involvement of superpowers as being compatible with detente. USA had to be careful to not intervene- new Vietnam, did not regard it as a direct threat to its interests. When asked why the USA had backed the FNLA - it was because the Soviets were backing the MPLA. America's national interests were not threatened by Soviet and Cuban intervention, they were created by it - thus placing strain on detente. Kissinger commented that the US cannot be indifferent whilst an outside power embarks upon a interventionist policy - so distant from its homeland and so removed from tradiitonal Russian interests. Ironically, USA was covertly supplying military assistance. USA could not support FNLA if South Africa would get involved -political reliability. Detente could not survive if either side gained a unilateral advantage as had appeared to happen in Angola. Kissinger was convinced SU was using Cuban forces as a proxy. Significantly, SU only began supporting MPLA until after the USA started. SU saw US and Chinese aid to the FNLA as part of Sino-American collaboration aimed at gaining influence. SU convinced their actions were in line with detente - as they had the right to help liberation movements as it was expected of them as global communist power. 

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Afghanistan 1979

Soviet supported Dauod had been overthrown. PDPA regime was ally of the SU but began to faction into a dominant islamic fundamentalists - Soviets conerned that the regime could lead to instability. They believed Amin might align Afghanistan with the United States - threat to Soviet borders - danger of losing ideological, political influence in Afghanistan. Afghanistan had to remain a buffer to protect Soviet security and the only effective way to ensure this was to take military action to restored a state that was loyal to SU. Also, by late 1979, Soviet-American relations had already reached a low point as NATO was going to install new missiles in Europe, SALT II was under strain, and USA linked closely to China. Any further damage caused by military intervention in Afghanistan would be outweighed by the benefits of a pro-Soviet and stable Afghanistan. Soviets viewed their actions as being consistent with Basic Principles, because it did not concern the West. Intended to preserve the status quo - Basic Principles, to the SU, was an acceptance that the superpowers' vital interests had to be guarded. It was within the Soviet sphere of influence and could not be a Soviet challenge to the West. 

USA did not expect SU to intervene in Afghanistan. Assumed more significance when Shah's pro-American regime overthrown in Iran by Islamic fundamentalists - feared vulnerability to communism - reinforcing the SU's regional influence. USA said they had not intervened with the internal affairs of Afghanistan and we expect the SU to do the same. For the USA, the line between influencing events and directly intervening to determine them had been crossed. "grave threat to peace". On 3rd January 1980, Carter tells Senate to not approve SALT II. 

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The Carter Doctrine 1980

Historians take the view that the Carter admin failed to fully assess Soviet motivation for the intervention - narrowing his thinking and damaging detente. Carter sanctions the USA in economic exchanges, Soviet fishing privelages in America, ban on sale of high tech to SU, embargo on sales of grain to SU, and assistance to Pakistan to enhance security. 

Doctrine was for the defence of the Persian Gulf - preventing any Soviet advance into the Persian Gulf area - emphasised the prospect of a military solution to expansionism and reinforced need for relations with China. Carter tried to persuade the NATO alliance and the West to suspend East-West detente but was unsuccessful. Europe was not prepared to suspend - continued trade links with SU and expanded. Europe did not see its interests being served by allowing itself to become a pawn inthe USA's global power strategy. 

In effect, Carter linked America's relations with the SU and the future of detente to the SU's decision to maintain a military presence in Afghanistan. Demands for SU to withdraw and shut down any possibility of diplomatic solution. Massive overreaction by the US? SU believed USA used the intervention in Afghanistan as a pretext that enabled them to dismantle detente, revive the nuclear arms race and build up a position of strength for the US in the Persian Gulf. America was waiting for an excuse to bring an end to detente. As far as USA was concerned. the invasion required a return to containment and made a fundamental shift in relations - moved away from Nixon position of cooperation and went back to Truman style approach enshrined in the Carter Doctrine. 

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'European detente was a quite separate development from detente between the superpowers.' How valid is this assessment?

To what extent did America's relationship with China undermine the development of detente with the Soviet Union?

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