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Assess the consequence of dtente for the Cold War

To the participants of the Cold War in early to mid 1970s it was clear that a shift in power
was occurring. A multipolar world had emerged, US efforts to contain communism were
failing and the economy was faltering, and Soviet efforts to expand their sphere of
communism were accelerating. Dtente, a foreign policy position employed by both the
Soviets and the US to halt the fast progression of the Cold War and accommodate the
realities of the nuclear age in a time of rapid decolonisation, had significant consequences for
the Cold War. The period of detente was considered an opportune setting for the resolution of
hostilities, and avoidance of a military confrontation between the two superpowers. However,
dtente would ultimately fail due to the multi-polar nature of the world that created domestic
political conditions that were not conducive to the continuation of the policy, and as a result
of the conflicting interpretations of the policys meaning and purpose, inevitably leading to
an increase in conventional forces and a rekindling of Cold War tensions.

Dtente during the Cold War was the occurrence of relatively good relations between the US
and USSR, due to a temporary ease in world tensions and ultimately, the Cold War. For the
Johnson, Nixon and Ford administrations, the major threat was not communist expansion
but global instability The US in particular eased tensions during this period in the Cold War.
According to Rosati, the US employed the concept of linkage in their approach to the
Soviet Union, which meant that the US would link unfavorable responses to Soviet actions
that did not benefit the United States, and vice versa. Additionally, linkage meant that the
United States would threaten force and use force when the Soviets were perceived as
attempting to upset the existing power balance. On the other hand, some historians believe
that dtente was created as a foreign policy response to economic difficulties in both the
West and the USSR. It appeared that both the US and the SU chose dtente as their preferred
foreign policy because neither side could afford to continue the Cold War struggle at the
level of intensity it had been fought since 1945, and thus dtente was the only logical
solution.

In particular, the US found that the cost of the war was spiraling due to the Vietnam War,
which had created a change in US domestic economic and political policies. Johnsons
government had failed to take into account the rising costs of Americas involvement in the
war, and in essence, America was spending more than it could afford. This economic reality,
as well as US inability to contain communism in South-East Asia, were partly responsible for
forcing Johnson to the negotiating table with the Soviets to reevaluate the amount of
spending on nuclear weapons, arms limitations and over-all possession of weaponry,
negotiations that would consequently result in the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty 1971. The
escalation of the Vietnam War from 1965 to 1973 had damaged the social and political
cohesion in the US, later leading President Nixon to acknowledge that the US could not
sustain the burden of containing communism by military means. Nixon believed in world
peace through cooperative relations with the USSR and as the US wanted to avoid a repeat of
Vietnam at all costs, there was hope that negotiations with the Soviet Union could reduce the
risk of military confrontation.

Also significant, the Soviets under Brezhnevs leadership used the period of detente to
achieve nuclear parity with the US, whilst pursuing an increase in conventional forces a
clear paradox of dtente that would eventually lead to a potential armed struggle. Although
this achievement of military parity with the United States did create a more peaceful Soviet
Union, the economic cost of the build-up of nuclear weapons and rockets was so high that
according to Rosati, it brought closer the approaching crisis of the entire system. As
Volkogonov states, both the USSR and the US had come to the conclusion that any attempt
to resolve their irreconcilable differences by nuclear means was tantamount to the destruction
of the planet. Dtente was thus proving a necessary consequence for the Cold War.

Although the US acknowledged nuclear parity, it did not recognise that there had been a
decline in the ability of the US to manage world affairs. As a result, both the USSR and US
adopted the idea that political dtente required a military dtente and both sides began to
negotiate on arms reductions. As Kort contends, the Soviets were especially concerned
about high technology weapons such as the MIRV and ABMs. These defensive systems,
designed to destroy incoming missiles, were extremely difficult to produce and were
enormously expensive. Moreover, dtente was infact strengthening the USSRs military
position, as while the US were engaging in enemy discussions about reducing overall
spending, the Soviets were using expense savings in nuclear weaponry to aid other areas of
the military. It was in this environment that both powers took advantage of a period of eased
Cold War tensions.

According to Halliday, there were a number of characteristics of this period of dtente. The
first, being a break in the arms race, and second, a greater tolerance of one anothers political
system. The Soviets under Brezhnev were slower to accept dtente than the US; however the
relaxing of Cold War hostilities allowed for the policy of ostpolitik to occur in 1970, and
brought Brezhnev to the negotiating table, eventually leading to the establishment of the
Brezhnev Doctrine. The Soviets had clear reasoning to engage the US in negotiation, as
although they had achieved military equivalence with the US, their economy was under huge
pressure from the costs of the military build-up. Furthermore, Soviet relations with China
were worsening and according to Kort, the USSR was concerned that Chinas new realism
in foreign affairs might lead to improved relations with the United States, a development
that would ultimately increase American influence over the Soviet Union. This lead into the
Sino-Soviet split had caused great anxiety in the Soviet Union, and it was considered
necessary to improve relations with the US as the general American view of communism had
thawed.

US President Nixons policy of dtente was clearly evident in the changing relationship
between the US and China from 1971. For both the US and China, the motivation for
negotiation came from the growing strength of the Soviet Union. Nixon believed that
rapprochement with China would allow for American leverage against the Soviets, whilst
improving Americas chances of negotiating the policy of peace with honour with the
North Vietnamese. According to Evans, Nixons visit to Beijing in 1972 was extremely
significant in terms of the Cold War, as it changed the power in the bi-polar world, ended the
United States fixation with anti-communist ideology, and demonstrated the emergence of a
new multi-polar world. No further clashes over conflicts in Africa and Asia occurred during
this period, demonstrating the important consequence of the dtente period for the Cold War.

Furthermore, both leaders of the two superpowers met more frequently at summits during
this period than at any other time during the Cold War, ultimately aiding the progression of
dtente and demonstrating its few positive moves towards peace. In order to improve Soviet-
American relations, Nixon visited the Soviet Union from May 22-30
th
May 1972, during
which time SALT I was signed. SALT I had two sections; the first, a treaty on the limitation
of AMBs, and the second, an interim agreement limiting strategic offensive arms. In signing
this agreement, both sides formulated a theory of deterrence known as Mutually Assured
Destruction, which meant that there were no geographical, economic, political, military or
technological advantages to be gained from a nuclear war. The SALT agreement signified the
beginning of an eventual breakthrough to full nuclear disarmament, and was therefore a
significant consequence of the Cold War as it showed the world that both sides had agreed to
halt their nuclear proliferation, setting a precedent for ongoing discussions for future arms
limitations. Furthermore, the SALT II in 1979, like SALT I, demonstrated that dtente was
not simply a theory but a practice. However, the arms race that would continue, in which
both sides continued to rapidly increase their stockpiles of nuclear weapons, ultimately
undermined dtente. With the ending of SALT I in 1977, both the US and the USSR
possessed more nuclear arms than before the limitation treaty was signed in 1972.

Dtente was a policy that suited the main powers in the Cold War, however, shifting
international relations made peaceful resolutions to the unresolved conflicts between
capitalism and communism of the early Cold War period difficult to achieve. The situation in
the Middle East in 1973, in which Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack on Israel, as
well as the Arab-Israeli War of 1973, clearly demonstrate the fragile nature of dtente. The
Middle East had emerged as a region where tensions could be exploited by both the Soviets
and Americans. As a result of this crisis in the Middle East, the US and the international
community felt the spirit of dtente had been betrayed by the Soviets. Moreover, it marked
the first occasion that both superpowers had used the threat of force to ensure their ally
would prevail since the Cuban Missile Crisis, and it was becoming clear that the detrimental
dtente era was drawing to a close.

The end of dtente was finally signified by the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and
the beginning of a new and dangerous period for the superpowers relationship. US President
Carter responded to the Soviet invasion with a commitment to return to the original Cold
War policy of containment, stating that any attempt by an outside force to gain control of
the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United
States of America. This became known as the Carter Doctrine, one that incorporated a
number of punishments for the USSR including a US boycott of the Moscow Olympics and
further development of rapprochement with China. Both the US Senate and the Soviets
refused to ratify SALT II which had been signed by Brezhnev and US Carter in June 1979
and trade agreements, investment and scientific exchanges between the two superpowers
were stopped. Garthoff describes these actions taken by the US as a virtual dismantling of
the entire set of American-soviet relations developed over a decade of dtente. Dtente had
failed as result of conflicting interpretations of its meaning and purpose. To the US, it
was a method of managing the emergence of the Soviet Union into world politics at a
time of apparent nuclear equivalence. To the Soviets, dtente was a way of dealing with
the transition of the US from a position of unquestioned military superiority to a more
suitable role in world politics at a time of nuclear parity. To both superpowers, it was a
necessary and advantageous consequence for the Cold War that had arisen due to a
political and economic strain on both nations.

There were, however, a number of successful consequences of the dtente period. The
Helsinki Accord 1975 was a highpoint of dtente and ultimately, the Cold War. 35
participating countries agreed to give prior notification to major military exercise involving
more than 25 000 troops. Furthermore, the agreement promoted human rights, particularly in
the Soviet sphere of influence, although the significance and ramifications of these
agreements were not fully understood at the time, as Brezhnev stated, No one should try, on
the basis of foreign policy considerations, to dictate to other peoples how they should
manage their internal affairs, they were an appreciated consequence towards the end of Cold
War.

Ultimately, one could argue that dtente was the only coherent solution to the rapidly
increasing power of the Soviets and the economic decline of the US. Overall, the period can
be seen as a policy shift by the United States, an extension of peaceful coexistence by the
USSR, and a significant consequence of the Cold War in terms of an easing of hostilities,
geopolitical conflicts, and the avoidance of a potential nuclear war during an age of advanced
technologies. Despite minimal resolutions to a number of geopolitical conflicts, dtente was a
promising step towards peace between the two nations. As Garthoff states, The essence of
the dtente was an agreement on mutual accommodation in which each side would limit its
actions in recognition of the common shared interest in avoiding the risks of uncontrolled
confrontation. However, with the end of dtente, the theory of Mutually Assured
Destruction would be circumvented with new technologies that prompted fears of first strike
capabilities, and the Cold War was officially renewed.