The structure of world politics during the cold war (1945 – 1989) was determined by the strategic and ideological competition between the US and the Soviet Union. During this period there were varying degrees of tension between these two superpowers. This essay will be describing the different meanings of the word détente, its achievements and limitations, how different countries performed it and how its failure was inevitable. It will also argue that the United States and the Soviet Union were not the only two superpowers that should be taken into account when discussing détente.
Détente, from the French, means a release from tension, in contrast to maintaining high levels of tension as was done during the cold war. The american definition describes détente as a mode of management of adversary power. This interpretation has been adapted from a statement by Dr Kissinger (Bell, 1977) who will be discussed later in the text.
Détente was a period between two phases of the cold war. It is usually dated as 1972 – 1980, although some texts claim it started as early as 1966. Détente emerged first in Europe and was subsequently shifted to the international level. According to Ashton (Ashton, 1989), the first person to establish détente was French president Charles de Gaulle. He refused to accept the general assumption that negotiations and security agreements should be dealt with by the Soviet Union and the United States. He was trying to reduce the American-Soviet influence within Europe. For Western Europeans, as allies of United States, this would mean an increase in their independence from the US.
Another possible starting point of détente was the emergence of Ostpolitik or Eastern Policy. This was a pragmatic strategy developed by Willy Brandt, the German Socialist Chancellor. It was based on the fact that Germany had to balance their foreign policy between two aspects. Firstly, they wanted to be part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) for security and defence reasons. Secondly, they wanted to stay on good terms with East Germany and the Soviet Union for economic reasons. As consequence Ostpolitik led to recognition of East Germany and treaties with Poland were signed. This was a big step towards security between the East and the West in Europe. By keeping their place in the middle, they were able to keep on good terms with both sides.
One of the big issues in the cold war was a lack of communication between the US and the Soviet Union. This was clearly demonstrated by the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, when there was not a way of negotiating possible agreements. It was one of the biggest clashes between the two and, at that point, the world was very close to a military, most possibly nuclear disaster. The Soviet Union was aware of the fact that the United States were much stronger as far as nuclear power was concerned. On the other hand, the Americans wanted to restrict the influence of communist ideology and stop it from spreading into the third world countries. This situation led to both countries feeling threatened and hostile towards each other. Fortunately, they both realised that each was capable of destroying the other by using nuclear weapons. In addition, they were aware of the fact that with the number of nuclear weapons they had such conflict would probably mean that there would be no survivors. This ultimately became the main reason for the formation of the détente era.
Even after the crisis was over, the Soviet Union kept a close relationship with Fidel Castro’s government and promised to cooperate in case of attack by the United States.
In 1963, USSR, Britain and the United States signed an agreement that banned all nuclear tests except those underground. Communication soon improved, a hot line was set up between President Kennedy and President Khruschev.
One of the characteristics of détente was frequent meetings and major discussion of issues between the United States, the USSR and China. Even though most texts refer to superpowers as the US and the USSR, China was an important party in this period. Indeed, it could be argued that there was a détente between the US and China and another détente between the US and the Soviet Union. Even though Russia and China were both communist countries, they had frequent border clashes. This could be the reason why there never was détente between China and the Soviet Union. Also the war in Vietnam increased tension between these two communist giants. The United States were in a position to keep on good terms with both of them and indeed this was their strategy. If a conflict with Russia arose, they could turn to China as their ally and vice versa. “I propose to look at détente as an American strategy consciously deployed within a triangular power balance, vis-à-vis both China and the Soviet Union.” (Bell, 1977)
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What was “détente” between the superpowers and why did it fail?
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