U.S.-Soviet Relations: Goodbye to Détente

After the events of 1980 the Soviet Union and the United States both must come to terms with new versions of each other. American hopes for a more reasonable, more conservative Soviet Union finally collapsed, replaced by a new eagerness to contest the Soviets for military superiority and global position. The Soviet leaders discovered both the exhilaration and the pain that accompany the dramatic and unexpected use of power; they were also reminded of the recurring dilemmas that beset any nation that manages a restless empire.

Recent Soviet-American relations can now be divided neatly into two historical periods, both of them ended. The first lasted for a quarter-century after World War II, and was typified by what the Soviets called-disdainfully but also enviously-American diplomacy from a "position of strength." During those years the United States was unmistakably the stronger power, but somehow its superior strength did not create a satisfactory Soviet-American relationship. Then in 1972 the policies of both nations changed. The United States decided to grant the Soviets at least the symbolic status of equal superpower, and that was the beginning of the second period, labeled "détente." In 1980 both countries decided that it, too, was unsatisfactory, so they terminated it.

The significance of 1980 is indisputable, if also still indistinct. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the workers' uprising in Poland and the election of Ronald Reagan to the American presidency have together caused a sharp break in the continuity of events. They have also created a good opportunity for reflection on what has happened and what is to come.

II

If the period of détente ended in 1980, the origins of its demise go right back to its beginning in 1972. This is not the place for a history of these eight years, but a few general points seem apt.

Most important, it is now clear that the Soviets and Americans never held compatible ideas about why détente happened or what it was meant to bring. The image of the relationship that Henry A. Kissinger articulated for the United States was of a web of interrelationships that would tie the superpowers together, maximizing cooperation between them while discouraging uncontrolled competition. In effect this was a new approach to a traditional American dilemma: how to "contain" the Soviet Union.

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