The Rise, Fall and Future of Détente

One of the occupational hazards of being a historian is that one tends to take on, with age, a certain air of resigned pessimism. This comes, I think, from our professional posture of constantly facing backwards: it is not cheering to have to focus one's attention on the disasters, defalcations, and miscalculations that make up human history. We are given, as a result, to such plaintive statements as: "Ah, yes, I knew it wouldn't work out," or "I saw it coming all along," or, most often, "Too bad they didn't listen to me."

Such, I am afraid, is the tone we historians have taken in looking at the last decade or so of Soviet-American relations. Détente, we now tell each other, was not an end to cold war tensions but rather a temporary relaxation that depended upon the unlikely intersection of unconnected phenomena. There had to be, we argue, approximate parity in the strategic arms race, a downplaying of ideological differences, a mutual willingness to refrain from challenging the interests of rivals, an ability to reward restraint when it occurred and to provide inducements to its further development, and the existence of strong, decisive and intelligent leadership at the top in both Washington and Moscow, capable of overriding all of the obstacles likely to be thrown in the path of détente by garbled communications, sullen bureaucracies, or outraged constituencies. To have found all of these things in place at the same time, we maintain, was about as likely as some rare astronomical conjunction of the stars and planets, or perhaps a balanced budget.

As a result, we have tended to see the revival of the cold war as an entirely predictable development rooted in deep and immutable historical forces. Those of us who hedged our bets about the durability of détente can now comfortably pat each other on the back, exchanging statements like: "We were right all along," or "Too bad they don't listen to historians," or "Isn't pessimism fun?"

But if historians are ever going to provide much in the way of usable guidance to policymakers-which is to say, if we are not going to leave the field wide open to the political scientists-then we are going to have to address not only questions of what went wrong, but of what might have been done differently. Were there things that could have been done to avoid the collapse of détente? Might these provide a basis for reconstituting it-perhaps in a more durable form-at some point in the future?

Register for free to continue reading.
Registered users get access to two free articles every month.

Or subscribe now and save 55 percent.

Subscription benefits include:
  • Full access to
  • Six issues of the magazine
  • Foreign Affairs iPad app privileges
  • Special editorial collections

Latest Commentary & News analysis