Since the start of the Ukraine crisis, much has been blamed on détente: detractors claim it is a policy of appeasement, while supporters wax nostalgic for its past accomplishments. But in the context of calls for a new dialogue between NATO and Russia, confusion over has arisen over what constitutes détente and what constitutes appeasement. The reality is that Ostpolitik and détente, as forged by Willy Brandt, chancellor of West Germany between 1969 and 1974, are being discredited both by Cold Warriors, who regard their usefulness as a myth, and by apologists for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who exploit them for their own ends.
By improperly invoking détente’s legacy while obfuscating the need for true diplomacy in order to make détente feasible, Cold Warriors and Putin do true détente a disservice. As a result, both Ostpolitik and détente must be defended not only from their critics but also from naïve nostalgics who, as the historian Timothy Garton Ash put it, desire “to have friendly relations with heaven, a deepening partnership with the earth, but also fruitful cooperation with hell.” When the international community views the policies either as a panacea for European crises or the wellspring of Europe’s problems, neither side gets at the heart of what détente can—and cannot—accomplish.
Brandt’s Ostpolitik and détente policies were based on lessons learned from two major crises: the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 and the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968. After the Cuban crisis drove the world to the brink of nuclear war, NATO members took measures to de-escalate Soviet conflict through the creation of a White House–Kremlin hotline and by signing a Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. These efforts culminated in the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, followed by the launch of Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) between the United States and the Soviet Union—concrete steps toward a functional diplomacy that eased tensions and established functional
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