From Interstate - Journal of International Affairs VOL. 2015/2016 NO. 3
Détente Studies in Cold War International History: Questions (Un)Marked?
IN THIS ARTICLE
Détente is generally understood as a relaxation of international tension. However, there are many conceptions and characteristics of détente: superpower détente (such as ‘Nixinger's, Leonid Brezhnev's or Mao Zedong/ Zhou Enlai's détente), European détente (such as Charles de Gaulle's détente and Willy Brandt's Ostpolitik) and, to a lesser extent, small powers' détente. Détente connotes different things to different states (and statesmen) at different time. That is, it is one concept with many interpretations. The article examines the current state and status of détente studies in the Cold War international history and International Relations (IR) scholarship. It argues that the state of détente studies in the Cold War History, despite its ongoing research, is less studied, or even understudied, when compared to other periods or processes of the Cold War such as the origins, development and transformation, crises, or the endings.3
As Vojtech Mastny observes, ‘the "golden years" of détente in the early 1970s are the least researched period of the Cold War'.4 Etymologically, the term détente comes from the French word ‘détendre', meaning to release or lessen the tension on the archer's bow string as the arrow goes on its way.5 Although détente literally means a relaxation or easing of tensions, contested and contestable debates are widely prevalent. These historiographical debates have revolved around a series of puzzles. In this article, I classify and survey merely four different, despite overlapping, kinds of puzzles: these include the definitions and natures of détente, periodisation, sources, and motivations behind the origins and fall of détente. The article humbly aims as merely a prolegomena to détente studies.
The Definition Question
First of all, the nature, ontologies and meanings of détente. A historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. contends that ‘Détente is an amorphous, not to say cloudy, subject, and like all clouds, susceptible to a variety of interpretations.'6 Détente is an ambiguous, ill-defined, and flexible term. With regard to the nature of the term, détente is considered differently. The Soviet Union rarely used the term and preferred Lenin's concept of ‘razryadka' or ‘peaceful co-existence'. While US President Richard M. Nixon and his national security advisor Henry Kissinger had preferred the concept of détente, subsequently Gerald Ford, because of its lack of popularity since the Watergate crisis, avoided the term all together, and instead coined the phrase ‘peace through strength'.7 As Jussi M. Hanhimäki put it differently, ‘There was no official declaration of détente, no official starting points, no clear-cut end.'8
For some, détente is a condition, representing a ‘state of eased tension'. Others claim that détente can be defined as a strategy (a calculated relationship between the means and ends), or a specific historical era (a "period that was dominated by negotiations and diplomacy rather than confrontation and conflict"9), or, alternatively, a process. Many tend to concur that détente was the process of reducing tension between states, rather than the end product of such a reduction.10 Henry Kissinger later asserted that détente was ‘a continuing process, not a final condition', while Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko defined détente as a ‘process of relaxation of tension, not an accomplished phenomenon or an entity which has already taken shape'.11
Some scholars assiduously asserted that because of a clash of definitions (and expectations) between two superpowers, détente was bound to fail right from the outset. It had precipitated the crisis and demise of détente by the end of the 1970s, and the ‘second' cold war returned.12 As Stevenson put it, ‘each side has pursued détente in its own preferred sense, while rejecting détente in the sense preferred by the other; perceptions of ‘success' or ‘failure' of détente are largely determined by these differences of meaning'.13
On the one hand, from the American perspective, détente architects, such as Nixon and Kissinger, were likely to envisage détente as a new means toward the ultimate ends. By using negotiations, diplomacy, back channels, and so on, a strategy of détente aimed at the stabilisation of global order and the sustainability of US hegemonic power, in particular attempting to achieve a ‘peace with honor' in the Vietnam War, with the USSR's embrace, and a new ‘structure of peace' in global politics.14
On the other hand, the Soviet conception of détente was formulated as an extension of Leninist strategy of peaceful co-existence with the West, and, above all, a means of attaining the Soviet status as a truly equal superpower vis-à-vis the US. As the USSR had achieved its strategic nuclear parity, it strived for maintaining a status quo in the changing global correlation of forces through international agreements on arms control, crisis management, and East-West international trade. However, from the position of strength, Brezhnev initially considered the logic of détente as a cooperation with competition. That is, détente with the West could happen simultaneously with, and inextricably link to, a promotion of world revolution in the Third World. In his speech commemorating the forty-seventh anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1964, Brezhnev claimed that détente does not mean an end to ‘the class struggle' or ‘national liberation movement' in (neo)colonial situations. Rather, ‘a situation of peaceful co-existence will enable the success of the liberation struggle and the achievement of the revolutionary tasks of peoples'.15 By the end of the 1970s, a clash of ontologies and definitions from the beginning was a key shortcoming that rendered superpower détente a failure and a clash of tensions inevitable. However, both superpowers considered détente as an opportunity to advance their own interests in the Cold War politics. In sum, détente as a political concept means different things to different states and people at different time.
The Question of Periodisation
The second puzzle is when exactly détente happened. In general, the historiography agrees that the period of détente is an era of negotiations between superpowers during the late 1960s until 1979. The key turning points in this commonsensical détente included the opening to the People's Republic of China, and the American-Soviet rapprochement and its concomitant nuclear agreements. Some might extend the process of détente to include European détente, including the launch of West Germany's Ostpolitik, an improvement of East-West relations, and so forth.16 However, some authors, such as Hanhimäki, extend the longevity of détente to cover the period between the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.17 Recent scholarship has suggested that the ‘first détente' in the Cold War began in earnest after the death of Stalin in 1953.18
In the Soviet Union, the post-Stalin elites led by Nikita Khrushchev, who at home promulgated an age of thaw, were keen for a rapprochement with the West (razryadka napryazhennosti), as evidenced at the Geneva summit conference of July 195519, whereas the West was reluctant or even conspicuously skeptical. In some respects, Mike Bowker considers Brezhnev's détente in the 1970s as simply a "continuation of Khrushchev's thaw".20 Similarly, R. Gerald Hughes provided a detailed account of the British policy of the rapprochement with the Soviet Union in the 1950s onwards, arguing that this was ambiguously juggling with a more nuanced position toward its ally West Germany.21 The others have gone so far to trace the process of détente back into the 1920s, most notably at the Genoa Conference.22 The specific periodisation of détente has been increasingly altered and deconstructed as a generalisable concept, applicable for any periods in which reduction of tension occurred, irrespective of the a priori conventional wisdom of the term.
The Question of Sources
The third, and very important, kind of puzzle is of which détente we are talking about (as well as whether or not, and how, these détentes related to each other). We can categorise three different types of détente, as follows. The first one is a superpower détente, which focuses mainly on a triangular diplomacy between the US, the Soviet Union, and China, and their bilateral relations.23 One of the startling transformations is a Sino-American rapprochement, culminated in the historic opening to China in February 1972.24 After the long secret diplomacy and back channels spearheaded by Henry Kissinger and his Chinese counterpart, Zhou Enlai, many scholars such as Margaret MacMillan claimed that the détente with China seemed to be inevitable since the onset of the diplomatic rapprochement with China.25
However, this Sino-American détente was largely symbolic and a work in progress during the Cold War. On the contrary, at that time, the US-Soviet bilateral rapprochement was far more substantive than the former. Two superpowers launched a series of American-Soviet summit meetings, and simultaneously signed a dozen of bilateral agreements regarding the arms control, in particular the Strategic Arms Limitations Treaties (SALT) in 1972, the Prevention of Nuclear War agreement in 1973, and a SALT II treaty in 1974. A crucial watershed was unquestionably President Nixon's trip to Moscow in May 1972.26 Nevertheless, the US-Soviet détente was narrowly single-focused: that is, nuclear negotiations.
The second type is a European détente. By the mid-1960s the Western European powers were increasingly interested in détente with the Eastern bloc, or the Warsaw Pact. For example, in 1966 two important European leaders, British Prime Minister Harold Wilson (in February) and French President Charles de Gaulle (in June), paid official visits to Moscow.27 In turn, Italy invited Soviet president Nikolai Podgorny to Rome in early 1967. By 1969, the newly elected Chancellor of West Germany, Willy Brandt pursued an innovative strategy of Ostpolitik (Eastern policy), or what his advisor Egon Bahr called ‘change through rapprochement', with the Soviet Union and East Germany, including the signing of the famous Moscow Treaty in August 1970, the Treaty on Quadripartite control of Berlin in 1971, and, most important, the Basic Treaty between two Germanys in 1972. Ostpolitik was accompanied by the process of increased exchanges and contacts in the East-West relations that paved the way to the conclusion of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE).28 Finally, the Helsinki Final Act, which was signed in August 1975, contained not only the recognition of the postwar European territorial settlement but also an innovative commitment to human rights, which in turn inexorably transformed the dynamism of the Cold War.29 Recent scholarship has increasingly focused on the human-rights turn in the Cold War studies.30 Unlike a superpower détente, European détente had a series of multilevel conferences, and covered a wide-range set of issues, in particular human rights. To an extent, this explains why the multilateral European détente lasted longer and was more stable than a short-lived superpowers détente.
In the West, some literature also emphasise the role of individual leaders31 as the architects of each and every détente, such as one of Nixon and Kissinger32, Leonid Brezhnev33, Willy Brandt34, Charles de Gaulle35, and so forth.
Finally, a Third World détente. Recent literature attempt to decenter and de-Westernise détente into a transnational or global détente. This détente was inseparably coupled with crises of the Cold War superpowers' rivalry as well as the decolonisation process.36 In some cases, the Third World countries, such as Thailand, started to make their own détente with communist powers as the Soviet Union and/ or China. However, above all, superpower and European détentes did not lead to any settlements or agreements about norms, or shared expectations about appropriate behaviors, in the Third World, which every so often complicated the relationship between the Third World countries and superpowers grand politics, and precipitated tensions and conflict in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Africa. In brief, different kind of détente leads to different nature, characteristic, emphasis and set of issues.
The Motivations Question
The final puzzle is which factor drove the rise and decline of détente in global politics. To begin with, the explanations for the emergence of détente are complex and considerable, thereby it is extremely difficult to pin down sharply specific ‘schools of thought' in détente studies. The article then goes through each and every perspective on détente one by one. With regard to superpower détente, Raymond Garthoff's Détente and Confrontation stands firm as, and remains, a classic in the historiography. It comprehensively covers the bilateral relationship between the US and the USSR, by mainly focusing on the pivotal moment of nuclear parity in the 1960s.37
From the American perspective, the root causes of the rise of superpower détente vary. The chief among them is the quagmire and repercussion of the Vietnam War on the American politics and its relatively fading status in the international system. The ‘Nixinger' strategy first and foremost wanted to extricate the US from the Vietnam War and, in doing so, necessitated Soviet support.38 The second reason is the Sino-Soviet split since the 1960s.39 The third reason is the emergence of European détente and its impact on American-Soviet bilateral relations. The fourth reason is the global social context of the late 1960s, in particular the rise of dissident movements in Europe and beyond.40 In a recent scholarship, Hanhimäki provides a thorough and comprehensive overview of the rise and fall of America's détente: by covering aforementioned factors, his underlying argument is that détente, as an adjustment of means to fight the Cold War, happened largely due to a seemingly inevitable diminishing power and prestige of the US.41 Changes in means, rather than in ultimate goals, were necessary for American foreign policy.
From the Chinese perspective, existing literature explained that what motivated Mao Zedong and his comrades is largely because of the strategic or geopolitical factor: namely, the Soviet threat, as evidenced in the Sino-Soviet increasing tension and deterioration along their borders.42 To put it differently, at the national security level, China pursued a reconciliation with the US as a deterrent against the Soviet threat. Based on newly released Chinese documents, Jian Chen, a leading scholar on China, succinctly asserted for a status-centered interpretation, thereby placing the Sino-American rapprochement within the domestic context of the declining status of Mao's continuous revolution. Also, this rapprochement considerably improved China's strategic status vis-à-vis the superpowers, gaining a position at the United Nations in October 1971.43
For the Soviet Union, the key motivations for the rise of détente can be understood as security (its strategic parity with the US), economic (stagnation and widening gap with the West) and China (Sino-Soviet split and its subsequent tensions on the borders during the 1960s) factors.44 From the Soviet perspective, after the Sino-American rapprochement of the early 1970s, Brezhnev's policy of détente was partly motivated by fears that the Soviet Union would be isolated, and left to be encircled by both the NATO and China. However, it seems that from the equal status of nuclear superpower vis-à-vis the US, Brezhnev's posture and actions toward the US were inexorably driven as much by the desire to stabilise the superpower arms race. Among these factors, Vladislav Zubok argues that the most important one is Brezhnev's ideas, personal world-views, and leadership.45 To sum up, every historiographical debate emphatically focuses on the ‘why' question of motivations and factors that brought about the emergence of détente in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
In International Relations (IR) Theories, realism is a predominant explanation for the rise of détente. Détente, and its concomitant rapprochement, is understood as the result of a shifting balance of power. For Realists, the ultimate aim of states is a struggle for survival, thereby sustaining the balance of power with other powers and preventing any potentially rising hegemon in the international system.46 The US pursued a détente strategy for expedient reasons: in the late 1960s, the US was in a declining status compared to a relatively rising power of the Soviet Union, leading to the US decision to cooperate with China, due to the Sino-Soviet split, in order to curb the Soviet power, and, at the same time, leverage the ‘China card' to put outright pressure on the Soviet Union in negotiating the détente process.
Contra a realist paradigm, Evelyn Goh provided a constructivist appraisal of the changing discursive formation and representations of China in official American circles in ending the hostile estrangement: the existing literature, she claimed, has predominantly been occupied with explaining why but not how rapprochement happened. In her study, Goh rather identified and traced the changing perceptions and discourses of China, from a ‘red menace' to a ‘tacit ally', between 1961 and 1974. As she put it, ‘In contrast to the existing literature, this constructivist, discourse-based approach situates the prevailing realpolitik account of the rapprochement within the context of other ideas about reconciliation with China over a fifteen-year period'.47 In IR Theories, while a realist explanation tends to focus on material changes in relative international power, which prompted strategic reevaluations in the tripolar powers, a constructivist understanding reassesses this détente from ideational and discursive factors, which mediated not only the materiality of power shifts but also the rethinking of perceptions, images and representations of other powers.
On the decline and fall of détente, there are at least three broad explanations, as follows. The first explanation is the orthodox or traditionalist view, ascertaining that Soviet expansionism and its concomitant aggressive strategy in the Third World were the main driving forces behind the collapse of détente. These aggressive Soviet motivations were culminated in the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, which put a final end to a short moment of détente.48 The second explanation is the clash of definitions. Already the most consequential from the outset, America and Soviet leaders had two different conceptions and interpretations of détente, which rendered the downfall unsurprisingly unavoidable.49 The third explanation, a revisionist perspective, is at odds with the orthodox view. It stresses the essentially defensive motivations of the Soviet Union while emphasising the changing American perceptions of the Soviet Union and its policy in the Third World, the rise of the conservatism in the US as well as the lack of a domestic consensus in support of détente.
As Odd Arne Westad suggests, the main factor in the rapid breakdown of détente was "the Carter administration's increasing assertiveness towards the Soviet Union".50 In this explanation, it also reassesses Soviet motivations in the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, through newly declassified documents, and asserts that, in contrast to a long-standing traditionalist views that the invasion of Afghanistan was part of a larger Soviet expansionist strategy aimed at global dominance, the Soviet Union's objectives are significantly defensive, rather than offensive per excellence. Specifically, the USSR sought to restrain extremist elements of the Afghan communist party, who were undermining stability on the southern Soviet frontier.51
Conclusion: Détente as Restoration or Revolution?
Last but not least, a number of scholars have argued on the ultimate aim of détente, asking whether it is conservative or revolutionary. Almost all of the literature seems to contend that the architects of détente fundamentally aimed at stabilising the existing Cold War international system, rather than transcending or ending it. For the US in particular, this project and logic of détente, in Nixon's and Kissinger's views, was a struggle for American preponderance of power amidst its (perceptions of) relatively strategic decline.52 Similarly the Soviet and Eastern German détente then pursued conservative goals, aiming at the recognition of the postwar territorial status quo in Europe. However, Willy Brandt's Ostpolitik was in large part geared toward the ultimate aim of German reunification. In other words, Brandt's recognition of two Germanys was the first stepping stone toward their reunion.53
Furthermore, there is also an ongoing debate about the relationship between détente and the end(ing) processes of the Cold War, asking whether they are causal or constitutive. On the one hand, most literature stresses détente as a very short recalibration and a fatal failure, which apparently had no any causal relations with the end of the Cold War. As John Lewis Gaddis succinctly put it, ‘Détente … was not an end to cold war tensions but rather a temporary relaxation … [It is] a failure of [American] strategy'.54 On the other hand, some literature envisions détente in terms of a constitutive role in shaping the possibilities of the endings of the Cold War, rather than a causal relations (if A, then B). In particular, détente has opened up the horizon of human security (at least in Europe) and rendered the East-West interconnectedness, especially in trade interdependence, possible and plausible.55 As Jussi Hanhimäki sums up,
‘[D]étente, rather than stabilising the international situation as many of its architects had hoped for, fundamentally altered the Cold War international system. Détente did not end the Cold War nor provide a clear road map towards 1989 (or 1991). But … détente was instrumental in setting in motion the many processes that ultimately caused the collapse of the international system that it was supposed to have stabilised.'56
Thus far détente is a conservative project but it unintendedly and unexpectedly transfigured and transformed emancipatory consequences.
Despite its gradual increase in literature and its interestedness of the subject, détente studies is still the least researched area in the Cold War International History. Arguably, debates in historiography and theory, however, have continually contested on at least four aforementioned research puzzles, ranging from détente's ontological meanings, time frames, sources, and motivations. Albeit this vivaciously ongoing, despite emerging, debate, there remains research questions that are not yet asked, sources of détente that are not yet explored, and approaches that are not yet examined. It is an enormous gap in the Cold War international History and IR discipline that needs to be filled in the foreseeable future. In brief, caveat emptor!