is a French
term, meaning a relaxing or easing; the term has been used in
international politics since the early 1970s. Generally, it may be
applied to any international situation where previously hostile
nations not involved in an open war de-escalate tensions through
diplomacy and confidence-building measures. However, it is
primarily used in reference to the general reduction in the tension
between the Soviet
Union and the United States and a thawing of the Cold
War, occurring from the late 1960s until the start of the
In the Soviet Union, détente was known as
", loosely meaning relaxation,
NATO powers and the Warsaw
Pact both had pressing reasons to seek relaxation in
tensions. Leonid Brezhnev
the rest of the Soviet leadership felt that the economic burden of
the nuclear arms race
unsustainable. The American economy was also in financial trouble
as the Vietnam War
finances at the same time as Lyndon
(and to a lesser extent, Richard Nixon
) sought to expand the government
Germany, the Ostpolitik of
Willy Brandt was decreasing tensions;
the Soviets hoped that with Détente, more trade with Western Europe
would be possible.
Soviet thinkers also felt that a less
aggressive policy could potentially detach the Western Europeans
from their American WRC .
relations with the People's Republic of China, leading to the Sino-Soviet Split, had caused great
concern in the Soviet Union.
The leadership feared the
potential of a Sino-American alliance against them and believed it
necessary to improve relations with the United States. Improved
relations with China had already thawed the general American view
Rough parity had been achieved in stockpiling nuclear weapons with
a clear capability of mutually assured destruction
(MAD). There was also the realization that the "relative gains"
theory as to the predictable consequences of war might no longer be
appropriate. A "sensible middle ground" was the goal.
Brezhnev and Nixon each hoped improved relations would boost their
domestic popularity and secure their power.
Several anti-nuclear movements supported détente. The Cuban missile crisis
dangerous the relations between the USSR and the USA were becoming.
Kennedy and Khruchshev wished to reduce the risk of a nuclear war,
as they were aware that the nuclear arsenals on each side granted
mutually assured destruction.
Summits and treaties
The most obvious manifestation of Détente was the series of summits
held between the leaders of the two superpowers and the treaties
that resulted from these meetings. Earlier in the 1960s, before
Détente, the Partial Test Ban
had been signed in 1963. Later in the decade, the
and Outer Space Treaty
were two of the first
building blocks of Détente. However, these early treaties did
little to curb the superpowers' abilities, and served primarily to
limit the nuclear ambitions of third parties
could endanger both superpowers.
The most important treaties were not developed until the advent of
, which came into office in 1969. The Political
Consultative Committee of the Warsaw
sent an offer to the West, urging to hold a summit on
"security and cooperation in Europe". The West agreed and talks
began towards actual
limits in the nuclear capabilities of the two superpowers. This
ultimately led to the signing of the SALT I
treaty in 1972. This treaty limited each power's nuclear arsenals,
though it was quickly rendered out-of-date as a result of the
development of MIRVs
. In the same year that
was signed, the Biological Weapons Convention
and the Anti-Ballistic
were also concluded. Talks on SALT II
also began in 1972.
In 1975, the Conference on
Security and Cooperation in Europe
met and produced the
, a wide ranging
series of agreements on economic, political, and human rights
issues. The CSCE was initiated by
the USSR, involving thirty-five states throughout Europe. Amongst
other issues, one of the most prevalent and discussed after the
conference was that of human rights violations in the Soviet Union.
The Soviet Constitution directly violated the Declaration of Human Rights
the United Nations, and this issue became a prominent point of
separation between the United States and the Soviet Union. The
administration had been
supporting human rights groups inside the Soviet Union, and
accused the administration
of interference in other countries’ internal affairs. This prompted
intense discussion of whether or not other nations may interfere if
basic human rights are being violated, such as freedom of speech
and religion. The basic disagreement in the philosophies of a
democracy and a single-party state did not allow for reconciliation
of this issue. Furthermore, the Soviets proceeded to defend
their internal policies on human rights by attacking American
support of countries like South Africa
and Chile which were
known to violate many of the same human rights issues.
In July of the same year, the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project
the first international space mission, wherein three American
astronauts and two Russian cosmonauts docked their spacecraft and
conducted joint experiments. This mission had been preceded by five
years of political negotiation and technical co-operation,
including exchanges of US and Russian engineers between the two
countries' space centers.
Trade relations between the two blocs increased substantially
during the era of détente. Most significant were the vast shipments
that were sent from the West to the
Soviet Union each year, which helped make up for the failure of
, Soviet collectivized
At the same time, the Jackson-Vanik amendment
, signed into
by Gerald Ford
on January 3, 1975, after a unanimous
vote by both houses of the United States Congress
, was designed
to leverage trade relations between the U.S. and the USSR, making
the United States dependent upon improvements of human rights
within the Soviet Union, in
particular allowing refusniks
it added to the Most Favoured Nation status a clause that provided
that no countries resisting emigration could be awarded this
status. This provided Jackson with a method of adding some
ideological content to détente, linking geopolitics to human rights
As direct relations thawed, increased tensions continued between
the superpowers through their surrogates, especially in the
. Conflicts in South Asia
, and the Middle
in 1973, saw the Soviet and U.S. backing their respective
surrogates with war materiel and diplomatic posturing. In Latin America
the United States continued to
block any leftward electoral shifts in the region by supporting
right wing military coups. During much of the early Détente period,
the Vietnam War
continued to rage.
Neither side trusted the other fully and the potential for nuclear war
remained constant. Each side continued to
aim thousands of nuclear warheads atop intercontinental ballistic
missiles (ICBMs) at each other's cities, maintain submarines
with long range nuclear weapon capability (Submarine-launched
ballistic missiles or SLBMs) in the world's oceans, keep
hundreds of nuclear-armed aircraft on constant alert, and guard
contentious borders in Korea and Europe with large ground forces.
efforts remained a high priority as defectors
, reconnaissance satellites
signal intercepts measured intentions and attempted to gain
End of Détente
The main problem with détente is that there was no clear definition
of how friendly and co-operative these two nations were to become.
Some historians and politicians have argued that this lack of
clarity in the détente relationship was mainly to blame for the
collapse of American-Soviet relations at the end of the
Soviet invasion of
Afghanistan that was to shore up a struggling allied regime led
to harsh criticisms in the west and a boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics, which were to be
held in Moscow.
President Jimmy Carter boosted the U.S.
defense budget and began financially aiding the President of Pakistan General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq heavily, who would
in turn subsidize the anti-Soviet Mujahideen fighters in the region.
The 1980 American
elected on a platform
the concessions of Détente. Negotiations on SALT
- Lapennal. Human Rights, p. 1.
- Lapennal. Human Rights, p. 14-15.
- Henry Kissinger, "Diplomacy"
- Bowkerl, Mike & Williams, Phil. Superpower Detente: A
Reappraisal. SAGE Publications (1988). ISBN 0803980426.
- Gaddis, John Lewis. The Cold War. The Penguin Press
- Lapennal, Ivo. Human Rights: Soviet Theory and Practice,
Helsinki and International Law. Eastern Press (1977).
- Suri, Jeremi. Power and Protest: Global Revolution and the
Rise of Détente. Harvard University Press (2003).
- Sarotte, M. E. Dealing with the Devil: East Germany,
Détente and Ostpolitik, 1969-1973. University of North
Carolina Press (2001).