One can not effectively interpret world political policies of the 1970’s without the inclusion of the relationship known as dtente, and the breakdown there of. The breakdown of the 1970’s dtente can be attributed to many different issues and events. In researching these events the varying opinions from both world superpowers which would establish the failure of dtente in history, as a breakdown in communication and talks between the United State’s White House and the Soviet Union’s Kremlin with the collapse of dtente marking the end of the 1970’s.
During the 1976 presidential campaign, the tension between the objective of transformation and the importance of coexistence became crucial. Conservatives criticized dtente for not moderating the Soviets involvement in the Third World transformation to communism. In the United States, many saw accumulative series of Soviet interventions which involved military means; Angola, Ethiopia, Kampuchea, Afghanistan, as a pattern of Soviet expansion, which was not consistent with dtente. Many actually believed that these expansionist moves were encouraged by dtente. Ultimately, the expectations that dtente would achieve more were held by both powers.
It was the failure to satisfy these expectations which led to its demise. Kissinger suggested that “dtente, with all its weaknesses, should be judged not against some ideal but against what would have happened in its absence. Dtente did not cause the Soviet arms build-up, nor could it have stopped it. However, it may have slowed it down or made it more benign” (Garthoff 1994:1123). Perhaps dtente could be viewed, not as a method of preventing or deterring tension which might lead to war, but as a way of postponing their effect until the United States could more effectively deal with them.
By 1976, dtente was a controversial term with both left and right hands of the disagreement criticizing its development. With the Administration of Jimmy Carter, a campaign for restoring confidence in government institutions and reforming American foreign policy was implemented (Froman 1991:74). President Carter appointed Zbigniew Brzezinski as National Security Adviser and Cyrus Vance as Secretary of State. The ongoing differences between Brzezinski and Vance resulted in turmoil for the Carter administration as well as destroyed Carter’s efforts to develop a set of boundaries for the principles of dtente.
Dtente began to collapse almost as soon as it had begun. Watergate undermined President Richard M. Nixon’s credibility; Senator Jackson’s Amendment in regards to the Jewish community and Angola all compromised Democratic/ Soviet relations. In spite of all this, by 1977 Dtente was still a viable option, with a new American initiative needed to get dtente back on track. With the Carter administration, no sign of renewed confidence in dtente was evident. Jimmy Carter’s action, if anything, impeded progress towards dtente. Zbigniew Brzezinski’s “hard line” approach resulted in serious problems for the dtente by 1978.
The Strategic Arms Limitation Talks established in 1972 were not yet completed. The Soviet Kremlin and the White House were no longer having diplomatic talks with both sides feeling the other was to blame. The United States critiqued the build up of the Soviet armed forces and the Soviet/Cuban involvement in Africa placed extreme pressure on dtente’s success. In the midst of these events the signing of the Helsinki Accords in 1975 placed human rights high on the political agenda. America began to place pressure on the USSR’s domestic policy in regards to the treatment of Russia’s minority groups.
Carter’s crusade to liberalize Communist societies through external pressure actually jeopardized American-Soviet relations. The already inflamed dtente was further compromised by the Jackson Amendment of 1974, which fought Moscow to open emigration of Soviet Jews. This event humiliated the Soviet Union by the interference of the United States in Soviet internal affairs producing a hostile Kremlin. Jimmy Carter spoke grandly about his “ultimate goal, the elimination of all nuclear weapons from earth” (Isaacs, Downing 1988:354).
Disarmament and arms control were a high priority for Carter and he was proposing to introduce radical cuts in arms levels which was flatly turned down by Moscow. In 1977, the Soviets stepped up there nuclear arms in Europe. They replaced all old military devices for improved arms, which was seen by the United States as a new threat to the dtente. The Soviet’s challenge to America’s military superiority saw a simultaneous build up of arms for the Western alliance whilst both sides called for greater arms reductions. (Isaacs, Downing 1996).
In addition to this, a series of International events managed to inflame both the United States and the Soviet Union. Firstly Egypt visited Israel making peace after many years of heated conflict. The Camp David Accords mediated by Jimmy Carter came to pass which infuriated Moscow and further alienated the east in international affairs. In opposition to this the USSR supported Cuban troops in the Horn of Africa with Ethiopia’s struggles with Somalia. The thought of dtente ebbed away. But it would seem the height of the breakdown lied in the Persian Gulf region.
For twenty-five years the shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, pursued the modernization of their country. The oil revenues helped fuel the process of this change. Carter called Iran “an island of stability” (Ambrose 1997:291). The stability once noted in Iran crumbled under the pressure of the Islamic clergy with the Ayatollah Khomeini, at the head forcing the shah to flee his country. The Ayatollah condemned the western world, and the new Islamic Republic was declared. With this declaration the United States had lost a crucial ally. In 1979, the Carter administration decided that the SALT talks needed to be finalized.
SALT II would be an historic achievement and the first and last time Brezhnev and Carter would come together in a summit forum. At the end of the summit SALT II was seen as a success. On Carter’s arrival back home however concerns as to the particulars of the SALT II talks would be raised. The republican right, accused Jimmy Carter of being too soft on the Soviet’s and changes were made through the Senate. Carter gave the go-ahead for the MX missile system and increased federal spending on defense. All of this convinced the Soviets that SALT II was lost and that dtente had collapsed (Vadney 1998).
As this set of policies collapsed, the Soviet’s were deciding whether to intervene in a now war torn Afghanistan. In December 1979, some “85,000 Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan” (Ambrose 1997:287). Carter’s sentiments were extremely hostile towards this invasion and saw it as an event that “could pose the most serious threat to world peace since the Second World War” (Ambrose 1997:287-8) and moved to boycott the upcoming Olympic games to be held in Moscow. Washington seemed to be floundering in the Cold War attempt at dtente and the very ideology of peace was cut short.
Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger had previously developed a strategy of dtente as a way to establish World order. In an era of nuclear vulnerability negotiations were imperative. However, there was a fatal difference in the concept of its basic role between the two governing systems that eventually to its failure and ongoing diplomatic talks were not continued by the new Carter Presidential term. The actual concept of what the dtente was a key issue in its failure. In the eyes of the American leaders, it was a way of managing the emergence of the Soviet power.
The Soviet leaders, on the other hand, saw it as a way of managing the transition of the United States to a more modest role in international relations from one of superiority. Each country saw itself as the manager of transition in an age of nuclear parity. Richard Nixon said, “our goal is different to theirs. We seek peace as an end in itself. They seek victory, with peace being at this time a means to an end in itself” (Froman 1991:72) Due to the nuclear parity of both the United States and the Soviet Union, it meant there was some inability for America to maintain world order.
It also meant that the Soviet Union had a relatively more important role than it previously did. Although both governments had different opinions of world order, which to some extent was understood, the implication on their diverging opinions was not. Soviet leaders wanted to make a historical change by replacing capitalism in the world with socialism. The Soviets believed a transition like this could occur in a peaceful way through dtente. It would seem that they didn’t want to use military force as a method behind such a change, contrary to some beliefs.
American reactions to varying events may have been preempting conflict too early with Washington reacting too quickly to Soviet policy (Pipes 1980). Both the Soviet Union and the United States tried to increase their security through increased military weapons. The efforts by both countries to do this were seen as an attempt to gain absolute security, domination and superiority. Each presumed the other was trying to gain an advantage. America had the perception that the Soviets had a relentless drive for world domination. The Soviet leaders saw the American’s in pursuit of military superiority as the basis for intimidation.
Due to the lack of understanding by both parties, of each other’s perspective’s, ideologies and their inability to reconcile differences, associated in failing to understand each other’s viewpoint, magnified the problems of dtente. Another cause associated with the failure of dtente was a political standard, which needed to be outlined, to address America’s, and the Soviet Unions competitive actions in the world. However, in the 1970’s their inability to transform their recognition of strategic parity, into a common political standard also contributed to the failure of the American-Soviet Union dtente.
As there were no basic principal of mutual relations and code of conduct, discussing each other’s views, there were only expectations of disciplined behavior from the either side. In reality, it gave rise to a type of a “ambiguous type of agreement” (Froman 1991:38). This affected both public expectations as well as the expectation of the leadership. The U. S. and the Soviet Union applied different standards to their behavior than they did their rival superpower and others. Double standards were present in U. S. with their idea of Soviet behavior, in occupying Afghanistan, and even earlier in a series of Soviet moves in Third World countries.
America’s perception of the Soviet intervention of Afghanistan was of expansionism. It was heightened of course by America’s idea that the Soviets were using expansionist moves and covering any conflict by dtente. However, in the interests of America, this expansionist move by the Soviets would be detrimental because it represented vital Western interest, i. e. access to oil from the Persian Gulf. In this case, the Soviets perception and the American’s perception were entirely different. The Soviets didn’t see themselves as seizing an opportunity; there were several key factors as to why they occupied Afghanistan.
However, the Soviet perception was that the United States were ignoring Soviet parity as a superpower. America was applying double standards not only for themselves, for example when they introduced their own military forces and changed the leadership of the Dominican Republic, but also had double standards with China as well, as nothing was done when China invaded a smaller neighboring communist country Vietnam (Garthoff 1994). It is important to look back on previous administration, to explore the fundamentals of dtente. In 1974, when Gerald Ford assumed Presidency and pledged to continue Nixon’s approach.
Relations between the United States and the Soviet Union in regards to foreign policy were to remain a priority. However, domestic concerns, such as inflation and encouraging energy conservation, dominated the political agenda. Restoring the integrity of the Presidency was the main focus of Ford. The U. S. – Soviet relationship was soon undermined by developments in American domestic politics. Later that year, Congress adopted amendments that substantially limited the economic benefits the Soviets hoped to gain from dtente. It was the amendments explored in the Ford administration that carried over into the next term.
The differences between these administrations was the lack of diplomatic talks between the east and west blocs. The SALT II talks marked the very first and last time that Brezhnev and Carter would meet to discuss international relations (Lynch 1992). As the 1980’s began the United States were left in wonder as to what had gone wrong in the 1970’s with the very real prospect of dtente. The loss of Iran, the invasion of Afghanistan, the Jackson Amendment, SALT II talks on weapons and the misunderstandings of both superpowers on the very idea of dtente all lead to its breakdown in the 1970’s.