[dey-tahnt; Fr. dey-tahnt]
Détente 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 1980s. In the Soviet Union, détente was known as разрядка ("razryadka", loosely meaning relaxation, discharge).


The NATO powers and the Warsaw Pact both had pressing reasons to seek relaxation in tensions. Leonid Brezhnev and the rest of the Soviet leadership felt that the economic burden of the nuclear arms race was unsustainable. The American economy was also in financial trouble as the Vietnam War drained government finances at the same time as Lyndon Johnson (and to a lesser extent, Richard Nixon) sought to expand the government welfare state.

In Europe, 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.

Worsening 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 of communism.

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 showed how 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 Treaty had been signed in 1963. Later in the decade, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty 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 that could endanger both superpowers.

The most important treaties were not developed until the advent of the Nixon Administration, which came into office in 1969. The Political Consultative Committee of the Warsaw Pact 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 SALT I was signed, the Biological Weapons Convention and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty 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 Helsinki Accords, 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 from the United Nations, and this issue became a prominent point of separation between the United States and the Soviet Union. The Carter administration had been supporting human rights groups inside the Soviet Union, and Brezhnev 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 with 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 became the first international space mission, with three American astronauts and two Russian cosmonauts docking their spacecraft and conducting 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 of grain that were sent from the West to the Soviet Union each year, which helped make up for the failure of kolkhoz, Soviet collectivized agriculture.

At the same time, the Jackson-Vanik amendment, signed into law 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 them dependent upon improvements of human rights within the Soviet Union, in particular allowing refusniks to emigrate.

Continued conflicts

Despite the growing amicability, heated competition continued between the two superpowers, especially in the Third World. Wars in South Asia in 1971 and the Middle East in 1973 sought to back their sides with material and diplomatic support. In Latin America the United States continued to block any leftward shift in the region with military coups. For much of the Détente period, the Vietnam War continued to rage. Neither side trusted the other fully and the potential for nuclear war remained. Each side continued to have thousands of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) pointed at the other’s cities, SLBM submarines in the oceans of the world, hundreds of nuclear-armed aircraft deployed, and forces guarding disputed borders in Korea and Europe. The espionage war continued unabated as defectors, reconnaissance satellites, and signal interceptions were still a priority for both sides.

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 1970s. Mike Bowker and Phil Williams addressed this problem as the minimalist versus the maximalist approach in Superpower Détente: A Reappraisal. The minimalist approach simply recognizes the difference between two adversaries, and calls for a lack of tension. The maximalist approach goes further in active pursuit of a mutually beneficial, almost friendly, relationship between two nations.Bowker and Williams raise the issue of conflicting understanding between Moscow and Washington; even if both administrations followed the maximalist approach, there may have been different interpretations of what was acceptable from the beginning of détente and what the desired outcomes would be.

Détente began to unravel in 1979. The Iranian Revolution and the subsequent hostage crisis embarrassed the United States and led much of the American public to believe their nation had lost its international power and prestige.

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. American 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 presidential election saw Ronald Reagan elected on a platform opposed to the concessions of Détente. Negotiations on SALT II were abandoned.

See also

Footnotes and References

  • Suri, Jeremi. 2003. Power and Protest: Global Revolution and the Rise of Détente. Cambridge, Mass.; London: Harvard University Press.
  • Sarotte, M. E. 2001. Dealing with the Devil: East Germany, Détente, and Ostpolitik, 1969-1973. Chapel Hill [N.C.]; London: University of North Carolina Press.

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