Détente climaxed in the first half of the 1970s. Nixon's visits to Moscow and Beijing, the Berlin Treaty of 1971–1972, the 1972 Basic Treaty between the two German states, and the Helsinki Accord of 1975 appeared to prove the vitality of East-West détente. But there was increasing domestic American opposition to détente; the growing number of neoconservatives were firmly opposed, for example, to the Helsinki conference. Many on the right of the political spectrum in the United States viewed Western acceptance of the postwar borders in Europe by means of the Helsinki Final Act as a substantial defeat of the West. Soviet ratification of the human rights accord, an element that may well have contributed to the unraveling of the Soviet empire a decade later, was seen as unimportant.
When President Jimmy Carter took office in 1977, he embarked on a human rights crusade. He viewed NATO as more than just a military and political alliance; to him NATO ought to contribute to a more humane development of international politics and create a more just world. This antagonized the Soviet Union and led to much increased tension in East-West relations. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, détente was all but over. Carter turned into a full-blown cold warrior, not least in order to increase his chances for reelection in 1980. The U.S. government boycotted the Olympic Games in Moscow in 1980 and the president refused to let the SALT II Treaty proceed for ratification in the Senate (where it probably would have been defeated).
However, in 1977 Carter made three important proposals that were accepted by NATO at the North Atlantic Council meeting in May 1978 and indicated the alliance's enduring mistrust of Moscow. The first proposal argued that Western policy should continue to be based on the Harmel Report: détente had to be pursued on the basis of strength. The second proposal referred to the standardization of military equipment and to the necessity of making further progress with integrating NATO at the operational level. The third proposal, which developed into the Long-Term Defense Program (LTDP), indicated that détente had not overcome the arms race. In view of continued Soviet expansion of its offensive capabilities, NATO's defenses also needed to be strengthened, particularly in the area of conventional weapons. NATO's long-term nuclear needs were to be discussed by the Nuclear Planning Group. Although most European countries whole-heartedly approved of the LTDP, the renewed out-break of Cold War tension after the Afghanistan invasion worried the Europeans. The simultaneous continuation of détente in Europe became a serious problem for the coherence of NATO and America's dominant position within the alliance.
Soon the belief, widespread in the United States, that the Soviet Union was in fact attempting to obtain military and nuclear superiority under the guise of arms control agreements also began to worry a number of European NATO countries such as West Germany and Britain. It eventually led to NATO's "dual track" rearmament decision of December 1979. The dual track strategy consisted of the attempt to negotiate with Moscow for the reduction or even elimination of the Kremlin's intermediate-range SS-20 missiles, which were targeted at western Europe, by 1983. If this should prove impossible, as was in fact the case, equivalent U.S. weapons (464 cruise missiles and 108 Pershing missiles) would be deployed in western European countries: the Pershings in West Germany and the cruise missiles in the United Kingdom, Italy, Holland, and Belgium. Among the European peoples this decision was severely criticized. In Bonn it contributed to the downfall of the Helmut Schmidt government and its replacement by the center-right government of Helmut Kohl in 1982. It also caused many domestic upheavals in France and Italy and led to the rapid development of a European-wide peace movement. The latter largely benefited the new left-leaning, pacifist, and environmental Green parties across western Europe, which were particularly strong in West Germany, France, and the Benelux countries. After all, while European countries had to agree to the deployment of the new nuclear missiles in their countries, negotiations with the Soviet Union, if they were to take place, would be a bilateral affair between Moscow and Washington. It would exclude the Europeans—including the United Kingdom and France, whose nuclear weapons might also be affected by any negotiated solution—from having any input.
By the early 1980s America's political elite was increasingly dominated by anticommunist ideology, which eventually culminated in the election of President Ronald Reagan in late 1980. Reagan did not hesitate to go back to the days of intensive Cold War first experienced in the 1950s and early 1960s. However, Washington habitually failed to consult or even inform its European allies.
When Ronald Reagan entered the White House he was intent on reimposing America's leadership on transatlantic relations. The European Community's much stronger economic position and greater political confidence as well as the era of détente with the Soviet Union were simply ignored by Reagan as if these developments had never taken place. Thus, under Reagan, even more so than under Carter, economic as well as security issues and severely differing perceptions regarding the East-West conflict affected the transatlantic alliance. Reagan went on the offensive to implement NATO's "dual track" decision and undermine the European peace movements by attempting to sell the alliance as a harbinger of peace. At the same time, the reassertion of America's leadership of NATO and the concurrent attempt to increase America's global prestige were at the heart of Reagan's foreign policy. Reagan also did not hesitate to employ anticommunist rhetoric. Much to the despair of the European NATO allies, Reagan did not appear to be interested in rescuing what was left of East-West détente. Among European leaders only British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher supported Reagan's hard-line approach.
Reagan, like Thatcher, was not interested in supporting the creation of a supranational Europe. In fact, his new policy of strength toward Moscow precluded a reassessment of Washington's relations with its allies. With regard to Reagan's policy toward the Soviet Union, however, it is useful to differentiate between his first and second terms in office; from 1984 to 1985 the president embarked upon a less hard-line approach toward the USSR. Although this helped to improve Washington's relations with its allies to a considerable degree, Reagan still expected the Europeans to follow America's hegemonic lead without questioning any of its policies. Thus, in terms of transatlantic relations, a deliberate policy of arrogant rather than benign neglect can be observed throughout Reagan's terms in office. Early in his presidency, for example, the administration talked casually of developing capabilities for fighting nuclear war and the possibility of entering into tactical nuclear exchanges with the Soviet Union. Such exchanges would of course have taken place over European territory, destroying much of the continent in the process. The same apparent willingness to distance himself from European security concerns appeared to apply to the president's enthusiasm regarding the development of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). If this project ever were to come to fruition it purportedly would make the United States immune to nuclear attacks by the Soviet Union, while in all likelihood such protection would not be available to the Europeans.
Reagan's negotiations with Soviet secretary general Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik in October 1986 almost led to the elimination of all ballistic missiles in East and West and the tabling of plans for the eradication of all nuclear weapons in the foreseeable future. Although such a development would have dramatically affected the future of the European continent, the president never consulted the Europeans but drew the lesson that only a united NATO front would convince the Soviets to make concessions. The same unilateral approach was applied when Gorbachev surprised Western leaders by accepting the United States' "zero-zero" INF proposal in December 1987, which foresaw the removal of all intermediate-range missiles from Europe. Reagan's 1988 proposal to modernize NATO's short-range nuclear Lance missiles in Europe to counter Moscow's still existing conventional strength in Europe also occurred without much consultation with America's NATO allies.
The Reagan administration's disinterest in consulting the Europeans can also be observed with respect to economic issues. The European Community's, and in particular West Germany and France's, increasing trade with East Germany, the Soviet Union, the developing world, and certain Arab nations was viewed with a combination of suspicion and envy in Washington. Reagan attempted to restrain the competition of the EC countries, and he did not hesitate to explain the rationale of American trade policy with the help of NATO and transatlantic security arguments, which usually resulted in the development of severe economic conflicts. Such crises emerged, for example, in connection with the proposed European gas pipeline deal with Moscow. Reagan's controversial trade sanctions on the Soviet Union in the wake of the declaration of martial law in Poland in December 1981 ensured that transatlantic relations deteriorated further.
As usual, the European Community was ready to compromise as far as security and political issues were concerned, fully realizing that reasonable transatlantic relations and a functioning NATO alliance were still the indispensable pillars of the Cold War world. From November 1983, after the negotiations with Moscow within NATO's dual track framework had failed, most EC countries went along with the deployment of new intermediate-range missiles in the face of very hostile peace movements in many countries. Indeed, the deployment of the missiles even reassured some European governments that the Reagan administration did not intend to "decouple" from the European continent. Eventually the EC countries compromised over SDI and agreed to the imposition of sanctions (though largely symbolic ones) on Moscow after the Polish crisis of late 1981.
With regard to important economic issues the European Community was much less disposed to compromise. Regarding the envisaged gas pipeline to Moscow, the EC countries were adamant in their refusal to be browbeaten by the American attempt to undermine the deal; for example, they forbade the employment of American companies and technology in the construction of the pipeline. Reagan's attempts to impose what in effect amounted to extraterritorial sanctions on European companies who were willing to participate led to an outcry. Eventually Reagan had no option but to quietly give in.
Overall, Reagan's economic and financial policies showed yet again that the European Community was helpless in the face of unilateral American policies, forced to react to decisions that had been taken in Washington. Thus, as John Peterson has argued, "the precarious dependence of European economies on decisions taken by a fundamentally unsympathetic U.S. administration pushed the EC countries towards closer co-operation." The European Community under commission president Jacques Delors began developing plans for a Single European Market (SEM) to liberate itself from overwhelming American influence on western Europe's economic and financial fate. It intended to develop a fully free and integrated internal European market by 1992 and to design a common European currency system for implementation shortly thereafter. The French-led, though rather short-lived, revival of the Western European Union (WEU) in 1984 helped to contribute to the development of new ideas for creating a genuine common European foreign and defense policy, as later articulated in the Maastricht Treaty of 1991. In 1988 a Franco-German brigade was founded. This was expanded to corps level three years later; it had the dual purpose of making sure that Germany would remain committed to European integration and of strengthening Europe's military capacities. America's economic and financial predicament, made worse by a rapid decline of the dollar's value in the second half of the 1980s, seemed to indicate the possibility of U.S. troop withdrawals from Europe for financial reasons. The unilateral actions of Gorbachev regarding the reduction of nuclear and conventional armaments and the winding down of the Cold War also appeared to make this a distinct possibility for political reasons.
The Reagan administration viewed these moves toward an economically and politically more integrated and independent Europe with great suspicion. Despite its own protectionist and discriminatory trade policies, it did not hesitate to speak of a "Fortress Europe" and was deeply disturbed by European protectionist measures. By the end of the Reagan years it appeared that not much was left of America's vision for the European continent as it had been developed in the late 1940s and 1950s. The Reagan administration certainly had not been willing to deal constructively with the attempt of its European allies to emancipate themselves a little from American preponderance.