Superpower Diplomacy - Alliances and superpower dominance, 1964–1968

The second half of the 1960s was a time of parallel crises for the two military alliances, NATO and the Warsaw Pact, in both of which superpower dominance was at issue. For the first time since the onset of the Cold War, the loosening of the Kremlin leadership in the aftermath of Khrushchev's ouster gave Soviet allies an opportunity to challenge the predominance of the Soviet superpower—as U.S. allies had always been able to do in regard to the U.S. superpower but had been more reluctant to do as long as the Soviet Union appeared threatening. Now the belief in the Soviet intention to attack Western Europe had all but disappeared, though not—after the Berlin and Cuban experiences—the fear that Europeans might still find themselves exposed to a devastating confrontation on their territories as a result of miscalculation or mismanagement of a crisis over which they would have no control.

The fear was all the more legitimate since the war plans of both alliances, elaborated under the impact of the Berlin crisis, envisaged extensive nuclear exchanges on European territory. In October 1963 the Romanian government secretly gave the United States assurances that in case of a military conflict between the superpowers, Romania would remain neutral—an act of flagrant disloyalty to the Soviet alliance. Poland had been preparing proposals for military disengagement between the two blocs, notably the Rapacki Plan for a nuclear-free zone in Central Europe, which, if implemented, would have restricted both U.S. and Soviet freedom of action in the area. Czechoslovakia, too, opposed the deployment of Soviet nuclear launchers on its territory.

U.S. leadership of NATO was challenged by French President Charles de Gaulle, who argued that the U.S. "nuclear umbrella" was no longer credible. In his opinion, shared by many Europeans, the United States would not risk the destruction of its cities by using its nuclear weapons to defend Europe against Soviet attack—an assessment retrospectively confirmed by the secretary of defense in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, Robert S. McNamara. De Gaulle at first sought to replace superpower dominance by that of a larger consortium of powers, including France, which together would take the main responsibility for international security. When he did not succeed, in March 1966 he took France out of NATO's integrated command structure, though not out of the alliance itself, and proceeded to develop France's own small nuclear deterrent, which he believed sufficient to keep the Soviet Union and any other enemy at bay.

In 1962 the Kennedy administration proclaimed a "grand design" for interdependence that would heed the concerns of the European allies. But at the same time the administration pressed them to accept the new U.S. strategy of "flexible response," regarded by many of them as destabilizing and resolutely opposed by France. The strategy entailed widening military options in the event of war, including nuclear options, thus making the actual exercise of those options appear more likely. American ability to assert its superpower position in Europe was hampered by the deepening U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, waged on the dubious and widely rejected assumption that fighting the Vietnamese communists was necessary to check the expansion of Soviet power.

The Johnson administration, though mired in the Vietnam War, managed the NATO crisis more deftly than the Kennedy administration had, helping the alliance overcome it once France's self-exclusion opened the door to its resolution. A compromise was found in the December 1967 Harmel Report, named after the Belgian foreign minister who prepared it, which set NATO the goals of both defense and détente—improvement of its military capabilities along with an effort to reduce the need to use them by improving relations with the Soviet enemy by diplomatic means. This was a new task for U.S. superpower diplomacy, invigorated by the reconfirmation of America's leading role in the alliance.

In 1966 the Soviet Union responded to Western overtures for détente and to the unrest within its own alliance by proposing to its members its reorganization for greater effectiveness. The difficult negotiations that followed were further slowed down by the communist reform movement in Czechoslovakia, which in August 1968 prompted a Soviet-led invasion of the country. The invasion reaffirmed the Soviet super-power prerogative to intervene militarily at will in any of the Warsaw Pact countries—the tenet of the "Brezhnev doctrine," named after the Soviet leader who succeeded Khrushchev. The suppression of the Czechoslovak heresy allowed the Soviet Union in 1969 to implement the reform of the alliance by introducing limited consultation with its members.

The reaffirmation of each superpower's primacy within its respective alliance facilitated their diplomatic rapprochement. Already, before the Czechoslovak intervention, the United States and the Soviet Union in July 1968 had succeeded in negotiating the conclusion of the Nonproliferation Treaty. This important agreement aimed at preventing further spread of nuclear weapons by committing countries that did not possess them to refrain from their acquisition in return for the promise by the existing nuclear powers to gradually reduce their nuclear potential and take measures for preventing its use. Precipitated by the recent development of China's nuclear capability, which both the United States and the Soviet Union found threatening, the treaty enshrined their own special status as superpowers—a fact that drew criticism but did not prevent most of the world's nations from signing the agreement. The treaty curbed the spread of nuclear weapons during the Cold War despite the superpowers' failure to live up to their promises to substantially reduce their arsenals, and in later years remained a substantial impediment to proliferation.

The restrained U.S. reaction to the advance of the Soviet troops into Czechoslovakia, reputedly characterized by President Lyndon B. Johnson as an "accident on the road to détente," showed how far the rapprochement between the United States and the Soviet Union had already advanced by the late 1960s. That rapprochement rested not on settlement of their differences but rather on the incipient perception of their military parity, defined primarily in terms of their nuclear capabilities and the notion that the military balance overshadowed the political imbalance. Accordingly, their common diplomatic goal consisted of perpetuating their superpower position while limiting the dangers posed by the continued growth of the nuclear arsenals upon which that position was based.

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