For the United States, arms control dominated the superpower agenda. Washington regarded as its foremost priority an agreement that would limit the growth of strategic nuclear weapons, the destructive potential of which had reached a level that made them capable of wiping out human life on Earth. The Soviet Union, while agreeing in 1969 to the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT), was more prepared than the United States to assume that the doomsday weapons would never be used and therefore made an understanding on political issues a higher priority.
The Soviet campaign for a political settlement in Europe, initiated in 1969, took the form of the proposal for a security conference, including the United States and Canada, which would confirm the territorial, and by extension also political, status quo on the continent, thus certifying the position the Soviet Union had established there as a result of its victory in World War II. The proposal, addressed to the governments of all the countries concerned, gave impetus to multilateral diplomacy as a supplement to superpower diplomacy, though not a substitute for it. Europeans in both West and East welcomed it as an opportunity to increase their international weight, while the Soviet Union saw it as a way to gradually attain the supremacy in Europe that had eluded it at the end of World War II. This was to be achieved after the conclusion of a vaguely worded treaty on security and cooperation. Its fulfillment was to be reviewed and interpreted at periodic follow-up conferences that the Soviet Union could expect to dominate, eventually acting as the arbiter of European security.
The United States, showing its greater concern with military matters, insisted on complementing the conference with negotiations that would address the asymmetry of the conventional forces in Europe favoring the Soviet Union. The United States was developing its bilateral relations with the Soviet Union with the goal of not only putting the arms race under control but also achieving a political understanding between the superpowers in terms of Realpolitik—a policy based on considerations of power and material interests rather than ethical considerations and ideals. The new trend was personified by Henry Kissinger, first the national security adviser and later secretary of state in the administration of President Richard M. Nixon.
Kissinger was the most influential of the foreign-born trio of America's most outspoken proponents of superpower diplomacy—the other two being President Jimmy Carter's national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and President Bill Clinton's secretary of state Madeleine Albright. An admirer of the nineteenth-century European diplomacy that maintained peace and stability by reconciling conservative powers with post-revolutionary France, Kissinger developed a secretive and manipulative approach to foreign policy that enabled him to attain a degree of independence in its conduct that was rare in the American political system. He preferred to deal with the Soviet Union through the "back channel" he had established through the long-serving and congenial Soviet ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Dobrynin.
Kissinger's Soviet counterpart was the experienced and hard-driving foreign minister Andrei A. Gromyko, who was dedicated to the maintenance and further advancement of Soviet super-power status. He cogently described this status as meaning that there was no important issue in the world that could be decided without the Soviet Union anymore. Unlike his Stalinist predecessor, Molotov, Gromyko believed in the possibility of advancing Soviet power and influence amid low rather than high international tension, thus facilitating the growth of East-West détente.
Kissinger's greatest achievement concerned China rather than the Soviet Union. His secretive diplomacy was well suited to preparing the normalization of U.S. relations with China, which Washington had previously misjudged as being a greater threat to American interests than the Soviet Union. By simultaneously improving relations with both the Soviet Union and China, a communist power hostile to the Soviet Union, the United States expanded the bilateral relationship with Moscow into a triangular relationship, which it was able to manipulate to its advantage. It did so better with China than with the Soviet Union, however.
Nixon's visit to Moscow in May 1972 resulted in a series of treaties that together represented the peak of achievement of superpower diplomacy. The United States and the Soviet Union initialed their first agreement limiting the growth of their strategic nuclear armaments (SALT I), agreed on precautions to prevent accidents arising from the movements of their naval and air forces, and concluded the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM), which banned for all time the deployment of missiles against nuclear attack.
Reflecting the concept of "mutual assured destruction," believed by U.S. theorists of deterrence as necessary for preventing the superpowers from attacking each other, the treaty incorporated the notion that the lack of defense against nuclear attack was the best protection against it. As such, it was an authentic product of the Cold War that tellingly reflected a bipolar international system dominated by superpowers unable to resolve their fundamental political differences. Once the Cold War ended and the bipolar system disappeared, the relevance of the treaty became doubtful, although it was still invoked at the beginning of the twenty-first century by both the opponents and the advocates of the U.S. plan for national missile defense (NMD).
The technical precision of the arms control measures adopted at the May 1972 summit contrasted with the ambiguity of the "basic principles" agreement, mistakenly hailed at the time as the framework that would allow the two super-powers to manage their relationship without generating unacceptable tension. The United States acknowledged the Soviet right to "equal security"—as if the reasons for the insecurity of the authoritarian Soviet system could possibly be the same as the reasons for the insecurity of a pluralistic Western democracy. Further, the two super-powers vowed not to seek advantage at the expense of each other—as if doing so were the cause rather than the effect of their competitive relationship. While Kissinger hoped to "enmesh" the Soviet Union in a growing web of relationships that would allow the United States to exercise a mitigating influence on its growing power, the Soviet leaders regarded détente as an opportunity to enhance that power and influence without American interference.
The October 1973 Yom Kippur War—in which Moscow, in an attempt to deal a blow to the U.S. position in the Middle East, did not discourage its Arab clients from attacking Israel—revealed the different notions of détente while testing the efficacy of superpower diplomacy. The United States put in strategic nuclear forces at a high level of alert while the Soviet Union threatened to intervene in the war with its own forces. Yet since neither side wanted to go over the brink, preferring instead to curb its respective clients, the crisis passed, seemingly vindicating the efficacy of superpower diplomacy but shaking America's faith in détente.
Détente peaked in the conclusion of the August 1975 Helsinki agreement as a result of a new-style multilateral diplomacy defying the expectations of both superpowers. The Soviet Union, the architect of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), in the end acquiesced in a treaty very different from the original Soviet concept in that the agreement embodied specific and detailed provisions for the protection of human rights as a matter of legitimate international concern. The Soviet Union signed the landmark treaty on the mistaken assumption that its paper provisions could not possibly gain political substance—an opinion shared by Kissinger, who, also mistakenly, regarded as more important Soviet consent to start negotiations on the "mutual and balanced" reductions of conventional forces (MBFR). The CSCE also encouraged the formation of nongovernmental organizations that challenged superpower diplomacy by the public advocacy of issues recently made relevant to foreign policy, such as human rights.
As a result of the unpopular Vietnam War and the scandals of the Nixon era, pressure increased for U.S. diplomacy to become more responsive to the public. While inevitable and potentially beneficial in a modern democracy, the pressure had the negative effect of increasing public and congressional expectations from the frequent superpower summits. Congenial to the authoritarian Soviet leaders, the summits were conducive to superficiality and improvisation. Rather than to finalize agreements previously negotiated and agreed upon, they often met without adequate preparation and yielded disappointing results.
By the mid-1970s, superpower diplomacy was thus challenged not only by the different notions of détente but also by alternative multilateral diplomacy as well as the pressure for more openness. At the same time, development of the nuclear arsenals, from which the superpowers derived their status, outpaced the political developments, making it more difficult for both the United States and the Soviet Union to apply their excessive stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction to any conceivable political purpose. Super-power diplomacy became increasingly divorced from political reality.
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