Superpower Diplomacy - The "second cold war," 1980–1985

President Ronald Reagan broke with the cardinal principle of superpower diplomacy by refusing to acknowledge the Soviet Union as a legitimate equal. He publicly referred to the Soviet Union as an "evil empire" and predicted that it would not last. Although these were fair estimates of the reality, they were hardly conducive to resuming businesslike relations between the two countries. Coupled with a massive U.S. armament program believed widely, if unjustly, to have been calculated to bankrupt the Soviet Union by forcing it into a ruinous arms race, the administration's posture evoked the specter of a "second Cold War," if not a real war.

In June 1982 the Soviet Union conducted an exercise simulating a several-hour, all-out nuclear strike against the United States. The president's "Star Wars" speech of March 1983, which announced the plan to abandon the strategy of deterrence based on mutual vulnerability in favor of defense behind an invulnerable missile shield, could be interpreted as being designed to make the United States capable of launching such an attack. Brezhnev's successor, Yuri Andropov, came to suspect the Reagan administration was preparing such an attack. In November 1983, the NATO exercise "Able Archer" practiced procedures for the release of nuclear missiles by using codes that made it indistinguishable from the real thing, prompting panic in Moscow, though no action to preempt the possible surprise.

The prudent Soviet behavior showed that fears of war precipitated by design or miscalculation were exaggerated but also that the susceptibility to uncontrollable accidents of the increasingly complex nuclear weaponry gave warranted concern. Yet by 1983 the only forum where the superpowers were negotiating with each other was the Geneva talks on intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF). The talks followed NATO's 1987 "dual track" decision, which provided for preparations, in the event of an attack by the Soviet Union, for the deployment of intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Western Europe to offset similar Soviet missiles that had already been deployed against it, unless an agreement had been reached to rectify the imbalance. So technical had the talks become that only experts understood the issues involved. The chief U.S. negotiator Paul Nitze and his Soviet counterpart, Iurii Kvitsinskii, nevertheless came to a tentative agreement during a "walk in the woods" outside Geneva. Yet the agreement was not approved by their superiors.

As long as the deployment of the "Euromissiles" intended to counter the Soviet intermediate-range missiles targeted on Western Europe remained uncertain because of the widespread opposition it faced there, neither superpower had the necessary incentive to compromise. As the crucial vote in the West German parliament was approaching, the Soviet Union increased pressure by threatening to walk out of the negotiations if the deployment were approved. And when it was approved in November 1983, the Soviet leaders had no choice but to make good on their word or else lose credibility.

The breakdown of the Geneva talks, which brought superpower diplomacy to the lowest point since Stalin's days, nevertheless heralded their more constructive later resumption. Rather than an aggressive design, the walkout reflected paralysis within the Kremlin leadership dating back to the last years of Brezhnev and continuing during the terms in office of his two infirm successors, Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko. Despite the presence and growing influence of the veteran diplomat Gromyko, the aging leadership was no longer willing and able to tackle the Soviet Union's mounting internal and external problems. Superpower diplomacy required strong leaders. In a tacit recognition of its own failure, the old guard in the Politburo in March 1985 selected as Chernenko's successor the Politburo's youngest member, Mikhail S. Gorbachev. With the Reagan line reconfirmed by his reelection to the presidency the year before, the stage was set for the last act of superpower diplomacy.

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