Superpower Diplomacy - "competitive decadence," 1975–1980

The deterioration of superpower relations in the second half of the 1970s showed that nuclear balance was a precarious foundation for stable relations. There was a fundamental divergence of views about how the balance related to politics.

The United States tried to impress upon the Soviet Union the critical importance of strategic stability, with its corollary of political restraint by both superpowers. The Soviet Union, however, attached greater importance to what it called "military détente," understood as reductions of the strategic arsenals that would not alter the Soviet advantage in conventional forces, thus restricting political competition. Accordingly, only SALT negotiations were moving ahead while MBFR became stalled and CSCE proceeded in fits and starts.

The conduct of the superpowers was affected less by the development of military technologies, which evolved more and more independently of political developments than by their internal issues and their perceptions of those problems. By the end of the decade the terminal decline of the Soviet system had already begun, rooted in the inability of its command economy to ensure growth and the inability of its political system to accommodate the diversity of interests. On the American side the dispiriting legacy of the lost Vietnam War was magnified by the effects of its economic mismanagement amid spreading doubts about the merits of the American political system, leading to social unrest in the country and tensions with its allies.

The French political scientist Pierre Hassner characterized the resulting relationship between the superpowers as that of "competitive decadence," in which the issue for each was managing its mounting internal problems better than the other. The Soviet Union sought to use its military potential to offset its growing deficiencies in most other attributes of power. Its "arms diplomacy" consisted of both arms provision and outright military intervention by proxies in several countries of the Third World, where it managed to establish footholds, including Angola, Ethiopia, and Yemen. Such actions inevitably cast doubt on Soviet commitment to the principles of the 1972 agreement, causing alarm about Soviet intentions and harm to détente.

The initial U.S. response was equivocal. On the one hand, President Gerald Ford vowed publicly to erase the word "détente" from his vocabulary, implying that the United States no longer considered the Soviet Union a partner acting in good faith. On the other hand, the Ford administration proceeded with the strategic arms control negotiations to follow up SALT I with SALT II. Since Brezhnev, on the Soviet side, was personally committed to further reducing the growth of nuclear armaments as well, despite resistance by the Soviet military, the interim agreement signed in Vladivostok in November 1974 attested to the continued ability of superpower diplomacy to deliver results, at least in the limited area of arms control.

U.S.–Soviet relations took a turn for the worse after President Jimmy Carter took office. The new president sought to distance himself from what he regarded as an immoral and ineffective Nixon-Kissinger diplomacy, whose penchant for Realpolitik had not helped to prevent relations with the Soviet Union from deteriorating nor the specter of nuclear holocaust from persisting. Carter correctly anticipated the future in trying to deemphasize the importance of the Soviet Union within the larger global context and instead to emphasize the growing importance of the nonmilitary aspects of security, such as the safeguarding of human rights. But in trying to build what he wanted to be a satisfactory lasting relationship with the Soviet Union, his administration's diplomacy faltered.

In an attempt to improve on the Vladivostok agreement, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance surprised the Soviet Union by proposing arms reductions so radical that they amounted in Soviet eyes to repudiation by the United States of the more modest Vladivostok agreement on which Brezhnev had staked his prestige. Gromyko's peremptory rejection of the Vance proposals put the eventual approval of the SALT II Treaty by the U.S. Senate in doubt. Moscow was further alarmed by the anti-Soviet reputation and rhetoric of the national security adviser, Brzezinski, whose influence in Washington increased after Vance's resignation. In September 1979, Washington raised an outcry about the presence of a Soviet "combat brigade" in Cuba, although the unit had been there for several years without arousing U.S. concern, thus adding to the impression of both hostility and incompetence.

The image of a U.S. administration that was talking loudly but carrying a small stick did little to discourage the Soviet Union from making the fateful decision to send troops to Afghanistan to intervene in the internal struggle there and put its protégés in power. This was the first instance of direct Soviet military intervention in a country outside its recognized sphere of influence, and adjacent to the Persian Gulf region that was vital to the West's security as its major supplier of oil. Thus, in U.S. eyes, the Soviet move amounted to a gratuitous challenge to mutual respect for each other's vital interests, a respect that had made superpower diplomacy possible.

The Afghanistan invasion sealed the fate of SALT II for the duration of the Cold War by destroying the chances of its approval by the U.S. Congress. The Carter administration increased U.S. defense spending and military preparedness. It pressed U.S. allies to reduce the many contacts with the Soviet bloc that had been the fruit of a decade of détente, adding tension to American-European relations that were already strained by Washington's insistence, abruptly reversed, on equipping NATO forces with controversial neutron radiation weapons, followed by abrupt reversal. The Carter administration ended its term in office in disgrace and humiliation as it proved helpless in trying to obtain the release of U.S. diplomats held hostage by the revolutionary regime in Iran.

Although the Soviet Union appeared to be better off in the superpower competition, the appearance was deceptive. It was being drawn deeper into the Afghanistan war, with diminishing prospects of victory. In 1980–1981 the rise of the opposition in Poland, spearheaded by the Solidarity labor movement, paralyzed the communist regime there, threatening the Soviet hold on the strategically crucial country. Attesting to the Kremlin's growing doubts about the political utility of its vast military power in dealing with its political problems, the Soviet leaders abstained from intervening in Poland by force, making the restoration of communist rule dependent on Polish generals. The imposition of martial law in the country outraged the United States, bringing superpower diplomacy to a standstill.

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