The Benefits of Détente

A couple of posts ago, I mentioned that I intended to read Robert English’s book Russia and the Idea of the West, which examines how Westernizing ideas gradually took hold of an element of the Soviet intelligentsia from the 1950s onwards. I’m now about halfway through, and on page 125 I came across a passage that I thought was very appropriate for today. Here English writes the following:

The steady growth of reformist, anti-isolationist thought [in the USSR] was also aided by two other developments. The first was a sharp deterioration in relations with China, to the point of armed conflict; this forced a deeper rethinking of the two-camp outlook … Second, and more important, was the rise of détente with the West; though accompanied by a tightening of ideological orthodoxy at home, détente provided specialists their broadest access to the West in 50 years… [As a result] the early-mid 1970s saw many calling not just for expanded intercourse with the West, but also for more radical changes that would move their country toward broader integration with the liberal international community.

Détente was a brief effort in the 1960s and 70s to lessen East-West tensions by negotiating arms control settlements, increasing trade, and carrying out cultural exchanges. Eventually it was abandoned by the United States once Ronald Reagan became president, on the grounds that it had emboldened Soviet aggression. But English argues that rather than promote aggression, détente had a positive effect (from a Western perspective) by encouraging pro-Western sentiment in the Soviet foreign policy community.

Today, it seems to me, we’re moving, or perhaps have already irrevocably moved, in the opposite direction. Russia-China relations have never been stronger, and we have entered an era of anti-détente. In this, the West is cutting relations with Russia via sanctions, and is also shredding what remains of the old arms control system. Somehow, this is meant to induce Russia to change in what the West considers a positive direction, i.e. to make it more ‘liberal’ and more friendly. Yet, if English is right, then one might expect it to have the opposite result.

Of course, historical parallels are never 100% valid. Circumstances are very different now compared to 1970s. Back then, opening up the West to the Soviets enabled the West to flex its soft power, by exposing Soviet intellectuals to Western ideas as well as to the obvious superiority of the capitalist economic system in terms of wealth production. This is a strategy that can’t be repeated today because Russians are already very well acquainted with the West. As I’ve pointed out before, cultural exchanges don’t have the ‘wow’ factor they once did.

That said, English points out other ways in which détente encouraged liberal, pro-Western thinking in sections of the Soviet elite. Arms control created strong personal ties between Soviet and US diplomats. After months of working together and then reaching agreement, the former came to respect and admire the later, and with it also came to reject ideas of the necessity of East-West conflict. In the process, détente created its own bureaucratic momentum. This is the way of things; to do something, you have to create institutions and cadres dedicated to it, who in due course become committed to doing more of it, in part out of genuine belief but in part because out of bureaucratic interest and inertia.

And so it was within the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs, elements of which became decidedly more ‘liberal’,  if that is an appropriate word, than the regime as a whole. English thus describes how liberal-minded diplomats, notably Lev Mendelevich and Anatoly Kovalev, slipped the Helsinki Final Act, with its commitments to human rights, past Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, who ‘signed the Final Act “without really reading it through”.’ The diplomats hoped, thereby, ‘to encourage domestic reforms, a gradual liberalization of the Communist system, and a humanization of Soviet society.’

One might wonder why diplomats thought that such domestic issues were their concern, but that’s by the by. The point is that détente helped to develop a liberally-inclined, pro-Western element within the Soviet diplomatic service, which used its position to, let’s put it somewhat crudely, undermine the Soviet Union from within. (I’m sure that wasn’t that element’s intent, but it was the effect.)

English describes the intellectual process that took place in the Soviet Union as a gradual abandonment of the isolationist outlook. Compare this to today: the Western policy of endlessly piling up the pressure on Russia, with what seems like a new round of sanctions every month, is having the opposite effect. I can’t say that I follow the readings of the Russian foreign policy community in huge detail, but insofar as I do, I get the strong impression that it’s becoming more and more inclined to the view that it’s pointless to make any concessions to the West because the latter is incapable of responding in kind.

One can see this even among what I call ‘establishment Westernizers’, such as, say, Dmitry Trenin. Particularly striking are some recent articles by one of Russia’s leading foreign policy experts Fyodor Lukyanov, who is now arguing that Russia and the West need to go their own ways and have as little to do with each other as possible. ‘External interactions’ with the USA should be reduced to the ‘absolutely essential’, writes Lukyanov. The two countries should ‘keep out of each others’ way’, he adds. It’s quite a contrast to the kind of thinking that English describes as having developed in the Soviet Union in the era of détente.

I suspect that the more the West tries to isolate Russia, the stronger this tendency in Russian thinking is likely to become. If nothing else, there will be subtle shifts within the Russian foreign policy bureaucracy. Fewer and fewer people will be involved in arms control, trade and other negotiations with Western partners. Meanwhile, more and more will be dealing with China and other parts of the world. With that, the power that the West exerts on Russian foreign policy thinking will inevitably diminish.

As far as the West is concerned, this is very much a self-inflicted wound. The way you influence people is by having contact with them, and reaching agreements with them. It is something that we once at least partially understood. I fear that we do so no longer.

29 thoughts on “The Benefits of Détente”

  1. You write as if the West was set in stone, unlike the USSR/Russia, that is malleable. But the West of the 1960s-70s is nothing like the West today. And I don’t mean the way it projects power, just its general culture, its aura. Where is the present-days’ The Beatles? Today’s West is extremely dogmatic and arrogant. Weirdly fundamentalist. That’s not attractive. And under the circumstances, hostility (emanated from the West, I mean) seems like the most natural development.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I think the French in 1960s/70s would have said much the same about anglo-american arrogance as you say today.
      Certainly anyone in Vietnam/Cambodia/Laos would.
      In retrospect I think historians will say that US dominance and arrogance continued right from 1945 through to the very end of the US hegemony (assuming that happens soon). With the the Iraq War being a brief interruption in that arrogance (and media dishonesty) as it was openly discussed even amongst westerners that the Iraq war was based on an entirely false premise (WMD lies).

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Well, government arrogance is one thing, but the culture — called “counterculture” back then — was different. Attractive. And what do we have today, 2+2=4 is a form of white supremacy? 69 genders? LGBTQWERTY? That’s just stupid. Nay, not “just stupid”, that could’ve been okay still. It’s embarrassingly stupid.


      2. Here, I just read this, Taibbi, saying the same thing:

        “…Because humor deflates stupid ideas, humorists are denounced in all cultures that worship stupid ideas, like Spain under the Inquisition, Afghanistan under the Taliban, or today’s United States.”

        Why would anyone develop any “pro-Western sentiment” (aside from pity) under these unfortunate circumstances?


      3. Taibbi, saying the same thing:…
        There is humor and there is satirical reality (Realsatire). They feed on each other, necessarily. Discussing it one should be able to keep them apart. Before Charly Hebdo’s Muhammad cartoons, there were the Danish Jyllands-Posten cartoons.

        Matt sometimes is really, really good, this time around I’ll try to finish reading him.


  2. “Yet, if English is right, then one might expect it to have the opposite result.”

    Not might, the results are visible and annunciated quite clearly recently by Lavrov.
    Russia will maintain its economic ties as and if needed, but refuses to further engage with supranational bodies like the EU, that presages also more limited contacts with the individual nations comprising those organisations.
    Russia also instituted the supremacy of national laws when it comes to rulings of international or supranational courts.

    You also forget that the development of neo liberalism that propounds apart from its purely market oriented economics the ideas of interference in the dealings of other nations, and the abandonment of UN justified sanctions in favour of nation vs. nation sanctions by the west.
    Those further the estrangement with nations that are guarding their sovereignty with force diplomatically and if needed militarily as they have seen the damages those neo liberal ideas that are now integral part of both the US and a founding principal of the EU have inflicted on the world in general, and the Middle east and parts of Asia specifically.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. PS.
      Maybe it is not just by design, but by utter incompetence that infuses the diplomatic and foreign services of the EU and the USA?

      Patrick Lawrence addresses this here:

      and I am also aware that Andrei Martyanov in his blog scathingly criticizes the US frequently.


  3. Yeah, amazing at creating wealth: ten-year-old numbers, that have just gotten worse, particularly in the US case. cheap hydrocarbons create wealth, that’s the key difference with the early 70s. These atlanticist mopes know they’re going down, director of UofT’s Munk-CERES kept muttering as much during class a few years ago. besides, grand strategy class at the same school noted how, ultimately, intercontinental rivalry is inescapable. Russia needs a pragmatic eurasianist policy (as opposed to the duganist variety, barely a footnote). I.e. stick with china and Iran, remain prudent in putting out the fires the atlanticists are constantly setting on the periphery, and ultimately show Germany that the century-plus anglo-american policy of keeping germany out of alliance with Russia (and china) is absurd from the perspective of the national interest of both. we need a new heilige Allianz to build and maintain an order of consensus and low debt, while the US, UK, France and Japan, flush themselves down the toilet. You get the soft power you can afford. not just in terms of budgetary allocation. Those UofT profs patronizingly noted that somewhere like Ukraine, the less resources to divvy up between elite factions, the less social harmony and more corruption you see. In their complacency, they were incapable of reflecting that this is precisely the rabbit hole the core atlanticists societies are embarking down, quicker with each day. besides the degree to which their principles values and ideals were just cold war soft power instruments that are now, given that patronage hierarchy’s ‘hegemony’ being rapidly discarded as surplus to requirements, despite the persisting contra-model of leninist, or ‘asian’ capitalism in china and iran.


  4. Concerning “This is the way of things; to do something, you have to create institutions and cadres dedicated to it, who in due course become committed to doing more of it, in part out of genuine belief but in part because out of bureaucratic interest and inertia”:

    – How much do you think the present clashing head on policy from the West is the making of a Nato bureaucracy which is fighting for its own existence? For there would not be any use of a Nato without Russia to fight against?

    I know that Nato was considering Islam as “The Enemy” in the 90s – but after Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya this doesn’t make sense anymore, military solutions have nothing to offer. And everybody know that. Russia, on the other hand…


  5. In the abstract, there is nothing wrong with “detente”, even in the Soviet era, and it might have seemed like a good idea at the time. Still, I can’t help but wonder which of those Soviet “detente” functionaries, some of whom came to worship the United States, helped formulate the [actual] conspiracy which eventually led to Communist Party Nomenklatura overthrowing the system and morphing into Capitalists.

    I have read some “conspiracy theorists” who claim that Andropov was an American asset in his day and helped to recruit others into the conspiracy which eventually gave birth to Yeltsinism. I don’t know of any facts that particularly support this theory, but I haven’t really looked into it that much either. Also, I am not a historian, so I don’t really know how to do that kind of research.

    Bottom line, though. You shouldn’t NOT do detente with the other team, just because you’re worried that some of your own team might be corrupted in the process. You just have to be vigilant, that’s all. The Chinese seem to be pretty good at that sort of thing, they are able to interact with other people very politely, but still retain their own core values and identity.


  6. The USSR raised and for many years now Western based Dmitry Trenin shouldn’t be considered as part of the contemporary Russian foreign policy establishment. He spins more towards a Western foreign policy establishment audience.


  7. “ Eventually it was abandoned by the United States once Ronald Reagan became president, on the grounds that it had emboldened Soviet aggression. ”

    Factually, Detente was strangled in the cradle by Senator Henry M. Jackson, whose Jackson-Vanik Amendment denied the Soviet government its main objective, most favored nation trading status, in 1973. Such was the hysterical intensity of Russophobic propaganda in the US, that the very word “Detente” was banned from the lexicon of the Ford Administration in 1975. So detente was abandoned in US politics far earlier than you think.

    It’s true that hope lingered in Brezhnev’s heart, but in US politics detente was dead as a door nail by 1975 at the very latest.


    1. rkka, that sentence stuck out for me too. Based on my limited political knowledge at the time and (national?) focus on Willi Brandt and his top hand Egon Bahr’s politics of East-West détente in Germany.


  8. >>Somehow, this is meant to induce Russia to change in what the West considers a positive direction, i.e. to make it more ‘liberal’ and more friendly. Yet, if English is right, then one might expect it to have the opposite result >>

    Once again, our host argues – very convincingly – that Western policies cannot possibly help attain the declared Western goals.

    On the one hand, I understand why he won’t talk much about WHY, then, those counterproductive policies are so prevalent (apart frome citing a failure to consider other’s viewpoint, which just falls short of being a satisfying explanation).

    Ok, I get it – “irrussianality” is about highlighting the inconsistencies, not throwing accusations.

    On the other hand… there IS an objective need to analyze all the roots. Otherwise, we just cannot see past the maddeningly stupid present. If the current policies weren’t beneficial, here and now, for a bunch of powerful interests, they wouldn’t have been so consistently implemented.

    Author and commenters here argued about various explanations that seem to fall into 2 general categories (which, IMHO, are NOT mutually exclusive):

    1) incompetence of the policymakers
    2) declared goals different from the actual goals

    Putin himself voiced the opinion that it’s American domestic politics that drives the stupidity. People pointed out a variety of intertwined subreasons, such as the greed of MIC and think-tankers; exceptionalist delusions, as well as use of exceptionalist talk for short-term political gain; institutional inertia; and visceral Russophobia of American elites.

    But how can the world change, short to medium term, to make clinging to these stupid policies truly unsustainable? I’d be terribly excited to read a detailed, intelligent expert analysis of 1) the current situation and trends,
    AND 2) possible scenarios how it can all be resolved (excluding WW3, that is!).

    Long term, it seems like the only good way out is a peaceful transition to truly multipolar world, with many power players advanced enough to make the idea of a hot war 100% suicidal. Which would entail the rise of China, India, Latin America and, hopefully, also Middle East and Africa to economic&technological parity with the West. Or is this too utopian?


    1. It is too utopian.
      Most of them lack the human capital needed to reach technological parity with the West, unless the human capital of the West declines.


      1. Short term I agree 100%. But long term? China managed to develop it’s human capital within 2 generations; why can’t they? I suppose some true believers could even pass on a bunch of critical technologies to make sure they catch up enough.


      2. “the human capital of the West declines”

        Human capital? If you outsource your production, you lost your “human capital”, because only on the shop floor wen things get put together, the human capital means something. Just engineering something and then let others continue with the actual production is NOT the development of “your nations” human capital.

        The USA has lost this capital many years ago except in specialised area – and the late catastrophes like the F 35, the Boing planes, the US Navy littoral ship disaster etc. In Germany you have the glaring example of an airport that was so much over budget and time – it would have been likely cheaper to scrap that thing.

        I thing it is time to take off your western beer goggles…

        Liked by 1 person

    2. I don’t think it’s utopian at all. And it’s what has to happen. Human capital in regions like Africa and Latin America must be developed by ending poverty and giving everybody a proper education and training in some useful occupation. I personally believe that is only possible by transitioning (hopefully in a peaceful manner) from capitalism to either socialism or some form of democratic state-capitalism.

      I don’t know this commenter “Mitleser” and I don’t want to throw out accusations/suspicions or start a conflict. I’m just wary, because in the past I have encountered commenters (from certain sociological/anthropological schools of thought) who use terms like “human capital” and have quite a different meaning or slant from what one might think.

      The true tell is when they start using the word “IQ” in a way that implies it is hopeless for certain regional groups of people to pull themselves up, because… well, you know…

      If Mitleser could just explain his/her point that might put my mind at ease…


  9. @Lola,

    As far as Africa is concerned it is a major challenge. Sometimes one wants to scream in despair.



    1. In Africa’s defense: Every time they try to pull themselves up, somebody (the usual players) knock them back down.

      Case in point: Libya. Under Gaddafi, was the wealthiest nation in Africa, and the Colonel was determined to invest billions in the development of sub-Sahara. Look what the former Colonial powers and other imperialists did to him.
      And now Libya, instead of advanced country, which it was, with universal healthcare and education, is a barbarian mess where African slaves are sold in open slave markets.

      And this is what always happens, when any African nation tries to liberate itself from colonialists/imperialists.


      1. Yalensis, you are such a nice guy. If only everyone was nice (and smart and healthy and imaginative and positively motivated), we’d have already lived in Strugatsky Brothers’ Noon World.

        We’ve all run into people who consider preying on the less fortunate not only their god-given right, but the most critical engine of progress.

        Isn’t it amazing how quickly any discussion about world’s future runs into issues of human nature? And then into questions of Life, the Universe and Everything 🙂

        Can technology-based prosperity bring about a global society based on cooperation? Can humanity overcome its evolutionary past of predatory exploitation, or can it only hope to keep its aggressive competitiveness in check by fear of annihilation?

        Natural life doesn’t evolve without predation, but aren’t we well beyond being bound by such constraints?

        Unfortunately, right now, we as a species lack ability to even start this discussion.

        Btw, my “too utopian” question was NOT about the ability of those regions to catch up, but about the vision of a balanced, technologically advanced, cooperative multipolar world. This just may be too utopian…


      2. Hi, Lola, I think I get what you were trying to get at; and these are very deep issues touching human nature itself as a hominid species.
        I just wanted to challenge this other commenter in case he/she was trying to make some kind of point as to the “quality” of the human material involved. (With dog-whistle words being “human capital” or “IQ” or what-not.)
        Believe me, I have fought some battles over this in the past, that’s why I am so touchy. Not to you, but to this other person.

        My own belief, which I think is backed by hard science: All human beings, regardless of race, ethnicity, or even zipcode, are pretty much equally equipped (in the statistical mass, not necessarily individuals) to deal with whatever challenges face us as a species. Nations who lag behind were put there by historical processes, not by their own laziness or incompetence, or lack of brain-power. I realize this is a completely separate discussion from what you were saying…


      3. Totally agree. “Guns, Germs and Steel” made the case very convincingly!

        And those battles do need to be fought.


      4. @yalensis,

        Yes, foreign intervention is part of the problem ( sometimes really significant). However, if one looks at various analysis the “African State Project” has tragically failed. If I knew the answer to the question, why Africa fails ( by the way also the title of a book written by an African writer) I would be the richest man in the world.
        I think a good starting point would be to compare the state of the newly independent African and Asian nations in the 1960-ies. All indicators show that the African countries were in a significantly better position to succeed, however, the opposite has happened. Why? One will not find a simple answer.


        P.S. My comments must not be treated as “some kind of point as to the “quality” of the human material involved.” At the same time living in and traveling across Africa gives a slightly different perspective.


      5. I never got to figure out whether Yalensis is a guy or a gal. I can understand if he/she wants to keep it a secret. (Speaking for myself I’m a guy BTW)


    2. Hey Vandermerwe, it is good to hear from someone who actually knows the place. We all understand Africa has serious problems. Personally, I believe the reason “the “African State Project” has tragically failed” may be that Western nation-state structure just doesn’t suit tribal people’s mentality (just like it doesn’t suit tribal Middle East). Just think of it, it is a completely crazy idea to expect tribal people to suddenly abandon their thousand-year-old culture and transform into responsible “citizens” of artificially constructed “countries”. Of course there will be nepotism and corruption! (not to mention Rwanda-style “cleansings”).

      Perhaps more organic structures could take root. All modern civilizations actually started as networks of city-states. So I hope the Chinese plan to build modern cities here and there could actually succeed, by creating local hubs of tech-oriented city culture. Unless, of course, the Chinese fail to integrate the locals, and unless the corrupt “nation state” governments strangle the plan in the cradle.


      1. @Lola,

        Tradition and culture cannot be ignored. Think about something like this – based on a paper published several years ago.
        A citizen of an European ( just for an example) country does not see state as an unfriendly body. Yes, state collects taxes, regulates life but in times of need and/or crisis provides security and help. An African state is seen as a distant and unfriendly structure that takes without giving. Help and protection is provided by an extended family, a village or a tribe – in short by your own people. These are the bodies you are loyal to not the state and consequently this breeds nepotism, corruption, social neglect and misery. African continent is extremly rich but this doesn’t translate into well-being of its population.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s