The Structure of Great Power Politics, 1963-1975
Department of Political Science
University of California at Los Angeles
May 18, 2010
John F. Kennedy’s most basic goal as president of the United States was to reach a political understanding with the Soviet Union. That understanding would be based on a simple principle: America and Russia were both very great powers and therefore needed to respect each other’s most basic interests. The United States was thus prepared, for its part, to recognize the USSR’s special position in eastern Europe. America would also see to it that West Germany would not become a nuclear power.1 In exchange, the Soviets would also have to accept the status quo in central Europe, especially in Berlin. If a settlement of that sort could be worked out, the situation in central Europe would be stabilized. The great problem that lay at the heart of the Cold War would be resolved.
But to reach a settlement based on those principles, Kennedy, in effect, had to fight a war on two fronts. He had to get both the USSR and his own allies in Europe to accept this sort of arrangement. The Soviets, however, were not particularly receptive when it became clear to them, beginning in mid-1961, what the president had in mind. The Americans, in their view, were making concessions because they were afraid the Berlin Crisis would lead to war. Why not see what more they might get by keeping the crisis going?
As for the Europeans, they by no means welcomed the new Kennedy policy with open arms. The West German government was especially distraught. Germany was divided and there was obviously not much anyone could do about it. But for years the German government—the conservative government that Konrad Adenauer had led since the founding of the Federal Republic in 1949—had insisted that those “realities” could not be officially recognized. To do so would put a kind of seal of approval on the division of their country. Nor was the Adenauer government pleased by what the Americans had in mind with regard to Germany’s nuclear status. A Germany with no nuclear forces under her own control would be utterly dependent on the United States for her security. Could any great nation rely so totally on a foreign power for its protection and accept the sort of extreme political dependence that such a situation implied? The Germans, of course, knew they had to pay a price for what their country had done during the Hitler period, and that meant that for the time being certain constraints in this area had to be accepted. But the German government also felt it needed to do what it could to keep the Federal Republic’s nuclear options open, and that meant that it did not take kindly to the idea of formalizing Germany’s non-nuclear status, above all as part of a general settlement with the USSR.
The French, for other reasons, did not like the way Kennedy was playing the western hand. It was not that they objected in principle to the sort of understanding with the Soviets he had in mind, but they felt he was giving away too much too quickly at a time when a lot more in the way of backbone was in order. Even the British were somewhat taken aback, in late 1961, by the Kennedy policy. But the president was prepared to move ahead regardless: the Europeans would have to “come along or stay behind.”2
He was particular rough with the Germans. The conflict came to a head in early 1963, albeit in a much harsher way than Kennedy had wanted. A line was drawn in the sand. If the Germans wanted to pursue an independent policy—a policy based on a strong alignment with the France of Charles de Gaulle, a policy, that is, with a distinct anti-American edge—they could just forget about American military protection. If they wanted America to provide for their security, they would have to follow America’s political lead. They would have to cooperate, in other words, with the policy Kennedy was now pursuing vis-à-vis Russia. And the Germans made their choice. Adenauer was forced out as chancellor and the Federal Republic more or less formally declared her loyalty to the NATO alliance and to America.
By that point, the conflict with Russia had come to a head. The Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 was the climax of the great Berlin Crisis of 1958-1962. The Soviets had not been willing to make peace on Kennedy’s terms and had instead threatened the United States with war. The situation in Europe had actually worsened in mid-1962. But now, after the missile crisis, that Soviet policy was clearly bankrupt. The Soviets were still unwilling to make a formal deal, but the major powers reached certain more or less tacit understandings: the status quo in Berlin would be respected, and West Germany would be kept non-nuclear. Indeed, one of the main goals of the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, negotiated in Moscow in July 1963—a treaty which the Germans were essentially made to sign—was to help guarantee that West Germany would not be able to build nuclear weapons. But this was not a simple gift to the Russians. It was linked to other understandings, most notably relating to Berlin, that mainly benefited the western powers.
Taken as a bloc those understandings provided the basis for a relatively stable international order. But many Germans—the German “Gaullists,” as now ex-Chancellor Adenauer and those who basically shared his views were called—were bitter about the course that events had taken. German interests, as they saw it, had been sacrificed so that the United States could pursue its own goals. The Germans, as one of them put it, were the “victims of America’s détente policy.”3 But in West Germany in 1963 that was a minority view, even in Adenauer’s own party. Most Germans were coming to see things in a rather different light.
It was important, Kennedy argued, in a speech he gave during his famous visit to Berlin in June 1963, “to face the facts as they are, not to involve ourselves in self-deception.” It was “not enough,” he said, “to mark time, to adhere to a status quo, while awaiting a change for the better.”4 His meaning was clear: the rigid German policy of the past had to be abandoned. But the German people, by and large, were not appalled by those remarks. The Adenauer approach had not brought reunification any closer, so maybe it was time for something new. There was also a certain sense that the Federal Republic could not be too out-of-step with her western partners, none of whom (as de Gaulle often put it) were in any rush to see Germany reunified.5 The Federal Republic could not afford to pursue a totally independent policy. She had to frame her policy with an eye to what her allies, and especially the United States, were willing to support.
Egon Bahr, chief advisor to Willy Brandt, the mayor of West Berlin and the leading figure in the German Social Democratic Party, made the key point in a famous speech he gave in July 1963, just three weeks after Kennedy’s visit to Berlin. The Americans were pursuing a peace policy, he said, a policy based on the idea that “the interests of the other side had to be recognized and taken into account”— on the idea, that is, that the status quo, for the time being at least, had to be accepted. In such circumstances, the old German hard-line policy was “hopelessly antiquated and unreal.” It was simply “senseless.” The Germans, on the other hand, could play a positive role in the détente process. Indeed, if they did not want to exclude themselves and just sit on the sidelines as America pursued that policy, they would have to pursue an active détente policy of their own.6 A détente policy, a policy that sought to relax tensions in central Europe, might eventually lead to major changes in the Cold War status quo. At the very least, in the view of people like Bahr, better relations with the Soviet Union might reduce the Federal Republic’s extraordinary dependence on America, and thus might create more room for maneuver: Germany would be better able to pursue a policy based on her own national interests.
By the end of the decade Brandt had become chancellor and Bahr was his right-hand man. Their way of thinking had strong support, not only in their own party, but also in the Free Democratic Party [FDP], the junior partner in the governing coalition. It was also supported to one degree or another by important elements in the conservative parties. Brandt and Bahr were thus able to pursue their policy of improving relations with the east—their Ostpolitik. The Soviets were receptive, their western partners were supportive (for the time being at least), and by 1973 a whole package of agreements had been signed and ratified: treaties providing for the “inviolability” of existing borders in central Europe, a treaty establishing a framework for relations between the two German states; a four-power treaty securing the status quo in Berlin; and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty [NPT], whose importance for the Soviets lay mainly in the fact that it would help keep Germany non-nuclear.
This was, of course, very similar to what Kennedy had wanted, and it is tempting to see this set of arrangements as essentially a formalization of the sort of system that had more or less come into being in a much less official way in 1963. It is tempting, in other words, to view the Ostpolitik treaties as just the icing on the cake—to assume that the system of great power relations in Europe, the heart of the international political system, was already quite stable, and that the only difference now was that this fact was getting a kind of formal recognition. But in reality the system had a basic structural flaw: the military foundation on which it rested was not rock-solid. How stable it would end up being would depend, in large measure, on how that military problem was dealt with.
The NATO Nuclear Problem
During the Cold War, western Europe lived in the shadow of Soviet military power and the NATO countries obviously had to be concerned with the military balance on the continent. If there were no effective counterweight to Soviet power in Europe, the Europeans would be at the mercy of the USSR. Even if the Red Army never actually invaded western Europe, an imbalance of military power, it was assumed, would almost certainly have far-reaching political consequences.
What sort of counterweight could be put in place? During the heyday of American nuclear superiority, the period from late 1952 through mid-1963, this question had a very simple answer: the Soviets could be deterred from invading western Europe by the threat of U.S. nuclear retaliation. And this was a threat the U.S. government might actually execute in extreme circumstances: if the U.S. attack was massive enough and was launched quickly enough, America would not suffer really heavy damage from whatever counter-attack the Soviets were able to mount. But by September 1963 the U.S. government had reached the conclusion that even if the United States were to “attack the USSR first, the loss to the U.S. would be unacceptable to political leaders.” It was understood at once that the United States could no longer, even in theory, respond to an act of aggression in Europe with a full-scale attack on the USSR.7
How then could NATO Europe be protected? In principle, there was a simple solution to the problem. If the Europeans allies—and especially West Germany, the most exposed country—would some day no longer be able to count on the American nuclear deterrent, maybe they would have to build deterrent forces they themselves could control. This logic was clear enough even in the mid-1950s, and the Germans in particular were quite interested in acquiring a nuclear force of their own, perhaps as part of some kind of European nuclear force. The idea that the Germans were never interested in anything of the sort is simply a myth. Adenauer, for example, certainly wanted Germany to have nuclear weapons—“we must produce them,” he said in 1957—and Ludwig Erhard, who succeeded him as chancellor, told President Johnson in 1965 that “it was impossible to assume that Germany will go forever without a nuclear deterrent.”8 The Germans very much wanted to keep their nuclear options open—and as it became increasingly clear that they would not be allowed to build a purely national force, their hopes came to focus on some international alternative, a NATO force or a European nuclear force over which the Federal Republic would have some control. For Germany to be shut out entirely, for Germany to be permanently dependent on her allies for protection, would mean that Germany would be politically impotent. If it were at all possible, that situation had to be avoided.
It was thus important to keep the door at least somewhat open, and it was for this reason that many German leaders in the late 1960s did not want their country to sign the Non-proliferation Treaty. Adenauer, for example, declared that the NPT was even worse than the Morgenthau Plan from World War II. Franz-Josef Strauss, the long-time head of the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian affiliate of Adenauer’s Christian Democratic Union, and for years one of the most prominent figures in German political life, called it a “Versailles of cosmic dimensions.”9 Even Chancellor Kiesinger referred in this context to U.S.-Soviet “atomic complicity.”10 Henry Kissinger, visiting Germany in early 1966, was “amazed by the depth of German feelings on this subject”; in November 1967, the head of the State Department’s Office of German Affairs thought that “among the 50 or 60 top politicians and officials” in West Germany, there was “not one who supports the NPT.”11
But the Soviets were dead set against the very idea of a German nuclear force and opposed anything that pointed in that direction. This was one issue, it seemed, that the USSR might actually go to war over. This concern, in fact, largely explained its willingness to negotiate the NPT: “Soviet interest in non-proliferation,” according to Secretary of State Rusk, was “95 percent centered” on West Germany.12 As for the Federal Republic’s allies, the British were totally opposed to the notion of a German nuclear capability from the very outset. The French attitude, somewhat ambivalent in the late 1950s and early 1960s, hardened dramatically after Franco-German relations went downhill in 1963. By the mid-1960s, de Gaulle was also very much against the idea of the Germans getting their hands on nuclear weapons.
And the Americans, by that time, were absolutely determined to keep the Federal Republic from acquiring a nuclear force. President Johnson had no doubt that the Germans would want to build such a force as soon as they could— if he were in their shoes, he said, he would certainly want to go in that direction—but he also thought it would be disastrous if Germany went nuclear.13 The U.S. government tried to deal with this problem by pushing its plan for a “multilateral force” [MLF]; the huge effort it put into that very dubious project, especially in 1964, is a good measure of the seriousness with which it took this problem. It eventually gave up on that idea and thus needed to deal with the problem in a more direct way. The Americans, in fact, ended up laying down the law to the Germans. They were warned that their country “might well be destroyed” if they tried to develop an independent nuclear capability.14 They could scarcely resist this sort of pressure, and by the end of the decade it was clear that the Federal Republic was not going to become a nuclear power.
But if a German nuclear deterrent was out of the question, and if the American nuclear deterrent could no longer, in itself, keep the Red Army at bay, how then could Europe be protected? U.S. leaders thought that in principle at least the answer was obvious. NATO, in their view, needed to move away from nuclear deterrence and rely instead essentially on conventional forces. But there were two problems with the conventional strategy. First of all, the forces needed to sustain such a strategy were simply not available. Throughout the 1960s, the United States, and Britain as well, were under pressure to cut back on their military presence in central Europe for balance of payments and other reasons, some connected with the Vietnam War.15 Indeed, and despite the emphasis U.S. leaders placed on conventional forces at that time, U.S. force levels in Europe declined substantially during that period, and the NATO defense ministers were told in 1968 to get ready for yet further cuts.16 France’s withdrawal in 1966 from the NATO military system, of course, further aggravated the problem.
The second problem was more basic: no matter what sort of conventional defense was put in place, NATO would still have to worry about the possibility of a Soviet nuclear attack. People wanted to build up NATO’s conventional defenses because they assumed the United States would not be willing to use nuclear weapons against the USSR no matter what was happening in a conventional war for fear of provoking a Soviet nuclear attack on the United States. But would the threat of escalation be any less great if nuclear weapons were used in response to a Soviet nuclear attack on Europe? Why would the United States, in such circumstances, be any more likely to take action that could lead to a Soviet attack on America? Wouldn’t the United States in that case be likely to accept defeat, or at most use nuclear weapons only against battlefield targets and targets in eastern Europe, avoiding Soviet territory entirely? But if Soviet territory was treated as a “sanctuary,” then what exactly was the USSR being threatened with? What deterrent value would the western forces then have?
U.S. officials generally dismissed this problem out of hand.17 But the Europeans were not convinced that a nuclear war in which the two superpowers’ homelands were spared was simply out of the question and their concerns had some basis in fact. The Soviets, it seems, had by no means ruled out the possibility of a war in which “the use of nuclear weapons would remain restricted to the theater level, leaving both homelands inviolate.”18
And that meant that the nuclear issue could not be dismissed as unreal. One could not just assume that nuclear weapons were “unusable” for both sides, that the two nuclear arsenals simply “cancelled each other out,” and that the conventional balance was the only thing that really mattered. One had to think about how nuclear weapons would be used, if a conventional defense proved ineffective or the enemy used nuclear weapons first in a European war. It obviously made little sense to launch an all-out attack in such circumstances; if nuclear weapons were used at all, they would obviously have to be used in a more limited and more controlled way. And NATO in fact adopted a strategy of controlled escalation.19 But how would that strategy work? What “philosophy” would govern the use of NATO’s nuclear forces?
The key issue here had to do with tactical nuclear weapons—that is, with the question of how the thousands of such weapons NATO had in Europe would be used in the event of war. But the NATO countries had a hard time coming up with an answer to this question. The basic problem was clear enough. On the one hand, if the goal was to deter a Soviet attack on Europe, the USSR itself could not be treated as a “sanctuary.” Use of the weapons would therefore have to be part of a process, perhaps a process no one could fully control, that might conceivably lead to nuclear attacks on the USSR itself. Those attacks, to be sure, might in turn lead to a Soviet nuclear strike on the United States. But as long as there was only a chance of this happening—as long as the U.S. government did not have to take action which it knew with absolute certainty would lead to a general nuclear war—NATO, the argument ran, should be willing to run the risk.20
On the other hand, there was a real aversion, not just on the part of the Americans but in practice on the part of the Europeans as well, to deliberately running any real risk of general nuclear war. Given what was at stake, a strategy of that sort seemed utterly irresponsible. The risk of escalation was not a phenomenon to be exploited; it was a danger to be minimized. The Americans made it clear at the time that they had no stomach for engaging in what Thomas Schelling called a “competition in risk taking”—for deliberately playing on the possibility that events might spin out of control, and thus for arranging things so that no one could be sure that the conflict would not escalate. Nor were the Europeans really committed to such a strategy: U.S. leaders thought (quite correctly in my view) that whatever the Europeans said in peacetime, if the moment of truth ever came they would draw back from any use of nuclear weapons.21
In any event, U.S. leaders wanted to keep the lid on the escalatory process—or, as they put it even in official pronouncements, to keep the fighting at the “lowest level of violence consistent with NATO’s objectives.”22 But this seemed to imply that if the Soviet attack was limited to Europe, the American response would also be limited to Europe. The USSR and the United States would be treated as “sanctuaries,” but both eastern and western Europe would be incinerated. But the problem here, of course, is that with this sort of strategy—with the Soviet homeland insured against attack—NATO’s nuclear forces would have little deterrent value. This strategy, moreover, would give the Soviets the upper hand in a crisis: if the two sides were faced with the prospect of a Europe-only war, it was obvious which side would be more likely to draw back. And there was yet another problem with such a strategy, one that contemplated a war in which Europe would be destroyed but America would get off virtually scot-free: it was bound to poison relations between the United States and the European allies, especially if east-west relations were bad and the threat of war had to be taken seriously.
Thus the problem of controlled escalation had no easy solution, and in fact the U.S. government in this middle period of the Cold War had no clear sense for how the escalatory process was to be managed. It had no clear sense, in particular, for the role that tactical nuclear weapons were to play. Over and over again in the documents you find people complaining about a “void” in this area. In 1965, for example, the U.S. Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, told his German counterpart “that in his judgment there exists no rational plan for the use of nuclear weapons now located in Europe.” In 1971, Henry Kissinger, now President Nixon’s national security advisor, complained that “we still don’t have a clear doctrine for their use.”23 In Kissinger’s view, if such issues were not taken seriously—if the United States gave the impression that it was “not interested in fighting”—then the other side would conclude that America was just bluffing. Deterrence, he thought, had “to be based on a war-fighting capability.”24
So the whole military situation was far from satisfactory. It was clear that the security of the NATO allies, and especially West Germany, did not rest on a solid military foundation. As President Johnson was told by his top advisors in 1966, there were “gaping holes in all strategic options”: massive retaliation would be “virtually suicidal”; an effective conventional defense “seems less attainable than heretofore”; and “tactical nuclear war” was “full of uncertainties.”25 President Nixon in 1970 felt the same way.26 And indeed observers outside the government often made the same point. Lawrence Freedman’s view was typical. “An inadequate conventional defense backed by an incredible nuclear guarantee”—this, he said, was what the NATO strategy of “flexible response” really boiled down to.27
The assumption, in other words, was that nuclear deterrence was something of a sham. The United States would never launch a fall-scale nuclear attack on the Soviet Union in the event of a European war. Kissinger himself, in a famous speech, later admitted that America’s “strategic assurances” had been empty.28 Even the tactical nuclear option was unreal. “We will never use the tactical nuclears,” Nixon said. The “nuclear umbrella in NATO,” in his view, was “a lot of crap.”29
What all this meant was that in strategic terms, the western position was not very strong. In the event of a crisis, the West would be at a disadvantage; the Soviets would have the upper hand. The NATO powers thus had an enormous incentive to make sure that they did not come anywhere near the point where an armed conflict was a real possibility. They had an enormous incentive, that is, to reach a political accommodation with the USSR.
The point applied with particular force to the case of West Germany. Willy Brandt thought in 1968 that “West Germany cannot really depend on the Americans”; he thought that “as things now stand the United States would not be in a position to meet by military means a serious Soviet military offensive in Europe.”30 The implication was that Germany could not afford to risk a confrontation with the USSR—that it instead needed to try to mend fences with her great neighbor to the east. His chief advisor, Egon Bahr, was even more explicit. With nuclear parity, Bahr told Kissinger, the Americans would certainly not launch a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union “if the Russians took Hamburg.” Détente, he said, was therefore “our only option.”31 His country thus had a strong “structural incentive,” as one astute German observer put it, to pursue a “policy of partial appeasement.”32
But a source of weakness for the West was a source of strength for the Soviets. The structural incentives cut both ways. The western countries, and especially the Germans, might feel that they needed to ease tensions with the USSR. But the Soviets might feel freer to take a tougher line in their dealings with the western powers, especially on European questions.
What sort of policy would the USSR pursue in such circumstances? The western powers were basically content to live with things as they were. A threat to the status quo could therefore only come from the east. But would the Soviets try to take advantage of the position they enjoyed? Would they try to draw western Europe in some way or other into their sphere of influence? Or would they pursue a more relaxed policy, a policy aimed basically at stabilizing the status quo?
Given the basic structural weaknesses in the western system, which way would Russia go? Would the Soviets try to exploit NATO’s vulnerabilities by pursuing a forward policy in central Europe or would they seek instead to stabilize the existing system? As the Soviets grappled with this question, they were pulled in more than one direction. The USSR, to be sure, clearly had a certain interest in expanding its influence in western Europe. The Soviets would obviously not be upset if the countries there had to live more in the shadow of Soviet power—if the Europeans, that is, had to be more sensitive to Soviet wishes, more accommodating politically, militarily and economically. The USSR might therefore want to “Finlandize” western Europe—that is, draw that part of the world, to one degree or another, into the Soviet orbit. That sort of thinking was bound to have a certain appeal, and Soviet leaders clearly took the idea that the USSR should pursue a policy of that kind seriously.33
And in fact this kind of thinking did play a certain role in shaping Soviet policy, especially on the German question, and above all on the German nuclear question. The Federal Republic, clearly, was to have a special status in this area. Not only, in the Soviet view, would West Germany not be allowed to develop a nuclear force of her own. Not only would it not be allowed to participate in any sort of NATO nuclear force, even a force that was something of a charade—a force, like the MLF, explicitly designed to prevent that country from getting her finger on the nuclear trigger. But the Germans, ideally, would not even be allowed to take part in NATO nuclear planning.34 And later on, in the post-1979 period, the USSR of course strongly objected to the stationing of medium-range American missiles in western Europe, including West Germany, even though Soviet missiles had been targeting that area for years. In their view, they had a certain droit de regard over that whole region, especially where defense issues were concerned. As Josef Joffe says, what was at issue in that dispute “was the Soviet claim to a veto right over NATO’s nuclear choices, that is, over the terms of protection offered by the United States to its European allies. If successful, the Soviet Union would have won a historic victory; Moscow would have gained the power to act as arbiter of Europe’s security.”35
And the Soviets could achieve that general goal, in principle, by building up their military power. During the Brezhnev period (1964-1982), the Soviets made an enormous effort in this area, steadily building up their forces at every level—strategic nuclear, theater nuclear, and conventional—and straining every muscle to do it. The defense burden was very high: defense spending accounted for a much higher share of the national income than it did in the West.36
Observers in the West were bound to ask why the USSR was making that kind of effort. If détente was “truly the Soviet purpose in Europe,” one analyst wondered, “then why the steady and unprecedented military build-up at the same time?”37 The USSR was Clausewitzian to the core: the Soviets thought of military power in political terms; military forces were of value, in large measure, because of the political shadow they cast. If the Soviets were making a major military effort, then presumably this was because they had some major political purpose in mind—that they were interested, in other words, in pursuing a policy that was not purely defensive in nature. And if that was the case, then what could the goal be if not to deepen Soviet influence in western Europe?
But while the temptation to push ahead in Europe clearly played a certain role, it was not the only factor that entered into the equation. There was, in fact, a whole series of reasons why the Soviet Union might be expected to pursue a less ambitious policy.
First of all, if one were trying to predict the course of Soviet foreign policy, the basic character of the regime would certainly have to be taken into account. Over the years the USSR had lost most of its revolutionary élan and by the 1970s the regime had become heavily bureaucratic and conservative. During the Brezhnev period, the aging leadership created “a kind of bureaucrats’ paradise,” but the price of the “quiet life” was “social and economic stagnation.”38 “The decrepit members of Brezhnev’s Politburo,” Dmitri Volkogonov writes, “valued stability above all, an unchanging course and bland decisions.”39 And this general attitude was bound to affect the way they, and Brezhnev in particular, dealt with other countries. That was certainly Kissinger’s impression. At least “part of Brezhnev,” he thought, “sincerely sought, if not peace in the Western sense, then surcease from the dangers and risks and struggles of a lifetime.”40
And the Soviets clearly had a lot to worry about at home. “The Soviet economy,” as one scholar put it, “seemed to be gradually running out of steam, being dragged to stagnation and decline by some inexorable underlying process.”41 The problem was in fact clear at the time, but the regime seemed unable to deal with it.42 And the deepening economic problem was bound to affect Soviet foreign policy in all sorts of ways. The self-confidence of the regime would be shaken, and the Soviets would have to worry about the USSR’s ability to sustain a costly military rivalry with a coalition of much richer and more technologically advanced powers. The Soviets might feel they could not risk provoking a great increase in U.S. defense spending. They might prefer instead to ease tensions with the West, especially since that might help them get access to western technology and credits, which were particularly important given the nature of the economic problem they were faced with.
And of course geopolitical factors, especially the conflict with China, were bound to loom large in Soviet thinking. If the Chinese were hostile, the Soviets would obviously want to improve their relations with the West.43 The Soviet leadership had a certain interest in getting the United States to side with the USSR in its conflict with China, or at the very least in preventing the Americans from forming a de facto alliance with the Chinese. But to have any chance at all of achieving those goals, they would have to pursue a relatively moderate course of action in other areas, above all in Europe.44
The Soviets, in other words, might be tempted in such circumstances to think in terms of a U.S.-Soviet “condominium,” and that kind of thinking might have had a certain bearing on how specific political issues, and especially European issues, were approached. They might, for example, be attracted to the idea of a divided Europe, with the USSR controlling the east and the Americans controlling the west. An American withdrawal from Europe might lead to some kind of European nuclear force, and thus possibly to the Federal Republic getting her finger on the nuclear trigger.45 It might be better, therefore, to keep the Americans in, so that West Germany could be contained in a structure dominated by American power.46 Even a Germany unified under Communist rule might not make much sense from the Soviet point of view, given what had happened with China. “We don’t need a united Germany at all,” Soviet foreign minister Gromyko told one of his advisors in 1977, “not even a socialist one. The united socialist China is enough for us.”47
So the Soviets were pulled in both directions: toward exploiting the position they had acquired and toward reaching an accommodation with the West. Which way would they go? The answer might depend to a certain degree on decisions the western governments made—above all, on the policies pursued by West Germany and the United States. How did those governments try to deal with the USSR during this period, and what effect, if any, did their policies have on Soviet behavior?
What effect, in particular, did the German Ostpolitik, certainly one of the most important developments of the period, have on the way the Soviets struck the balance? During its first years in office, the Brandt government pursued a policy of “accepting realities”—of accepting the division of Europe, the East German state, and indeed the whole the Cold War political system. But that was not an end in itself, and Brandt and his associates had more ambitious goals in mind. The long-term goal was to end the bloc system—to dissolve both NATO and the Warsaw Pact, and to get both American and Soviet forces out of central Europe.48 The hope was that in that post-Cold War system the two parts of Germany could come together in a single state.
But what effect did all this have on the USSR? A Soviet hardliner could interpret the Brandt phenomenon—not just the move toward détente, but even more Brandt’s apparent willingness to move toward a “European peace order” in which NATO would no exist—as a direct result of the buildup of Soviet military power, as indeed it was to a certain degree.49 It could be interpreted, in other words, as a good example of “Finlandization” in action. On the other hand, a Soviet leader interested in reaching an accommodation with the West could view the Brandt phenomenon in a very different light—as proving that Germany posed no threat, that a moderate policy was workable, and that there were governments in the West that would cooperate with such a policy. “Without Ostpolitik no Gorbachev!”—that was how a key mid-level Soviet policy maker later put the point.50 But since both arguments could be made and neither was intrinsically more compelling than the other, it is hard to see how the Brandt episode could have played a major role in determining how the Soviets struck the balance.
The same general point can be made about U.S. policy during the Johnson period (1964-1968). Johnson, as George Ball put it, “desperately wanted to be a peace president.”51 His goal was to “end the Cold War.”52 That policy was not able to make much headway because of the Vietnam conflict. But Johnson was determined, especially toward the end of his term of office, to move ahead, above all on arms control. Non-proliferation was taken quite seriously as a goal, and Johnson also very much wanted to reach a strategic arms limitation agreement with the Soviets.53 In 1968, his last year in office, he tried hard to get the arms negotiations started; even the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August did little to slow him down.54 The plan for a Johnson visit to Russia to begin talks on this subject was dropped only after it was made clear to the Soviets in December that the incoming Nixon administration very much disapproved of the idea.55
What impact did that policy have on Soviet behavior? Once again, one can argue both sides of the issue. On the one hand, Johnson in late 1968 seemed “fixated” on strategic weapons—that is, on an area where the stability of the balance was never really in danger.56 The really important military questions—above all, those relating to the defense of Europe, an area where there really was a stability problem—did not receive much attention. The administration, in fact, seemed willing to give away the store in what came to be called the “Eurostrategic” area: it was prepared to enter into an agreement that would allow the Soviets to keep the large number of missiles they had targeted on western Europe, but which would prevent the United States from deploying any missiles of its own on European soil.57 This sort of policy would scarcely deter the Soviets from trying to “Finlandize” western Europe. If anything, it would have the opposite effect.
On the other hand, Soviet leaders interested in reaching an accommodation with the United States might have reacted positively to the Johnson policy. It was not just that the idea of a strategic arms control agreement had a certain visceral appeal. They also might have been encouraged by Johnson’s policy on Germany, the policy of keeping German power limited. The basic idea that the two superpowers had overlapping interests in this area was by no means new. John Foster Dulles himself, despite his reputation as a hard-liner, thought that America and Russia had a common interest in making sure that Germany, whether united or divided, was kept under “some measure of external control.”58 But under Johnson that attitude was blunter, cruder, and less nuanced than it had been under Eisenhower or even under Kennedy. And the Soviets could reasonably see that policy as providing the basis for a political understanding between the two superpowers. So again the policy could cut both ways, and what effect it had in practice would depend on how the Soviets were disposed to approach the general problem of their relations with the West.
Can the same be said of U.S. policy during the Nixon period (1969-1974)? In principle, Nixon and Kissinger wanted to build a “global structure of peace.” In theory, they wanted a world where the major powers, pursuing their interests “rationally and predictably,” balanced each others’ power and kept each other in check. America, they said, needed to create such a system. She could most effectively promote her own interests by balancing between the other great states, and above all between the USSR and China. She could best promote her interests, that is, by keeping her options open—by retaining as much room for maneuver as possible, by making sure that each of the Communist giants understood it had something to gain from better relations with America and something to lose if it allowed its relations with the United States to deteriorate.59
Thus the U.S. opening to China, Kissinger later insisted, was not directed against Russia. The aim was “not to collude against the Soviet Union but to give us a balancing position to use for constructive ends—to give each Communist power a stake in better relations with us. Such an equilibrium could assure stability among the major powers, and even eventual cooperation, in the Seventies and Eighties.”60 That meant that the United States had to pursue a relatively complex and nuanced policy, not too militant, but not too committed to “peace” either. “If the quest for peace,” Kissinger wrote, “turns into the sole objective of policy, the fear of war becomes a weapon in the hands of the most ruthless.”61 The United States should therefore be willing to use its power, but in a relatively measured and restrained way, in order to bring about the sort of “global equilibrium” that could serve as the basis of a stable international order.62
This, of course, was quite different from the policy Johnson had pursued, and Nixon and Kissinger obviously disliked the image of the United States as a “reluctant giant,” “seeking peace and reconciliation almost feverishly.” The Soviets were taking their measure of America, and the ability of the U.S. government to influence the sorts of choices the Soviets would be making would depend on the conclusions they reached about the United States—on how serious they thought the United States was as an actor in global politics.63 The goal, therefore, was to structure the incentives within which the Soviets would operate—to dangle carrots and brandish sticks, so that when the Soviets made a calculation about the sort of policy that would be in their interest, they would reach what the Americans viewed as the right conclusion.64
So that was the theory, and if the policy had actually worked that way, it might have had a major impact on Soviet behavior. The problem was that U.S. policy, as it emerged in practice, was not quite cut from that cloth. The United States, during the Nixon-Kissinger period, was not really interested in balancing between the Soviet Union and China. It was interested instead in balancing against the USSR, by helping China build up her power and by entering into a “tacit alliance” with the PRC.65 But that policy, U.S. leaders understood, could not be pursued in a straightforward way. The United States needed to make sure the Soviets did not attack China before it became strong enough to deter the USSR on her own. To do that, the United States not only needed to develop a certain relationship with China; it also needed to try to hold back the Soviets by pursuing a détente policy with the USSR at the same time. The American strategy, as Kissinger told French president Georges Pompidou in May 1973, was “perhaps complex, but it was not stupid.” The goal was to “gain time, to paralyze the USSR.”66 This, Kissinger admitted (especially in talks with the Chinese), was not a particularly heroic policy, but the U.S. government needed to use such “complicated methods.” It needed to “maneuver,” not just because of the Soviet threat to China, but also because of its domestic situation, and because of the political situation in Europe as well.67
The situation within the United States was of particular importance. Thanks to the Vietnam War, the country was now in a semi-isolationist mood, inclined to cut back not just on foreign entanglements but on military spending as well.68 The administration thus had to fight a kind of guerrilla war on the home front. The actions it took, and the way it packaged its policies, were designed also with an eye to European opinion. Its goal was to take the wind out of its critics’ sails by “pursuing policies which adopt their rhetoric.” “We have to do certain things,” Kissinger said, “and say certain things designed to paralyze not only our Left but the European Left as well.”69 Negotiations to reduce force levels in Europe, for example, were primarily “a device to keep the Senate from cutting our forces unilaterally.”70
The United States, Kissinger said, had to engage in a lot of “shadow-boxing,” but it was important, he insisted, to “distinguish between appearances and reality.”71 The U.S. government had “no illusions about the world today.”72 The West, in his view, had to be on its “guard against detente.” Indeed, it had to be prepared to use détente “quite cold-bloodedly to justify as hard a policy line” as it could.73
It is scarcely surprising, therefore, as Kissinger himself admitted in 1974, that the Soviets were “getting nothing from détente.” The United States was “pushing them everywhere.” The Soviets, on the other hand, had “tried to be fairly reasonable all across the board.” You could not find a single place, he said, “where they have really tried to make serious trouble for us. Even in the Middle East where our political strategy put them in an awful bind, they haven’t really tried to screw us. Their tactics haven’t been exactly brilliant but they haven’t been particularly destructive either.”74
The Nixon-Kissinger policy in theory was supposed to draw the Soviet Union into a closer, more cooperative relationship with the West. But there was a huge gap between rhetoric and reality, and the Soviets could scarcely be expected to respond positively to the policy the U.S. government actually pursued during that period. The rhetoric of détente might serve America’s political purposes in the short run, but in the long run the chickens would probably come home to roost. There was a good chance the Soviets would feel that they had been played for fools and would react accordingly.
A Stable System?
The détente policy was thus something of a charade. Kissinger and Nixon had not set out to build a “global structure of peace” based on cooperation with the USSR. Their goal instead was to keep the Soviets in line by making sure they had to worry about a strong China on their Asian border. The U.S. government, that is, as Kissinger told Pompidou in May 1973, was interested in “playing China against the Soviet Union.” It therefore wanted to prevent the Soviets from “destroying China.” To do that, the Americans needed to develop a certain political relationship with the PRC, so that the Soviets could not be sure the United States would remain passive if China were attacked. But that would take time, and while that relationship was developing the USSR would somehow have to be kept from attacking that country. That was why U.S. policy could not “seem to be directed against the Soviet Union”; that was why détente had to be “carried on in parallel with the Soviet Union”; that was why (as he told the Chinese) the U.S. government needed to “do enough with the Soviet Union to maintain a formal symmetry.” As China was making her way through the danger zone, the United States could not seem to be ganging up with that country against the USSR.75 The United States had to make it seem that it was also developing a relationship with the Soviet Union. The Soviets had to be made to feel they had something to lose if they moved against China.
The focus was thus on appearances, not substance. Kissinger and Nixon were not really interested in working with the Soviets on fundamental political problems. The Arab-Israeli question, for example, was obviously of central importance for all sorts of reasons, and it seemed that the USSR, especially after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, was willing to cooperate with the United States in working out a solution. But the U.S. government was not interested in working together with the Soviets in this area no matter what position they took. Indeed, as Kissinger himself said, the United States was not particularly interested in the “merits of the dispute.” “Our whole policy,” he said, was to avoid “settling it cooperatively with the Soviet Union.”76
The most important U.S.-Soviet negotiations thus dealt not with political but with military questions. A number of agreements were in fact reached in that latter area, and the SALT agreements, limiting the size of each side’s strategic nuclear arsenals, were considered quite important at the time. Looking back, though, it seems that their importance had to do mainly with what those agreements seemed to symbolize. They made it seem that the two sides were determined to move away from the Cold War and put their relations on a more solid basis.
But putting symbolism aside, it is hard to see how the SALT agreements had a major stabilizing effect. With or without an agreement, neither side could hope to disarm the other. Without or without an agreement, neither side therefore had any incentive to preempt. In such circumstances, what exactly could an agreement in this area hope to accomplish? How exactly could a strategic arms agreement make for a more stable international order? But those fundamental questions were not addressed. The negotiations on offensive weapons, Schelling later wrote, were evidently not governed by any “guiding philosophy.” Arms control, he said, was pursued “for its own sake, not for the sake of peace and confidence.”77 It is difficult to quarrel with those judgments. In fact, it is hard to see how even the agreement limiting the deployment of defensive anti-ballistic missile systems—the famous ABM treaty of 1972—played a major role in stabilizing the U.S.-Soviet strategic relationship. Given that ABM systems could easily and cheaply be overwhelmed by additional offensive weapons, even a massive defensive effort was bound to be futile and would thus have had little impact on that relationship.
But the arms control negotiations and the SALT agreements received a huge amount of attention at the time. Strategic arms control was viewed as the heart of the détente process. It seemed that the two great powers were dealing seriously with the military side of the Cold War, and that made it easier to ignore the fact that the really important military problems, the problems relating to the defense of Europe, were not being dealt with effectively.
Kissinger, of course, understood those problems—not just the military problems in the narrow sense, but the whole complex of problems, political as well as military, rooted in the waning of the American nuclear guarantee. This set of issues had been his main concern as a scholar since the mid-1950s, and those problems were certainly on his mind when he was in power in Washington. Even in December 1976, on the eve of his departure from office, he had no doubt that that the European defense problem—and problems relating to the defense of other regions as well—were still of “overwhelming” importance.78
But did the European defense problem really have to be taken so seriously? No one, after all, thought the Soviets were about to invade western Europe. The real problem was less overt. The West, even in the official view, had to worry instead about “a more subtle mix of military, psychological and political pressures.”79 But if that was all there was to the threat, how much danger were the western countries really in? Kissinger himself might have thought that Europe was on the verge of an “abyss,” that Brandt, if he continued on his present course, would end up giving the Soviets a “veto over German policy,” and that in about five years the point would “be reached where no German Chancellor [could] afford the hostility of the Soviet Union.”80 But while those fears were not absurd, they seem exaggerated, and not just in retrospect. The real risk was probably never that great.
But that is not the same as saying that there was nothing to be worried about. Maybe the Soviets would never use nuclear weapons in Europe. Maybe they would calculate that the risk was just too great—that no one, not even the Americans themselves, could tell for sure what the U.S. government would do if those weapons were actually used, and maybe that core uncertainty would have a very powerful deterrent effect. But it was also possible that the Soviets would come to the conclusion that the United States would never attack Soviet territory, no matter what the Red Army was doing in Europe; maybe they would somehow try to take advantage of that situation. Who could tell what they would do five or ten years down the road? Who could tell how the western countries would assess the threat or how they would deal with it? Events could take their course in all kinds of ways and no one could predict with any confidence how things would develop.
Extreme pessimism may not have been warranted, but there was no deep stability in this system. There were just too many unresolved questions—questions about the future of Russia and the future course of Soviet policy, about the future of Europe and the future of America’s commitment to Europe, even about the future of the Sino-Soviet relationship. And one has the sense, studying this period, that those issues would not be left hanging forever— that sooner or later those questions would be answered, and that change, perhaps even fundamental change, was inevitable. But what sort of world would emerge as that process ran its course? Change there would be, but to what?