Tuesday, April 13, 2010

A Detente Deferred

With the signing of the new START treaty I think we should all be paying more attention to the legacy of Leonid Brezhnev. It was Brezhnev, after all, who tried to improve relations with the US after the ignominy of the Cuban Missile Crisis, an effort that led to detente during the 70s and, meanderingly, to the resolution of the Cold War in the 80s. I just read recently for the first time of Brezhnev's heavy drug use, which probably accounts for the catatonic aura of his last years.

Brezhnev was one of the most incompetent leaders in history. His reliance on oil profits to create a temporary and baseless sense of prosperity, his effort to freeze the borders of Europe at the Helsinki Conference (which unintentionally legitimized human rights throughout the Soviet Empire), and above all his invasion of Afghanistan were the actions of a total bumbler. But we should be grateful to this incompetence because in retrospect the 70s and early 80s were among the most dangerous moments in all the Cold War. Western economic growth was sluggish but technological advance was rapid. That combination could have bred serious instability. Yet Brezhnev simply had no clue how to exploit his relative advantage, and it was soon squandered.

Reagan pushed back at the Soviets, bringing the world dangerously close to catastrophe (particularly during the Able Archer wargames of 1983). But Reagan was able to moderate his rhetoric and step back from the brink and once Gorbachev came to power, things worked out fine. But it was Brezhnev's obsession with pointlessly counting warheads and his strategic oblivion that started the whole process off. Unlike Langston Hughes' dream, a detente deferred fortunately does not explode.

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