The End of Détente
Jude Wanniski
September 16, 1979


Executive Summary: President Carter's pacifist response to reports of a combat brigade in Cuba has effectively ended his presidency, drawn Senator Kennedy into the race for 1980, and ended the framework of détente. The SALT II Treaty can hardly advance in this atmosphere and will have to await a new U.S. President in 1981, at which time new leadership will also be installed in the Soviet Union. The shelving of SALT is a blow to Soviet hawks, reducing their influence in the coming succession fight. Soviet military interventions, unchecked by the U.S., have masked a worldwide collapse of Communism as an ideological force. Fidel Castro's theatrics at the Nonaligned Movement in Havana created an impression of a tide flowing toward the East, but the Third World is only baffled, and fearful that the Soviets are gaining by U.S. default. Carter's display of weakness, ironically, may have finally provoked the United States back into a leadership posture.

The End of Détente

In its haste Would Teddy Kennedy be a better President than Jimmy Carter? At bottom, this is the very question the Senator from Massachusetts has been asking himself these last several months, during Carter's slide in the popularity polls. Kennedy could not seriously challenge Carter in 1980 unless he genuinely believed he would make a better President. The question is not an easy one to answer, because Carter after all is not only the incumbent of Kennedy's political party, he is also a practitioner of the Democratic Party's eastern liberal agenda. Thus, a President Kennedy would have essentially the same set of advisors, operating from the same perspective, offering up the same kinds of solutions to the same kinds of problems. To persuade himself that he would be a better President than Carter, Kennedy would have to persuade himself that man for man, everything else being constant, he has a superior gift for leadership that will somehow keep him from suffering Carter's fate.

Senator Kennedy has put his own decision in the hands of the U.S. economy, saying its condition at the end of the year will determine whether or not he will be a candidate. But it seems to have been foreign policy that triggered Kennedy into the open, albeit conditional, competition. Kennedy would not say so publicly, but it is fairly clear from indirect sources that it was Cuba that pushed Kennedy over the edge, where he could say to himself with confidence that he would be a better President than Carter. And he would be right.

Jimmy Carter's handling of his own Cuban "crisis", his determination to keep the SALT (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks) II Treaty separate from the disposition of the Soviet combat troops in Cuba, effectively ended the Carter presidency. The final straw was the revelation that Carter is as close to being a pacifist as the United States has ever had in a President, a fatal weakness in a Commander in Chief, a surprising one for a Southern Annapolis graduate tutored by Hyman Rickover. It should now be obvious to the most rigid military hardliners that if it came down to a choice between Carter and Edward M. Kennedy that Kennedy would be tougher. Given the same facts, the same advisors, the same SALT II Treaty, Kennedy would not have displayed such transparent weakness, if he is even the lOtfi part of his brother Jack. At least, Kennedy would have initiated the inevitable political linkage between the Cuba issue and SALT, instead of, as Carter did, negotiating for the Russians.

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The Cuba caper may have done much more than finish off the Carter presidency at one term. It has also very likely ended detente as a framework for American foreign policy, at least as detente has translated into a policy of habitual appeasement of the Soviet Union. The SALT II Treaty before the Senate is surely dead now, where just one month ago it seemed safely headed toward passage. Of course, the Russians could revive it, and Carter too, by pulling those troops out of Cuba. But Leonid Brezhnev is also a lame duck, both politically and physically moribund, which suggests that even if he were willing to pay that price for SALT it would precipitate a leadership crisis in the Kremlin. Texas Governor William Clements, visiting Moscow in mid-September, was no doubt correct to advise his Russian hosts that it will be 1981 before the United States is ready to resume SALT talks.

It will take a new President with a fresh mandate to proceed in exploring the U.S.-Soviet relationship. Given the likelihood that Brezhnev is on his last laps and will not be around in 1981, there is then the high probability that both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. will have new leaders forced to design a framework to replace detente. Indeed, the struggle for succession to Carter and Brezhnev that will occupy the United States and the Soviet Union through 1980 will be conditioned by this strategic imperative. The framework of detente, now collapsing, no longer bears much relationship to international realities and thus serves neither the interests of Americans nor Russians.

The framework of detente evolved two decades ago around the dual assumptions of American military superiority and Communist ideological advantage. That is, in the competition for global political leadership, the two superpowers saw themselves, and were seen by others, in this light. The ideological advantage was conceded to the Soviets on the grounds that democracy, while morally superior, has inherent weaknesses — the U.S. having to debate policy openly while the Russian dictators could plot secretly; American politicians were forced to grapple with an often stingy or recalcitrant electorate while the Russians had close control over ideas and resources. Thus, the Russians could cook up wars of national liberation, and so could the Red Chinese, selling socialistic ideas that have a demagogic appeal to the masses of the underdeveloped world. In this picture, democracy and capitalism were assumed to be suitable only for "advanced" people.

These assumptions dictated a U.S. policy of policing the world to keep non-Communists in power in the Third World, along with grants and loans to the less developed nations to help advance them to the point were they would be ready for democratic capitalism. The full force of this policy came to bear on Vietnam, in which the United States would match wits with the Communists of Hanoi, Moscow and Peking. The U.S. defeat drained national self confidence at the same time the long war drained resources that helped weaken the economy, the basis of U.S. military strength. As the Soviets committed sufficient resources to close the gap, the U.S. could only maintain strategic superiority by taxing a declining base, with no assurance the Soviets would not simply up the ante again.

Detente as an instrument of peaceful coexistence gave way to detente as a defensive strategy. The SALT I Treaty, signed by Nixon and Brezhnev in 1972, ratified the U.S. stagnation and the Soviet dynamic. The clear U.S. rationale was that concessions were necessary to keep detente alive, keep the Soviets in a negotiating frame of mind, while working toward improvements in the second round of SALT. More ominously, Secretary of State Kissinger revived and amplified the notion of a Soviet Sparta and an American Athens, with the inherent weakness of democracy consigning the U.S., at best, to a posture of submissiveness. Now, seven years later, the U.S. economy is much weaker. Its military position has sagged further relative to the Soviets. And the SALT II Treaty, instead of correcting the imbalances of SALT I, magnifies and ratifies the Soviet dynamic. The best its proponents can say of it is that it keeps detente alive, keeps negotiations alive, and corrections can be made in a third round of SALT. SALT has become "a bankrupt process", Robert L. Bartley, editor of the Wall Street Journal, argued in a June 15th Journal essay. "The SALT process has subtly but effectively curtailed American strategic programs. The dynamic is this: arms control mutilates the best options, and the Budget Bureau moves in to kill off the cripples."

On the Soviet side, meanwhile, the SALT era has become one of history's great arms build-ups. Between 1969 and 1978, U.S. strategic force levels were static at 1,054 land-based missiles and 656 submarine-launched missiles — though more multiple warheads were installed on these launchers. Over the same time, the Soviets increased their land-based force to 1,400 from 1,028 and their sea-based launchers to 1,015 from 196. In conventional arms, U.S. manpower shrank, while the Soviets expanded their armies and supplied them with large numbers of tanks, artillery tubes and other arms.

This increased military clout already seems to be casting a political shadow. The Czech coup took place in 1948 and the Nationalist Chinese collapsed in 1949; until the fall of Saigon in 1975, the only successful Communist expansion were the victories of Ho Chi Minh in North Vietnam and Fidel Castro in Cuba. In the last four years, Soviet-allied Marxist governments have been established by force of arms in the seven nations: South Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Angola, Ethiopia, Afghanistan and South Yemen.

As President, Jimmy Carter has played out the detente hand to the humiliating extreme, his submissiveness reaching a point so obviously uncharacteristic and unreflective of his constituency — the American people — that Carter himself is discounted by the Soviets. In fact, his weakness reached a point so blatant that it serves to rouse the citizenry, shaming all but the most masochistic of Senate liberals. Senator Kennedy would call the combat brigade "provocative" and say it was unrealistic to expect SALT to move ahead unless the issue were resolved. On September 21, JFK's aide and biographer Theodore Sorenson would write in the New York Times that Carter had lost control of foreign policy. "What's needed is presidential leadership. The times require it. The Constitution authorizes it. This President is capable of it. Pray, sir, begin."

What President Carter does not seem to have realized is that the assumptions underlying the policy of defensive detente have been transposed: The United States may now be seen by itself and by others as having given over the military advantage to the Soviets. But the entire world now realizes, at the fringe of its consciousness, that Communism, and the Soviets, have lost the assumption of ideological superiority. All it would take to propel this reality to the center of global consciousness is to have it realized by an American President. Even if he did not publicly "announce" that Communism as an ideological force has collapsed, it would make such an President act differently in formulating a foreign policy and a leadership style. And the fact is that Soviet-style Marxist-Leninism has made advances only through sheer force on the periphery of the Third World, even as it has been losing everywhere else via disillusion.

The biggest losses have occurred in two of the nations that were once on the leading edge of anti-American "imperialism," China and Egypt. China tried the Maoist egalitarian model and it did not work; Egypt tried the Nasser derivative model of socialist egalitarianism and it did not work. Both are now opening up their political economies to incentive systems, which per force must lean to the individual and away from the collective. In Eastern Europe, the same drift away from Communist theology is taking place just as palpably as the younger generation of technocrats observe that a market economy and incentive systems get the job done better than central allocations. Especially in this year 1979, it has become plain that the "Titoist bloc" has expanded enormously, that leadership has swung from the 87-year-old Marshal Tito himself to Peking and Deng Xiaoping. Rumania, Hungary and even Poland have crossed a fine line, where they now think of themselves as having independence from Moscow and are perceived by others in that light. Here is Anthony Robinson, the East European correspondent of the Financial Times of London on May 30: "In spite of the difficulties involved, the Hungarian government is determined to press ahead with an economic policy which has more in common with Adam Smith than Karl Marx." And the New York Times on January 9: "The Polish leadership has decided to freeze its defense budget this year in apparent defiance of Soviet requests for a substantial rise in arms outlays by all Warsaw Pact allies." And Alex Alexiev of the Rand Corporation in the Times of January 27:

The Rumanian denunciation of the Soviet-sponsored invasion of Cambodia by Vietnam as a "heavy blow for the prestige of socialism and a threat to detente*'... was motivated primarily by a growing sense of insecurity. The Rumanians saw the Vietnamese offensive, which they suspected had been approved if not inspired by Moscow, as a clear sign that the Russians had again embarked on a military interventionist policy; they fear that they themselves might be the logical victim of such a policy, such apprehension stems partly from the fact that lately Rumania has played an increasingly active role in frustrating Moscow's efforts to tighten its control of Eastern Europe.

Why has Moscow embarked on a military interventionist policy again? Because force is all that is left, the ideological bank having been depleted, and because it is getting away with its use of force. If there are "doves" in the Kremlin, arguing against the wisdom of military adventures, they surely must again and again be made to feel foolish when their advice is not taken and they are subsequently proven wrong. Of the four top men in the 13-man Politburo (which has an average age of 69), it is Mikhail Suslov, 76, the No. 3 man, who is now the last true believer in orthodox Communism of any importance in the world. And it is Andrei Kirilenko, 72, the No. 4 man, who complements Suslov's theology with a hunger for military superiority. When Brezhnev dies or becomes physically incapable of leading, Suslov and Kirilenko will control the succession, but only if their policies of military intervention are still succeeding.

This is why passage of the SALT Treaty is critically important to them. It would demonstrate to the reformers in the Kremlin that the Soviet Union can have its cake and eat it too. It can push the United States around at will. And, it can arrange the terms of an arms agreement that ensures Soviet strategic dominance while it frees internal resources, giving economic relief to the Soviet citizenry and sustaining the subsidies that have given the Kremlin leverage over the Eastern bloc in the past. Soviet natural resources have been the glue that held together Comecon. The Soviet belt-tightening for arms spending has translated into greater independence of the Comecon nations. The deferral of SALT through the 1980 elections denies Suslov and Kirilenko their cake at a crucial moment, reducing their ability to control succession to Brezhnev. This may be the margin for future U.S.-Soviet relations in the Eighties; it certainly is in the profound interest of the U.S. and the world, even including the citizens of the Soviet Union, that Suslov and Kirilenko have as little as possible to say about the changing of the guard.

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The odd fellow in this drama is Fidel Castro. He has been the vehicle through which Jimmy Carter has demonstrated his commitment to pacifism, as well as the instrument that has demonstrated the futility of pacifism at this stage of history. Havana and Hanoi are now Moscow's only ideological allies, and both of these are paid to go to the Soviet church. Neither could exist without Soviet transfer payments, and there is now serious doubt whether Moscow will help Hanoi keep Cambodia from starving to death.

President Carter has gone to surprising lengths in seeking Castro's affection. He first halted U-2 reconnaissance flights over Cuba. He dealt away the Panama Canal to demonstrate that he, Carter, is not a Yankee imperialist. He had Andrew Young sanctify Castro's deployment of troops in Africa. And at first he asked us to believe that the Soviet combat troops stationed in Cuba were of little importance to the framework and substance of detente. Castro showed his appreciation in September, at the 92-nation Third World conference in Havana, by denouncing U.S. imperialism and demanding the liberation of Puerto Rico. At that very moment, President Carter was planning to send him another bouquet — the release of the Puerto Rican terrorists who attempted to assassinate President Truman and who shot up the House of Representatives. Puerto Rico's Governor Carlos Romero-Barcelo had pleaded with Carter not to free the terrorists unless they at least promised not to resume their terrorist activities, but when they would not, Carter freed them anyway, without consulting Romero, obviously to demonstrate his good will to Castro and the Third World.

The Havana meeting of the so-called Nonaligned Movement "has been taken by European observers as another disturbing sign of growing weakness in the West", wrote Flora Lewis in an excellent dispatch from Paris in the September 12th New York Times. "The impression of commentators back from Havana, that the triumphantly emotional anti-American atmosphere created by President Fidel Castro was more important than the compromises in the conference's final declaration, was shared by Europeans watching from afar."

This impression, though, is erroneous. The weakness is not in the West, but in the White House, and although Castro did successfully create "an image of the tide flowing to the East," it was all theatrics. At the bottom line, the Havana conference underscored the bafflement of the Third World. Castro could get them going with old-fashioned anti-American rhetoric, but he had them scratching their heads in denouncing China and Egypt. All it would have taken to blow Castro away was an American President, in Washington, publicly making the observations that Flora Lewis made from Paris:

Though Cuba has put armed forces at the service of the Soviet Union, though Vietnam has joined Comecon, the Eastern bloc's economic organization, though Vietnam and Afghanistan have close military links with the Soviet Union, these countries maintain they are nonaligned. Though Vietnam is driving out its citizens of Chinese origin in murderous conditions, it may not be called racist. Though all "national liberation movements" are described as worthy of full support, even the tiny fraction that Puerto Rican independence groups can muster at free elections, Kurds do not qualify.

It does not, after all, require the firing of a nuclear missile to win an ideological duel. The Third World knows that Communism is spent as an ideological force. But, if the Soviets can so easily push the United States around, with President Carter insisting it is a dance, the Nonaligned will line up behind the bully. There is no other choice. One of the most important and perceptive essays that has appeared in the world's press this year attested to this fact. Singapore's Foreign Minister, R.S. Rajaratnam, wrote in the Wall Street Journal editorial pages on June 22:

I attribute the growing disarray and anarchy in the contemporary world to the absence of world leadership either by a single nation or a group of nations.... The absence of such a leadership today lies at the root of contemporary international anarchy — both political and economic.... An international system composed of 140 nations whose interests diverge and converge in complicated ways must break down if there is no recognized leadership to give overall direction. . . . The handwringing that is now going on over the steady and relentless way in which the Soviet Union is expanding its power and influence is less an indictment of the Soviet Union than of the feebleness and lack of vision on the part of those who wring their hands ... I don't relish the idea of (the Russians) winning, but if they do, they in my opinion deserve to win. More importantly, if they win, they win by default.

Weakness, as Donald Rumsfeld put it when he was Secretary of Defense, can be provocative. In this sense, Jimmy Carter has been a most provocative President. The irony, though, may be that his weakness became so thorough that it finally provoked the nominal apologists of incremental appeasement.

The parallels with October 1962 were so stark that Teddy Kennedy had to react. How far Kennedy would go in the other direction, reasserting U.S. global leadership and ending the "contemporary international anarchy" is another question. But at least the question now can be asked, as it is likely to be at the center of the 1980 Presidential debates. We may have seen the low point of defensive detente.

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