By Eric Vandenbroeck and co-workers

Cold War China Xi Jinping And The United States

Few words are more closely associated with the late Henry Kissinger than “détente.” The term was first used in diplomacy in the early 1900s when the French ambassador to Germany tried—and failed—to better his country’s deteriorating relationship with Berlin, and in 1912, when British diplomats attempted the same thing. But détente became internationally famous only in the late 1960s and 1970s, when Kissinger, first as U.S. national security adviser and then also as U.S. secretary of state, pioneered what would become his signature policy: the easing of tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States.

Détente should not be confused with amitié. It was not about striking up a friendship with Moscow but about reducing the risks that a cold war would become a hot one. “The United States and the Soviet Union are ideological rivals,” Kissinger explained in his memoirs. “Détente cannot change that. The nuclear age compels us to coexist. Rhetorical crusades cannot change that, either.” For Kissinger, détente was a middle way between the aggression that had led to World War I, “when Europe, despite the existence of a military balance, drifted into a war no one wanted,” and the appeasement that he believed had led to World War II, “when the democracies failed to understand the designs of a totalitarian aggressor.”

To pursue détente, Kissinger sought to engage the Soviets on a variety of issues, including arms control and trade. He strove to establish “linkage,” another keyword of the era, between things the Soviets appeared to want (for example, better access to American technology) and things the United States knew it wanted (for example, assistance in extricating itself from Vietnam). At the same time, Kissinger was prepared to be combative whenever he discerned that the Soviets were working to expand their sphere of influence, from the Middle East to southern Africa. In other words, and as Kissinger himself put it, détente meant embracing “both deterrence and coexistence, both containment and an effort to relax tensions.”

Suppose that pragmatic sentiment resonates five decades later. In that case, it is because policymakers in Washington appear to have reached a similar conclusion about China, the country with which U.S. President Joe Biden and his national security team seem ready to attempt their version of détente. “We have to ensure that competition does not veer into conflict,” Biden told the Chinese leader Xi Jinping in California in November. “We also have a responsibility to our people and the world to work together when we see it in our interest to do so.” Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, made a similar point in his essay in these pages last year. “The contest is truly global, but not zero-sum,” he wrote. “The shared challenges the two sides face are unprecedented.” To paraphrase Kissinger, the United States and China are major rivals. But the nuclear age and climate change, not to mention artificial intelligence, compel them to coexist.

If détente is making a comeback in all but name, why did it go out of fashion? In the wake of Kissinger’s death, in November 2023, his critics on the left have not been slow to repeat their old list of indictments, ranging from the bombing of civilians in Cambodia to supporting dictators in Chile, Pakistan, and elsewhere. For the left, Kissinger personified a cold-blooded realpolitik that subordinated human rights in the Third World to containment. This was the aspect of détente to which U.S. President Jimmy Carter objected. But much less has been heard lately of the conservative critique of Kissinger, which claimed that Kissinger’s policy was tantamount to appeasement. As governor of California, Ronald Reagan spent the 1970s blasting détente as a “one-way street that the Soviet Union has used to pursue its aims.” He taunted Kissinger for acquiescing as the Soviets cynically exploited détente, such as when they and their Cuban allies gained the upper hand in postcolonial Angola. During his first run for president, in 1976, Reagan repeatedly pledged to scrap the policy if elected. “Under Messrs. Kissinger and Ford,” he declared in March of that year, “this nation has become number two in military power in a world where it is dangerous—if not fatal—to be second best.”

Reagan was hardly an outlier. By the time he spoke, hawks across the government were fed up with Kissinger’s approach. Republicans commonly complained that, in the words of New Jersey Senator Clifford Case, “the gains made in détente have accrued to the Soviet side.” Across the aisle, Democratic Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia enraged Kissinger by accusing him of having “put great trust in Communist Russia” and, through détente, “embracing” Moscow. The American military, meanwhile, suggested that to pursue détente was to admit defeat. In 1976, Elmo Zumwalt, who had recently retired as head of the U.S. Navy, argued that Kissinger believed the United States had “passed its historic high point like so many earlier civilizations.” Just as appeasement, which had started as a respectable term, fell into disrepute in 1938, détente became a dirty word—and it did so even before Kissinger left office.

Yet 1970s détente was unlike 1930s appeasement, both in the way it functioned and in the results it produced. Unlike the British and French attempt to buy off Adolf Hitler with territorial concessions, Kissinger and his presidents strove to contain their adversary’s expansion. And unlike appeasement, détente successfully avoided a world war. Writing in the mid-1980s, the political scientist Harvey Starr counted a marked increase in the ratio of cooperative to conflictual acts in U.S.-Soviet relations during the Nixon administration. The number of state-based conflicts was lower in the Kissinger years (1969 to 1977) than in the years after and right before.

Half a century later, as Washington adjusts to the realities of a new cold war, détente could again be derailed by hawks. Republican politicians love to portray their opponents as soft on China, just as their predecessors portrayed their opponents as soft on the Soviets in the 1970s. Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, for example, has claimed that Biden is “coddling and appeasing the Chinese communists.” Former President Donald Trump’s campaign has accused Biden of “weakness” that “continues to invite aggression” against Taiwan.

These charges are not surprising; it is always tempting for Republicans to summon the spirit of Reagan and rerun his critique of détente. But there is a danger that both parties are misunderstanding the lessons of the 1970s. In advocating an uncompromising containment of China, Republicans may overestimate the United States’ ability to prevail in a confrontation. In shying away from escalation, the Biden administration may be underestimating the importance of deterrence as a component of détente. The essence of Kissinger’s strategy was that it combined engagement and containment in a way that was well-advised given the state of the American economy and American public opinion in the 1970s, or what the Soviets liked to call the “correlation of forces.” A similar combination is needed today, especially when the correlation of forces is a good deal more favorable for Beijing than it ever was for Moscow.


On The Brink

These days, the more sophisticated of Kissinger’s academic critics don’t complain that the Soviets got more out of détente than the United States did. Instead, they argue that Kissinger repeatedly made the mistake of seeing every issue through the lens of the Cold War and treating every crisis as if it were decisive to the struggle against Moscow. As the historian Jussi Hanhimaki has written in a book-length broadside, Kissinger took it “as a given that containing Soviet power—if not communist ideology—should be the central goal of American foreign policy.”

This critique reflects the efforts historians have made in recent years to focus on the sufferings of people who lived in the countries caught in the Cold War crossfire. But it underestimates just how threatening the Soviet Union was to the United States in the Third World. Whatever the crafty Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin might have said to Kissinger, the Kremlin did not regard détente as anything other than cover for its strategy to gain the advantage over Washington. As a 1971 report to the Politburo made clear, the Soviet Union wanted the United States to “conduct its international affairs in a way that did not create a danger of confrontation,” but only because doing so could make Washington “recognize the need for the West to realize the interests of the USSR.” To achieve this objective, the report called on the Politburo “to continue to use the U.S. government’s objective interest in maintaining contacts and holding negotiations with the USSR.”

Kissinger was not privy to this document, but it would not have surprised him. He had no illusions about the game being played by Dobrynin’s masters. After all, the Soviets also stated publicly in 1975 that détente did not preclude their continued “support of the national liberation struggle” against “the social-political status quo.” As Kissinger told the columnist Joe Alsop in 1970, “If the Soviets think an agreement on nuclear parity will serve their interests, they are perfectly capable of reaching for such an agreement with one hand while trying to cut our gizzards out with the other hand.”

Kissinger and Ford negotiating arms control with General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Leonid Brezhnev and others near Vladivostok, Russia, November 1974

Nevertheless, although Kissinger knew that the Kremlin had ulterior motives, he still advanced détente for one simple reason: the conservative alternative, a return to the brinkmanship of the 1950s and 1960s, risked nuclear Armageddon. There was “no alternative to coexistence,” Kissinger told an audience in Minneapolis in 1975. Both the Soviet Union and the United States “can destroy civilized life.” Détente was, therefore, a moral imperative. “We have a historic obligation,” Kissinger argued the following year, “to engage the Soviet Union and to push back the shadow of nuclear catastrophe.”

These concerns did not make Kissinger an advocate of nuclear disarmament. Having risen to prominence as a public intellectual with a book titled Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, he remained as interested in the possibility of a limited nuclear war as he was horrified by the prospect of an all-out one. In the spring of 1974, Kissinger even requested that the Joint Chiefs of Staff formulate a limited nuclear response to a hypothetical Soviet invasion of Iran.

But when he was briefed on the draft plan a few weeks later, he was appalled. The Pentagon proposed firing some 200 nuclear weapons at Soviet military installations near the Iranian border. “Are you out of your minds?” Kissinger shouted. “This is a limited option?” When the generals returned with a plan to use only an atomic mine and two nuclear weapons to blow up the two roads from Soviet territory into Iran, he was incredulous. “What kind of nuclear attack is this?” he asked. A U.S. president who used so few weapons would be regarded in the Kremlin as “chicken.” The problem, as he well knew, was that there could never be certainty that the Soviets would respond in a limited way to any kind of American nuclear strike.

Kissinger’s views on nuclear arms rankled his conservative critics, particularly those in the Pentagon. They were especially infuriated by how Kissinger approached the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, which began in November 1969 and paved the way for the first major U.S.-Soviet arms control agreement. In September 1975, the Defense Intelligence Agency circulated a ten-page intelligence estimate asserting that the Soviet Union was cynically cheating on its SALT commitments to gain nuclear dominance. The debate flared again in the last days of the Ford administration when reports by the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency suggested that Moscow was seeking superiority, not parity when it came to nuclear weapons. Government officials claimed that Kissinger knew this but had chosen to ignore it.

These criticisms were not entirely wrong. The Soviets had already achieved parity in the raw numbers of intercontinental ballistic missiles by the late 1960s and had a huge lead in megatonnage by 1970. Some of these ICBMs carried large, multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles, which could fire a cluster of warheads at more than one target. However, the United States retained a five-to-one advantage in submarine-launched ballistic missiles in 1977. The U.S. advantage in bomber-carried nuclear weapons was even greater: 11 to one. And Moscow never came anywhere close to acquiring enough ballistic missiles to carry out a strike against U.S. nuclear assets that would have made it impossible for Washington to respond with its nuclear attack. Interviews with senior Soviet officers after the Cold War revealed that by the early 1970s, the military leadership had dismissed the notion that the Soviet Union could win a nuclear war. The subsequent growth of the country’s nuclear arsenal was mainly the result of inertia on the part of the military-industrial complex.

To a degree, Kissinger shared his Soviet counterparts’ perspective. His view since the 1950s had been that an all-out nuclear world war was too catastrophic for anyone to win. The details of the size and quality of the two superpowers’ nuclear arsenals therefore interested him much less than how the diplomacy of détente could reduce the risk of Armageddon. He also believed that Soviet nuclear parity would ultimately prove unsustainable, given that the Soviet Union’s economy was much smaller than that of the United States. “The economic and technological base which underlies Western military strength remains overwhelmingly superior in size and capacity for innovation,” Kissinger said in a 1976 speech. He added, “We have nothing to fear from competition: If there is a military competition, we have the strength to defend our interests. If there is an economic competition, we won it long ago.”


Lose The Battle, Win The War

Conservatives objected to Kissinger for reasons beyond his seeming tolerance of Soviet nuclear parity. Hawks also argued that Kissinger was too ready to accept the unjust character of the Soviet system—the obverse of liberals’ complaint that he was too ready to tolerate the unjust character of right-wing dictatorships. This issue came to the fore over Soviet restrictions on Jewish emigration and the treatment of Soviet political dissidents, such as the author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. When Solzhenitsyn visited the United States in the 1970s (having been kicked out of the Soviet Union), Kissinger infuriated conservatives by advising President Gerald Ford not to meet with him.

Solzhenitsyn became one of Kissinger’s most implacable opponents. “A peace that tolerates any ferocious forms of violence and any massive doses of it against millions of people,” the novelist thundered in 1975, “has no moral loftiness even in the nuclear age.” He and other conservative critics argued that through détente, Kissinger had merely enabled the expansion of Soviet communism. The fall of Saigon in 1975, the descent of Cambodia into the hell of Pol Pot’s communist dictatorship, and the Cuban-Soviet intervention in Angola’s postcolonial conflict—these and other geopolitical setbacks seemed to vindicate their claim. “I believe in the peace of which Mr. Ford speaks, as much as any man,” Reagan declared in 1976, as he campaigned against Ford in the Republican presidential primary. “But in places such as Angola, Cambodia, and Vietnam, the peace they have come to know is the peace of the grave. All I can see is what other nations the world over see: the collapse of the American will and the retreat of American power.”

Unlike the allegation of Soviet nuclear superiority, Kissinger never denied that Soviet expansionism in the Third World posed a threat to détente and U.S. power. “Time is running out continuation of an interventionist policy must inevitably threaten other relationships,” he said in a speech in November 1975. “We will be flexible and cooperative in settling conflicts. . . . But we will never permit détente to turn into a subterfuge of unilateral advantage.” Yet the reality was that in the absence of congressional support—whether for the defense of South Vietnam or the defense of Angola—the Ford administration had little choice but to accept Soviet military expansion, or at least the victories of Soviet proxies. “Our domestic disputes,” Kissinger said in December 1975, “are depriving us of both the ability to provide incentives for [Soviet] moderation such as in the restrictions on the trade act, as well as of the ability to resist military moves by the Soviet Union as in Angola.”

It can, of course, be debated to what extent Kissinger was right to claim that with continued congressional support for U.S. aid, South Vietnam and even Angola might have been saved from communist control. But there is no doubt Kissinger cared about stopping the spread of Soviet systems. “The necessity for détente as we conceive it does not reflect approbation of the Soviet domestic structure,” he said in 1974. “The United States has always looked with sympathy, with great appreciation, at the expression of freedom of thought in all societies.” If Kissinger declined to embrace Solzhenitsyn, it was not because Kissinger was tolerant of (much less secretly sympathetic to) the Soviet model. It was because he believed that Washington could accomplish more by maintaining working relations with Moscow.

Ford and Kissinger conferring before a summit in Vladivostok, Russia, November 1974

And in this, he was surely right. By easing tensions both in Europe and across the rest of the world, détente helped improve the lives of at least some people under communist rule. Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union rose in the period when Kissinger was firmly in charge of détente. After Democratic Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson of Washington and other congressional hawks sought to publicly pressure Moscow into releasing more Jews by holding up a U.S.-Soviet trade deal, emigration went down. Kissinger’s conservative critics were vehemently opposed to the United States signing the Helsinki Accords in the summer of 1975, arguing that they represented a ratification of Soviet postwar conquests in Europe. But by getting the Soviet Union’s leaders to commit to respecting certain basic civil rights of their citizens as part of the accords—a commitment they had no intention of honoring—the deal ultimately eroded the legitimacy of Soviet rule in Eastern Europe.

None of these facts could save Kissinger’s governmental career. As soon as Ford was out, so was his secretary of state, never to return to high office. But Kissinger’s core strategic concept continued to bear fruit for years to come, including under the principal critics of détente: Carter and Reagan. Carter had criticized Nixon, Ford, and Kissinger for being insufficiently compassionate in their realism, but his national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, persuaded him to get tough with Moscow. By the end of 1979, Carter was compelled to warn the Soviets to withdraw their forces from Afghanistan or face “serious consequences.” Reagan, for his part, ended up adopting détente as his policy in all but name—and indeed went beyond what Kissinger did to ease tensions. In his pursuit of rapprochement, Reagan agreed to reduce Washington’s nuclear arsenal by a far larger amount than even Kissinger thought prudent. The “Kissinger era” did not end when he left the government in January 1977.

Although since forgotten, this truth was recognized by Kissinger’s more observant contemporaries. The conservative commentator William Safire, for example, noted how quickly the Reagan administration was penetrated by “Kissingerians” and “détenteniks,” even if Kissinger himself was kept at bay. The Reagan administration became so accommodating that it was now Kissinger’s turn to accuse Reagan of being overly soft, such as in his response to the imposition of martial law in Poland. Kissinger opposed plans for a pipeline to transport natural gas from the Soviet Union to Western Europe because it would make the West “much more subject to political manipulation than it is even today.” (This warning, it turned out, was prescient.) In 1987, Nixon and Kissinger took to the op-ed page of the Los Angeles Times to warn that Reagan’s readiness to make a deal with the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, in which both states would get rid of all their intermediate-range nuclear weapons, was going too far. To such criticisms, Secretary of State George Shultz gave a revealing response: “We’re beyond détente now.”


Détente 2.0

Considering the troubles the United States was facing by the start of 1969, détente as Kissinger conceived of it made sense. Unable to defeat North Vietnam, afflicted by stagflation, and deeply divided over everything from race relations to women’s rights, Washington could not play hardball with Moscow. Indeed, the U.S. economy in the 1970s was in no condition to sustain increased defense spending overall. (Détente had a fiscal rationale, too, although Kissinger seldom mentioned it.) Détente did not mean—as Kissinger’s critics alleged—embracing, trusting, or appeasing the Soviets. Nor did it mean allowing them to attain nuclear superiority, permanent control over Eastern Europe, or an empire in the Third World. What it meant was recognizing the limits of U.S. power, reducing the risk of thermonuclear war by employing a combination of carrots and sticks, and buying time for the United States to recover.

It worked. True, Kissinger did not secure the “decent interval” between the U.S. withdrawal from South Vietnam and the South’s conquest by the North, an interlude he had hoped would be long enough to limit the damage to Washington’s credibility and reputation. But détente allowed the United States to regroup domestically and to stabilize its Cold War strategy. The U.S. economy soon innovated in ways that the Soviet Union never could, creating economic and technological assets that enabled Washington’s Cold War victory. Détente also gave the Soviets the rope with which to hang themselves. Emboldened by their successes in Southeast Asia and southern Africa, they mounted a series of mistaken and costly interventions in the less developed world, culminating in their invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

Given détente’s rarely acknowledged success in these terms, it is worth asking if there are lessons the United States can learn today that are relevant to its competition with China. Kissinger certainly believed so. While speaking in Beijing in 2019, he declared that the United States and China were already “in the foothills of a cold war.” In 2020, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, he upgraded that to “the mountain passes.” And a year before his death, he warned that the new Cold War would be more dangerous than the first one because of advances in technology, such as artificial intelligence, that threaten to make weapons not only faster and more accurate but also potentially autonomous. He called on both superpowers to cooperate whenever possible to limit the existential dangers of this new cold war—and, in particular, to avoid a potentially cataclysmic showdown over the contested status of Taiwan.

As during the 1970s, plenty of experts criticize this approach in the current debate over U.S. policy toward China. Elbridge Colby, the most thoughtful of the new generation of conservative strategists, has exhorted the Biden administration to adopt a “strategy of denial” to deter China from militarily challenging a status quo in which Taiwan enjoys de facto autonomy and a thriving democracy. At times, the Biden administration has itself seemed to call into question the half-century Taiwan policy of strategic ambiguity, in which the United States leaves unclear whether it will use military force to defend the island. There is almost a bipartisan consensus that the previous era of engagement with Beijing was a mistake, predicated on the erroneous assumption that increased trade with China would magically liberalize its political system.

Yet there is no good reason why the superpowers of our time, like their predecessors in the 1950s and 1960s, should endure 20 years of brinkmanship before having the détente phase of their Cold War. Détente 2.0 would surely be preferable to running a new version of the Cuban missile crisis over Taiwan, but with the roles reversed: the communist state blockading the nearby contested island and the United States having to run the blockade, with all the attendant risks. That is certainly what Kissinger believed in the last year of his long life. It was the main motivation for his final visit to Beijing shortly after his 100th birthday.

Like détente 1.0, a new détente would not mean appeasing China, much less expecting the country to change. It would mean, once again, engaging in myriad negotiations: on arms control (urgently needed as China frantically builds up its forces in every domain); trade; technology transfers, climate change, artificial intelligence; and space. Like SALT, these negotiations would be protracted and tedious—and perhaps even inconclusive. But they would be the “meeting jaw to jaw” that British Prime Minister Winston Churchill generally preferred to war. As for Taiwan, the superpowers could do worse than dust off their old promise, hammered out by Kissinger, to agree to disagree.

Xi and Biden in Woodside, California, November 2023

Détente, of course, does not work miracles. In the 1970s, it was both oversold and overbought. The policy unquestionably provided the United States with time, but it was a chess strategy that perhaps required too many callous sacrifices of lesser pieces on the board. As one Soviet analyst, puzzled by U.S. opposition to his country’s intervention in Angola, remarked, “You Americans tried to sell détente like detergent and claimed that it would do everything a detergent could do.”

Critics ultimately succeeded in poisoning the term. In March 1976, Ford banned its use in his reelection campaign. But there was never a workable replacement. Asked then if he had an alternative term, Kissinger gave a characteristically wry response. “I’ve been dancing around myself to find one,” he said. “Easing of tensions, relaxation of tensions. We may well wind up with the old word again.”

Today, the Biden administration has settled for its word: “de-risking.” It is not French, but it is also barely English. Although the starting point of this cold war is different because of the much greater economic interdependence between today’s superpowers, the optimal strategy may turn out to be essentially the same as before. If the new détente is to be criticized, then the critics should not misrepresent it the way Kissinger’s détente was so often misrepresented by his many foes—lest they find themselves, like Reagan before, doing essentially the same when they are in the Situation Room.



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