Détente was a tactical success, but it had a strategic downside for which we paid fairly heavily. It was not a fundamental change in the East-West relationship but rather a kind of understanding that we ought to live together to minimize the chances of something going wrong. We were having trouble maintaining defense expenditures, and, strangely enough, détente enabled us to keep ahead of the Soviet Union strategically. But psychologically, détente finally persuaded the American people that the threat had receded. This led to further defense cuts in the 1970s, which Vietnam and Watergate accentuated.
By the end of the decade the Soviets had decided the correlation of forces was moving irrevocably in their direction. They concluded that the U.S. had had it, that America was weak and in decline. The Soviets started a wave of movements around the world that culminated in Afghanistan. It took Ronald Reagan and a massive increase in U.S. defense expenditures to turn things around.
Like détente, Ostpolitik had a good side and a downside. The goal was an improved relationship between the two Germanys. While it was a step forward at the time because it fit into détente, Ostpolitik also caused problems when German unification began. The Social Democratic Party, which initiated Ostpolitik, was actually trying to slow down German unification in the late 1980s.
Détente and Ostpolitik assumed the existence of two systems East and West and both were steps toward co-existence. Nixon's opening to China made an enormous contribution to détente. By going to China, Nixon transformed the Chinese into the darlings of American foreign policy. That gave us additional leverage against the Russians. Because they were scared to death of U.S.-Chinese cooperation, the Russians were prepared to pay a price in cooperating with us on détente. But because of Vietnam and Watergate, Nixon couldn't do more. Détente allowed him to hold on, but he couldn't turn things around. It wasn't until Reagan came in and hit the Russians between the eyes with a two-by-four that we were able to do that. Reagan said, "No, we can't live side by side." By that time the Soviet leadership was ossified, and the Soviet economy was in deep trouble. The Soviets had to make a more realistic appraisal of their forces. So there is a kind of overall coherence to this period.
As National Security Adviser, Brent Scowcroft counseled U.S. Presidents Gerald Ford and George Bush
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