Superpower Diplomacy

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Superpower Diplomacy

Vojtech Mastny

The concept of a superpower was a product of the Cold War and the nuclear age. Although the word appeared, according to Webster's dictionary, as early as 1922, its common usage only dates from the time when the adversarial relationship of the United States and the Soviet Union became defined by their possession of nuclear arsenals so formidable that the two nations were set apart from any others in the world. It came to be widely, though by no means universally, accepted that the very possession of these weapons, regardless of their actual use, made the two nations immensely more powerful than any other.

Superpower diplomacy is thus closely related to nuclear weapons. They gave the U.S.Soviet diplomatic intercourse its distinct character. During the years when the United States and the Soviet Union were in superpower positions in relation to their allies and clients in different parts of the world, their respective relations with those countries were of a different order and are therefore usually not considered under the rubric of superpower diplomacy. These relationships nevertheless influenced the manner in which Washington and Moscow dealt with one another.

Superpower diplomacy was a product of particular historical circumstances, characterized by bipolarismthe domination of the international system by two exceptionally powerful states locked in an adversarial relationship. Historically, such circumstances were highly unusual. The age of the superpowers began in 1945 with the appearance of nuclear weapons and ended in 1991 with the disappearance of one of the superpowers, the Soviet Union. The subsequent survival of the United States as "the world's only superpower" evolved in a radically different international environment, where bilateralism had ceased to exist and the concept of superpower diplomacy therefore lost its original meaning.

Despite its uniqueness and limited life span, superpower diplomacy was important because it altered and distorted previously established diplomatic practices by making the conduct of diplomacy dependent, to an unaccustomed degree, upon a new kind of weaponry that carried with it the threat of universal annihilation. The dependence tended to impose oversimplification upon a profession traditionally known for its subtlety, sometimes raising questions about whether diplomacy may not have outlived its usefulness because of the limitations placed on it by the crudeness and excess of the new power it wielded. Although such predictions proved wrong, the overriding concern with the management of that power left indelible marks on diplomacy, making it difficult to adjust to an era in which nuclear weapons continued to exist but bipolarism no longer applied.

While the superpower status of the United States and the Soviet Union derived from what the two countries had in common, the understanding of their diplomatic interaction requires constant attention to the differences that distinguished them from each other. One was a pluralistic democracy with a government accountable to the people. The other was a one-party dictatorship ruled by a self-perpetuating oligarchy accountable only to itself. At the same time, both the United States and the Soviet Union defined themselves in different ways as outsiders to the traditional European system of power politics, which they regarded as alien to their respective values as well as detrimental to international order.

Twice in the twentieth century the United States attempted to reform the international system in accordance with its own, specifically American, model of a democratic federalism. It sought to ensure its primacy because of its superior economic power and presumably higher morality in an international system where the interests of all nations would be secured by generally accepted international institutions and procedures designed to mitigate and manage conflict. Unlike the United States, the Soviet state in its early years sought to overthrow rather than reform what it regarded as an inherently destructive and ultimately doomed capitalist world order. Soviet leaders originally believed in a world revolution that would result in a community of states living in harmony because of their common dedication to Marxist principles, with the Soviet state as the first among equals. They hoped to conduct revolutionary diplomacy in conjunction with the management of congenial communist parties directed from Moscow.

Although both the United States and the Soviet Union had to adapt their utopian tenets to real life, the idealistic and ideological streaks never entirely disappeared from their foreign policies, making their diplomacy different from that of other countries, irrespective of their later superpower status. The United States, sobered by the rejection by its own Senate of the League of Nations designed during World War I by President Woodrow Wilson and the subsequent descent of Europe into another world war, subsequently attempted to build the United Nations on more realistic grounds, including a directorate of the main great powers. Once the concept of a directorate based on collaboration with the Soviet Union proved not realistic enough, American policymakers became morethough never entirelyreceptive to European notions of balance of power based on the pursuit of national interest, as propagated by influential scholars of European origin such as Hans Morgenthau.

Under the dictatorship of Joseph Stalin, the Soviet Union likewise abandoned in practice its earlier revolutionary utopia in favor of a foreign policy that instead embraced many of the traditional goals of Russian imperialism. Under Stalin the Soviet Union became an opportunistic player in the international system, expanding its territory and sphere of influence first in collaboration with Nazi Germany, and, after Germany attacked it in World War II, in collaboration with the Western powers. To what extent Soviet foreign policy became traditional foreign policy despite the communist ideology of its practitioners became a tantalizing question for the United States once the Soviet Union emerged as its main rival and remains a contentious issue among historians and political scientists. The opening of former Soviet archives after the end of the Cold War has made more of them conclude that Marxist-Leninist ideological preconceptions continued to shape Soviet foreign policy in important ways until its very endnot so much by determining its goals as by providing the conceptual framework through which policymakers viewed the outside world and interpreted the intentions and capabilities of their adversaries.

Accordingly, the Soviet Union was long reluctant to accept the notion that there were two superpowers, which implied commonality with its capitalist adversary as well as permanence of the hostile system presided over by the United States, with its superior resources. The notion is of Western origin and was always more popular with critics of the superpowers than with either of them. In any case, their superpower relationship had come into being before it was recognized and labeled as such, and neither of the two rivals was able to anticipate correctly what their future relationship would be like.


The February 1945 Yalta conference between Stalin, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill came to be regarded as the birthplace of superpower diplomacy. According to the Yalta myth, Stalin and Roosevelt, reluctantly assisted by Churchill, agreed to divide Europe into spheres of influence along the lines it would in fact be divided into three years later. In reality, no such agreement was concluded at the conference, whose main defect was instead the lack of any clear agreement about the potentially divisive effects of the respective visions of the postwar world. In its inattention to detail, its inability to distinguish the primary from the secondary issues, and its indulgence in wishful thinking, Yalta was characteristic of the excessively casual and highly personalized World War II coalition diplomacyfeatures that linked it with the later superpower diplomacy in style, if not in substance.

At issue in both the Soviet and the American visions of the postwar world was the choice between hegemonydomination by a single powerand condominiumpredominance by several, not necessarily two, cooperating powers. Stalin's vision, now possible to reconstruct from Soviet archival documents, was that of a Europe in which the Soviet Union would have emerged, because of its overwhelming military victory, as the sole great power on the continent. He expected to achieve this hegemonic position by working with, rather than against, his American and British allies. But suspicious as he was of the motives of anyone he could not control, he sought to secure a particularly strong hold on the neighboring peoples of Eastern Europe, most of whom were traditionally hostile to Russia. Seeking absolute security, as dictators are predisposed to do, he could only achieve it at the cost of the absolute insecurity of those around him.

There has been a long-standing controversy about whether Stalin originally aimed at establishing communist regimes in Europe, as they were in fact later established under his auspices in its eastern part. No evidence of such a premeditated design has been found, although Stalin, as a communist, took it for granted that communism would eventually prevail in the world. In practical terms, at issue was the kind of control he considered necessary to satisfy his sweeping notion of security. In Eastern Europe it soon became evident that nothing short of the monopoly of power by the communist parties beholden to Moscow could ensure the attainment of Soviet security as Stalin understood it. This entailed the extension of the Stalinist system, whose record of arbitrary rule, disregard for human rights, and genocide justified apprehension about what Soviet hegemony meant.

The American vision of international order blended U.S. security interests more successfully with those of other nations. It was more innovative than Stalin's vision in that it did not rely on crude power: in the immediate aftermath of World War II, the United States reduced its formidable military machine much more drastically than the Soviet Union did. Americans were sufficiently confident in their economic power, democratic political system, and the international arrangements they had been instrumental in bringing about within the framework of the United Nations. U.S. hegemony, while liable to be resented as any hegemony would be, was incomparably more benign than the Soviet variety.

A school of American revisionist historians has challenged the traditional view, according to which Stalin's policies were primarily responsible for prompting the U.S.Soviet rivalry that became known as the Cold War. Inspired by the writings of William Appleman Williams, the revisionists have regarded especially America's hegemonic economic diplomacythe quest for an "open door" through which the United States would inevitably walk the tallestas a prescription for conflict. Yet the Soviet Union, taking a Marxist view, considered America's economic power to be resting on shaky foundations. Expecting the wartime boom to be followed by a crisis of over-production, much on the order of the Great Depression, the Soviet Union expected to benefit from the capitalists' distress by being able to obtain U.S. economic assistance on its own terms.

Immediate postWorld War II diplomacy had more in common with the traditional variety than with later superpower diplomacy. The JulyAugust 1945 Potsdam conference of the Big Threetheir first gathering after the victory in Europe and the last for another ten yearswas about practical issues concerning treatment of the defeated Germany in anticipation of a later peace treaty. The London conference in September of that year inaugurated the Council of Foreign Ministers as what the three powers still believed would be their supreme coordinating body supervising the building of a new international order compatible with their respective interests. Although the incompatibility of those interests was becoming progressively evident, nothing yet pointed unequivocally to the emergence of a bipolar system dominated by the United States and the Soviet Union. For one thing, Great Britain still played an important role, often taking the lead over the United States in challenging the Soviet Union, and was for that reason regarded by Stalin as more dangerous a rival than the United States.

Despite their international ascendancy as a result of World War II, neither the United States nor the Soviet Union were superpowers in 1945. Later that year the United States exploded the first nuclear bomb, but it did not effectively link its atomic monopoly to diplomacy. According to Gar Alperovitz and other historians of U.S. foreign policy, the very possession of the superweapon gave Washington a powerful policy tool that could not fail to have a constraining effect on the policies of other countries, particularly the Soviet Union. Yet the United States showed an unwillingness to use the tool by proposing in June 1946 the Baruch Plan for the international control of atomic energy.

Nor did Stalin link nuclear weapons to diplomacy. Although he was prompted to accelerate the construction of the Soviet Union's own atomic bombthe reason why the Soviet Union rejected the Baruch Planhe notably failed to be constrained by the U.S. nuclear monopoly. As late as 1946 he was confident that he could secure Soviet primacy in Europe and pursue Soviet interests elsewhere in the world by besting the Western powers in the diplomatic game. The revealing secret exchanges between him and his foreign minister, Viacheslav M. Molotov, when the latter was attending the JulySeptember 1946 Paris conference on peace treaties with Germany's former allies, show Stalin as being contemptuous of the Western statesmen's diplomatic skills as well as guts. The resulting peace treaties with Germany's former allies amounted to the reluctant recognition by the West of Soviet supremacy in Eastern Europe.


Diplomacy failed to resolve disagreements among the occupation powers about the administration and future status of Germany. The disagreements reflected the conflict between the Soviet concept of a weak though undivided and not necessarily communist Germany, which would ensure its dependence on Moscow, and the U.S. concept of a Germany integrated in a unifying Europe, even at the cost of detaching the western-occupied part of the country from the Soviet occupation zone as a separate state. At the March 1947 Moscow conference of foreign ministers, Secretary of State George C. Marshall became convinced about the incompatibility of these respective approaches to the solution of the German question and the necessity of reviewing the overall U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union.

The result of the review was the adoption of the concept of containment, which remained, with different variations, the guiding principle of U.S. foreign policy until the Soviet Union's collapse ended the confrontation forty-four years later. Conceptualized by George F. Kennan, a historian, diplomat, and Russian expert who had served at the U.S. embassy in Moscow during the critical preceding years, containment was the most original, subtle, and successful foreign policy concept ever embraced by the United States. Anticipating long-term rivalry between the two future superpowers, Kennan grasped the fundamental systemic differences and conflicting interests that precluded their mutual accommodation, but concluded that America's superior political, economic, and moral assets could allow it to prevail without war until internal strains in the Soviet system brought about "either the break-up or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power." This is precisely what eventually happened.

Kennan believed that the Soviet Union posed a political rather than a military threat and was therefore critical of the later expansion of the U.S. military establishment as well as the application of containment to other nations on the questionable assumption that they were being manipulated from Moscow. In its original version, the containment doctrine assigned the primary role to diplomacyincluding public diplomacy but not excluding covert actionwhile wielding enough military power to retain credibility. There had been successful U.S. attempts at using traditional diplomacy backed by force to prevent the expansion of Soviet power as an influence in peripheral areas, such as Iran and Turkey, as early as 1946. But the first example of containment in action motivated by Kennan's analysis was the Marshall Plan, announced by the secretary of state on 5 June 1947.

While the immediate goal of the plan was to provide extensive U.S. economic assistance to the European nations ravaged by the recent war, its larger purpose was to force a decision about the terms of the U.S.Soviet rivalry. By offering assistance to any European state, including the Soviet Union, on conditions requiring openness, accountability, and cooperation among the recipients in pooling their resourcesconditions incompatible with the system of imperial control Stalin was imposing on Eastern Europethe United States shifted the decision onto him. He could either give up control by allowing the East Europeans to participate in the plan under American conditions or else reject it and let the Americans organize Western Europe under their auspices while he proceeded to organize Eastern Europe his own way. In either case the United States stood to win.

As the United States expected, the Soviet Union chose the partition of Europe, although the choice had not been predetermined in Stalin's mind. Scholars have discovered Soviet sources showing that he had hoped his negotiators could compel the Americans to give up their conditions and allow the Soviet Union to benefit from the Marshall Plan while preventing the consolidation of Western European illusion stemming from the dogmatic Soviet belief that U.S. capitalism was acting from a position of weakness because of its impending crisis. Once the illusion was exposed, the Soviet Union proceeded to tighten its hold on Eastern Europe by imposing full-fledged communist regimesa policy that increased the West Europeans' willingness to rally behind U.S. leadership. The competition between the two nascent superpowers was henceforth determined by the contrast between what the Norwegian historian Geir Lundestad dubbed the American "empire by invitation" and the Soviet empire based on coercion.

The Soviet Union never developed a foreign policy concept comparable in intellectual subtlety and pragmatic utility to the U.S. concept of containment. Once the lines were drawn, its policy relied instead on what it considered an inevitable "general crisis of capitalism"something beyond Soviet control that never came. The policy sought to precipitate the crisis by trying to foment instability in Western Europe and split it away from the United States, misjudging the extent to which West Europeans were ready to submit to American leadership as well as to overcome their differences in building new supranational structures. Although reputed for alleged realism and diplomatic skills, Stalin failed to achieve what mattered to him most. Having striven to ensure Soviet security as he understood it, he found himself in confrontation with the most powerful nation of the world, a situation he had neither wanted nor anticipated.

In 1949 two further developments prefigured the later superpower confrontation. The first was the militarization of the Cold War following the Berlin Blockade, in which Stalin vainly tried to dissuade the United States from proceeding with the proclamation of a separate West German state. By cutting overland supply lines to the western-controlled part of the city, Stalin ran the risk of a military clash should an attempt be made to force the blockade. Although the clash was avoided thanks to the West's ability to supply the city by air, the growing perception that the Soviet Union was not only a political but also a military threat persuaded the United States to support the establishment in April 1949 of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as its first peacetime military alliance. Created to reassure West Europeans about American support, the alliance was to become for the United States an essential military ingredient of superpower diplomacy.

The other crucial development was the successful testing of the first Soviet atomic bomb in August 1949, which ensured that the ingredient would be nuclear on both sides. Much as the end of the U.S. nuclear monopoly influenced perceptions of the balance of power, however, nuclear weapons did not yet critically influence the respective policies. They were particularly absent in the decision that brought U.S.Soviet relations to a new level of hostilitythe launching in June 1950 of the Korean War, initiated by the North Korean communists with Stalin's backing though without direct Soviet participation.

The Korean War further accelerated the decline of diplomacy as a casualty of the Cold War. After the negotiated end of the Berlin Blockade in May 1949, no important East-West negotiations took place; those that did occur, mainly within the framework of the United Nations, were notable for their futility. Once stalemated, the Korean War led in May 1951 to a conference of deputy foreign ministers at the Paris Palais Rose but it yielded no results. By 1952, Soviet-American diplomatic relations all but ceased to exist, as the relationship between the two countries deteriorated to little more than a mutual exchange of insults. The dawn of superpower diplomacy had to await Stalin's death, which came in March 1953.


The aftermath of Stalin's death showed how difficult it was to establish a productive diplomatic relationship after years of intense hostility. There was a general feeling that the departure of the dictator, which coincided with the beginning of the Eisenhower administration, made negotiations both feasible and desirable. But neither side was ready for the kind of give and take that is the substance of diplomacy.

Soviet foreign policy, masterminded by Stalin's former aide Molotov, did not substantially depart from its previous strategy of driving wedges between the United States and Europe even though the strategy had been ineffective if not counterproductive. Churchill's efforts to reconvene another summit meeting foundered on both American and Soviet reluctance to address the many seemingly intractable issues that divided the two countries. The conference of foreign ministers that met in Berlin in January 1954 to address the German question failed to advance toward its resolution; significantly, their subsequent Geneva conference on Indochina, where U.S. and Soviet interests were less involved, proved more successful in achieving a political settlement there.

Secretary of State John Foster Dulles was readier than Molotov to draw new conclusions from the changing situation. But the conclusions he drew did not make him any more willing to engage the Soviet adversary in substantive negotiations. Dulles was particularly concerned about the growing Soviet nuclear arsenal and only wanted to negotiate after the United States had achieved a position of strength, by which he understood mainly military strength. He attached particular importance to equipping NATO with tactical nuclear weapons and ratifying the European Defense Community as NATO's subsidiary, through which West Germany could be rearmed.

A hallmark of U.S. superpower diplomacy was the critical importance it attached to the nuclear balance. Imputing to the Soviet Union a willingness to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons worked to its advantage by diverting attention from its weaknesses in other areas than military. Taking a narrowly military view in the assessment of the adversary limited U.S. options and made relations with America's allies more difficult. The European allies, while craving U.S. protection, no longer saw the Soviet threat in such stark terms as the Americans because of their position as the ultimate guarantors of Western security.

The different assessments of the Soviet threat led to the failure of the European Defense Community, regarded by Washington as the acid test of European willingness to stand up to the Soviet Union under U.S. leadership. During the debate that preceded the final rejection of the project in August 1954, Dulles in December 1953 threatened an "agonizing reappraisal" of U.S. foreign policy, implying a separate U.S.Soviet arrangement over the heads of the Europeans and possibly at their expense. Yet a superpower deal did not materialize. An alternative way was found for making West Germany contribute to Western defense by admitting it into NATO.

The October 1954 Paris agreements, which reaffirmed U.S. commitment to the defense of Europe and provided for West Germany's subsequent admission into NATO, were a setback for the Soviet Union, to which its new leader, Nikita S. Khrushchev, responded by taking initiatives toward détente. According to the U.S. historian Marc Trachtenberg, the Soviet Union was ready for a European settlement whereby continued U.S. military presence on the continent would provide constraints on rising German power. But most other historians agree that the Soviet Union instead sought to weaken the American position in Europe. Rather than seeking a superpower deal, Khrushchev persistently if unsuccessfully pursued a plan for a European collective security system from which the United States would be excluded, thus leaving the Soviet Union as dominant power on the continent.

The Geneva summit of July 1955 was the first since the onset of the Cold War and the last in which Great Britain and France participated as ostensibly equal partners together with the United States and the Soviet Union. But although Britain possessed nuclear weapons and France would soon acquire them, too, the two countries' potential was so far behind that of the superpowers that it did not translate into diplomatic clout at a time when the U.S.Soviet nuclear standoff was becoming the key item on the international agenda. This was the result of technological rather than political developments, particularly the introduction into the superpower arsenals of hydrogen bombs, the destructive power of which was theoretically unlimited, and of intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of hitting with increasing precision any target on earth.

The unresolved question was whether what came to be known as the "balance of terror" enhanced stability by deterring each side from contemplating the use of the deadly weapons, or whether the incalculable balance made the U.S.Soviet relationship more precarious by making it dependent on unpredictable changes in military technology, the effects of which could not be estimated with any certainty. Superpower relations remained tense as Khrushchev took advantage of the American preoccupation with military balance by pursuing a successful diplomatic offensive toward other Western nations as well as nonaligned countries of the Third World. The perception that the Soviet Union was gaining political ground thus kept delaying U.S. attainment of the position of strength that Dulles had made a precondition of negotiations with Moscow. And the Soviet Union awaited further weakening of the U.S. adversary before wanting to negotiate seriously.

Disarmament negotiations, conducted on a multilateral rather than bilateral basis within the framework of the United Nations, had made little progress as each of the superpowers made proposals known to be unacceptable to the other. The Soviet Union pleaded for "general and complete disarmament" at a time when the United States regarded the West's rearmament as being the priority. For its part, the United States insisted on controls of arms reductions so pervasive that, if implemented, they would have undermined the pillar of secrecy on which the closed Soviet society was resting.

A landmark in superpower relations was the launching in October 1957 of Sputnik, the first artificial Earth satellite, which showed that the Soviet Union was more advanced in the technology necessary for the delivery of nuclear weapons than had been generally believed. This demonstration of technological prowess encouraged Khrushchev to use his country's perceived nuclear might as an instrument of diplomacy. The calculation that the United States would be sufficiently impressed to consent to the settlement of the German question on Soviet terms underlay the demands he made that in November 1958 initiated the Berlin crisisthe first of the two major Cold War crises that tested the efficacy of the superpower diplomacy.


Although the crisis over the status of West Berlin as an enclave within Soviet-controlled East Germany nominally involved all four powers responsible for Germany, it was in effect a crisis between the United States and the Soviet Union. The failed mission of British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan to Moscow in FebruaryMarch 1959 to mediate between the superpowers was indicative of Britain's inability to be accepted by them as interlocutor. Only after the end of the Cold War did archival evidence come to light showing that the Berlin crisis was more dangerous than previously believed, and that its management by both super-powers left much to be desired.

In presenting the Western powers with demands for concessions amounting to the surrender of their positions in Berlin, Khrushchev acted on the assumption that the United States would not risk a military conflict that might escalate into nuclear war, but he did not entirely rule out that possibility either. When he met with President Dwight Eisenhower at Camp David in September 1959, he was given the wrong impression that the United States was willing to yield. This encouraged Khrushchev to subsequently moderate his demands, and when they were not met, resume pressure, staking his prestige on another meeting with the president. Yet just as the summit was about to take place in Paris in May 1960, following the shooting down over Soviet territory of the American U-2 spy plane that Eisenhower had been trying to cover up, the Soviet leader chose to humiliate the president and break up the talks that he had himself badly wanted.

The debut of superpower diplomacy was thus personal diplomacy at its worstnot because of the particular personalities involved, but because of the extent of discretion and improvisation it allowed the top leaders without adequate professional preparation. As a result, critical decisions were made that were excessively dependent on their personal beliefs and assessments of each other. The pattern continued during the disastrous June 1961 Vienna meeting between Khrushchev and Eisenhower's successor, John F. Kennedy, who, unlike Eisenhower, was ready to make substantive concessions to the Soviets in Berlin. Aware of this, Khrushchev again miscalculated by pressing too hard and leaving the new president with the impression that war might be inevitable. This in turn put Khrushchev into the position of having to decide whether he should make good on his threat to nullify the Western rights in Berlin by concluding a separate peace treaty with East Germanyas he led its leaders to believe he would door else back down. It is still not clear when and why he decided not to go ahead with the treaty. In any case, the building of the Berlin Wall in August 1961, which insulated the western part of the city from the surrounding communist territory, eventually defused the confrontation and provided a semblance of stability, without diplomacy having been substantially involved.

This did not prevent a far worse superpower crisis from developing in October 1962 over Cuba, after Khrushchev had surreptitiously tried to install nuclear-armed missiles on the island to protect its revolutionary regime from the perceived threat of an American invasion. At least the subsequent handling of the crisis, from which the allies and clients of both superpowers were notably excluded, showed that the superpowers were beginning to learn how to live with each other. On the one hand, the concentration of the decision-making power in Khrushchev and his docile Politburo and, on the other hand, the establishment of a special executive committee from which Kennedy prudently took and applied the advice, proved to be ways to avert a military showdown. Time and communication were of the essence, as were clarity of purpose and willingness to compromise while allowing the adversary to save face.

Even so, superpower diplomacy can only be credited for resolving a crisis that it had been responsible for creating in the first place. The management of the crisis bypassed established diplomatic channels, giving critical importance to persons whose primary responsibilities and expertise were elsewhere, such as the president's brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, and Georgi N. Bolshakov, a Soviet intelligence operative in Washington, who happened to have previously established a rapport. Diplomacy was thus made excessively dependent on chance.

Although the Cuban missile crisis has often been credited with establishing the "rules of the game" that allowed the superpowers to respect each other's interests while keeping their nuclear arsenals under control, the accomplishment was more apparent than real because of the absence of adequate institutional and procedural safeguards against capricious and arbitrary politics, particularly obvious on the Soviet side. The brush with disaster over Cuba prompted Washington and Moscow to establish in June 1963 the "hot line" connectiona technological communications gadget that was hailed at the time as a safeguard against another such emergency but which never played an important role in communication between the superpowers. More importantly, in the following month the two superpowers concluded the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treatythe first negotiated agreement between them that placed restrictions on the development of their nuclear arsenals.

Although the treaty has been rightly hailed in past years as a harbinger of détente, from a longer perspective it is more notable for its shortcomings. It banned nuclear tests above ground but not those under the ground, which both superpowers found it in their interest to continue to keep expanding their arsenals. Indeed, as late as 2000, the U.S. Senate voted down a treaty to ban all nuclear testing that had meanwhile been accepted by most other nations in the world. The 1963 agreement gave an air of permanence to the arms race by substituting the concept of disarmament with that of arms control. There were no more agreements for several years after the supreme practitioner of superpower diplomacy, Khrushchev, was forced out of office in October 1964.


The second half of the 1960s was a time of parallel crises for the two military alliances, NATO and the Warsaw Pact, in both of which superpower dominance was at issue. For the first time since the onset of the Cold War, the loosening of the Kremlin leadership in the aftermath of Khrushchev's ouster gave Soviet allies an opportunity to challenge the predominance of the Soviet superpoweras U.S. allies had always been able to do in regard to the U.S. superpower but had been more reluctant to do as long as the Soviet Union appeared threatening. Now the belief in the Soviet intention to attack Western Europe had all but disappeared, though notafter the Berlin and Cuban experiencesthe fear that Europeans might still find themselves exposed to a devastating confrontation on their territories as a result of miscalculation or mismanagement of a crisis over which they would have no control.

The fear was all the more legitimate since the war plans of both alliances, elaborated under the impact of the Berlin crisis, envisaged extensive nuclear exchanges on European territory. In October 1963 the Romanian government secretly gave the United States assurances that in case of a military conflict between the superpowers, Romania would remain neutralan act of flagrant disloyalty to the Soviet alliance. Poland had been preparing proposals for military disengagement between the two blocs, notably the Rapacki Plan for a nuclear-free zone in Central Europe, which, if implemented, would have restricted both U.S. and Soviet freedom of action in the area. Czechoslovakia, too, opposed the deployment of Soviet nuclear launchers on its territory.

U.S. leadership of NATO was challenged by French President Charles de Gaulle, who argued that the U.S. "nuclear umbrella" was no longer credible. In his opinion, shared by many Europeans, the United States would not risk the destruction of its cities by using its nuclear weapons to defend Europe against Soviet attackan assessment retrospectively confirmed by the secretary of defense in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, Robert S. McNamara. De Gaulle at first sought to replace superpower dominance by that of a larger consortium of powers, including France, which together would take the main responsibility for international security. When he did not succeed, in March 1966 he took France out of NATO's integrated command structure, though not out of the alliance itself, and proceeded to develop France's own small nuclear deterrent, which he believed sufficient to keep the Soviet Union and any other enemy at bay.

In 1962 the Kennedy administration proclaimed a "grand design" for interdependence that would heed the concerns of the European allies. But at the same time the administration pressed them to accept the new U.S. strategy of "flexible response," regarded by many of them as destabilizing and resolutely opposed by France. The strategy entailed widening military options in the event of war, including nuclear options, thus making the actual exercise of those options appear more likely. American ability to assert its superpower position in Europe was hampered by the deepening U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, waged on the dubious and widely rejected assumption that fighting the Vietnamese communists was necessary to check the expansion of Soviet power.

The Johnson administration, though mired in the Vietnam War, managed the NATO crisis more deftly than the Kennedy administration had, helping the alliance overcome it once France's self-exclusion opened the door to its resolution. A compromise was found in the December 1967 Harmel Report, named after the Belgian foreign minister who prepared it, which set NATO the goals of both defense and détenteimprovement of its military capabilities along with an effort to reduce the need to use them by improving relations with the Soviet enemy by diplomatic means. This was a new task for U.S. superpower diplomacy, invigorated by the reconfirmation of America's leading role in the alliance.

In 1966 the Soviet Union responded to Western overtures for détente and to the unrest within its own alliance by proposing to its members its reorganization for greater effectiveness. The difficult negotiations that followed were further slowed down by the communist reform movement in Czechoslovakia, which in August 1968 prompted a Soviet-led invasion of the country. The invasion reaffirmed the Soviet super-power prerogative to intervene militarily at will in any of the Warsaw Pact countriesthe tenet of the "Brezhnev doctrine," named after the Soviet leader who succeeded Khrushchev. The suppression of the Czechoslovak heresy allowed the Soviet Union in 1969 to implement the reform of the alliance by introducing limited consultation with its members.

The reaffirmation of each superpower's primacy within its respective alliance facilitated their diplomatic rapprochement. Already, before the Czechoslovak intervention, the United States and the Soviet Union in July 1968 had succeeded in negotiating the conclusion of the Nonproliferation Treaty. This important agreement aimed at preventing further spread of nuclear weapons by committing countries that did not possess them to refrain from their acquisition in return for the promise by the existing nuclear powers to gradually reduce their nuclear potential and take measures for preventing its use. Precipitated by the recent development of China's nuclear capability, which both the United States and the Soviet Union found threatening, the treaty enshrined their own special status as superpowersa fact that drew criticism but did not prevent most of the world's nations from signing the agreement. The treaty curbed the spread of nuclear weapons during the Cold War despite the superpowers' failure to live up to their promises to substantially reduce their arsenals, and in later years remained a substantial impediment to proliferation.

The restrained U.S. reaction to the advance of the Soviet troops into Czechoslovakia, reputedly characterized by President Lyndon B. Johnson as an "accident on the road to détente," showed how far the rapprochement between the United States and the Soviet Union had already advanced by the late 1960s. That rapprochement rested not on settlement of their differences but rather on the incipient perception of their military parity, defined primarily in terms of their nuclear capabilities and the notion that the military balance overshadowed the political imbalance. Accordingly, their common diplomatic goal consisted of perpetuating their superpower position while limiting the dangers posed by the continued growth of the nuclear arsenals upon which that position was based.


For the United States, arms control dominated the superpower agenda. Washington regarded as its foremost priority an agreement that would limit the growth of strategic nuclear weapons, the destructive potential of which had reached a level that made them capable of wiping out human life on Earth. The Soviet Union, while agreeing in 1969 to the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT), was more prepared than the United States to assume that the doomsday weapons would never be used and therefore made an understanding on political issues a higher priority.

The Soviet campaign for a political settlement in Europe, initiated in 1969, took the form of the proposal for a security conference, including the United States and Canada, which would confirm the territorial, and by extension also political, status quo on the continent, thus certifying the position the Soviet Union had established there as a result of its victory in World War II. The proposal, addressed to the governments of all the countries concerned, gave impetus to multilateral diplomacy as a supplement to superpower diplomacy, though not a substitute for it. Europeans in both West and East welcomed it as an opportunity to increase their international weight, while the Soviet Union saw it as a way to gradually attain the supremacy in Europe that had eluded it at the end of World War II. This was to be achieved after the conclusion of a vaguely worded treaty on security and cooperation. Its fulfillment was to be reviewed and interpreted at periodic follow-up conferences that the Soviet Union could expect to dominate, eventually acting as the arbiter of European security.

The United States, showing its greater concern with military matters, insisted on complementing the conference with negotiations that would address the asymmetry of the conventional forces in Europe favoring the Soviet Union. The United States was developing its bilateral relations with the Soviet Union with the goal of not only putting the arms race under control but also achieving a political understanding between the superpowers in terms of Realpolitika policy based on considerations of power and material interests rather than ethical considerations and ideals. The new trend was personified by Henry Kissinger, first the national security adviser and later secretary of state in the administration of President Richard M. Nixon.

Kissinger was the most influential of the foreign-born trio of America's most outspoken proponents of superpower diplomacythe other two being President Jimmy Carter's national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and President Bill Clinton's secretary of state Madeleine Albright. An admirer of the nineteenth-century European diplomacy that maintained peace and stability by reconciling conservative powers with post-revolutionary France, Kissinger developed a secretive and manipulative approach to foreign policy that enabled him to attain a degree of independence in its conduct that was rare in the American political system. He preferred to deal with the Soviet Union through the "back channel" he had established through the long-serving and congenial Soviet ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Dobrynin.

Kissinger's Soviet counterpart was the experienced and hard-driving foreign minister Andrei A. Gromyko, who was dedicated to the maintenance and further advancement of Soviet super-power status. He cogently described this status as meaning that there was no important issue in the world that could be decided without the Soviet Union anymore. Unlike his Stalinist predecessor, Molotov, Gromyko believed in the possibility of advancing Soviet power and influence amid low rather than high international tension, thus facilitating the growth of East-West détente.

Kissinger's greatest achievement concerned China rather than the Soviet Union. His secretive diplomacy was well suited to preparing the normalization of U.S. relations with China, which Washington had previously misjudged as being a greater threat to American interests than the Soviet Union. By simultaneously improving relations with both the Soviet Union and China, a communist power hostile to the Soviet Union, the United States expanded the bilateral relationship with Moscow into a triangular relationship, which it was able to manipulate to its advantage. It did so better with China than with the Soviet Union, however.

Nixon's visit to Moscow in May 1972 resulted in a series of treaties that together represented the peak of achievement of superpower diplomacy. The United States and the Soviet Union initialed their first agreement limiting the growth of their strategic nuclear armaments (SALT I), agreed on precautions to prevent accidents arising from the movements of their naval and air forces, and concluded the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM), which banned for all time the deployment of missiles against nuclear attack.

Reflecting the concept of "mutual assured destruction," believed by U.S. theorists of deterrence as necessary for preventing the superpowers from attacking each other, the treaty incorporated the notion that the lack of defense against nuclear attack was the best protection against it. As such, it was an authentic product of the Cold War that tellingly reflected a bipolar international system dominated by superpowers unable to resolve their fundamental political differences. Once the Cold War ended and the bipolar system disappeared, the relevance of the treaty became doubtful, although it was still invoked at the beginning of the twenty-first century by both the opponents and the advocates of the U.S. plan for national missile defense (NMD).

The technical precision of the arms control measures adopted at the May 1972 summit contrasted with the ambiguity of the "basic principles" agreement, mistakenly hailed at the time as the framework that would allow the two super-powers to manage their relationship without generating unacceptable tension. The United States acknowledged the Soviet right to "equal security"as if the reasons for the insecurity of the authoritarian Soviet system could possibly be the same as the reasons for the insecurity of a pluralistic Western democracy. Further, the two super-powers vowed not to seek advantage at the expense of each otheras if doing so were the cause rather than the effect of their competitive relationship. While Kissinger hoped to "enmesh" the Soviet Union in a growing web of relationships that would allow the United States to exercise a mitigating influence on its growing power, the Soviet leaders regarded détente as an opportunity to enhance that power and influence without American interference.

The October 1973 Yom Kippur Warin which Moscow, in an attempt to deal a blow to the U.S. position in the Middle East, did not discourage its Arab clients from attacking Israelrevealed the different notions of détente while testing the efficacy of superpower diplomacy. The United States put in strategic nuclear forces at a high level of alert while the Soviet Union threatened to intervene in the war with its own forces. Yet since neither side wanted to go over the brink, preferring instead to curb its respective clients, the crisis passed, seemingly vindicating the efficacy of superpower diplomacy but shaking America's faith in détente.

Détente peaked in the conclusion of the August 1975 Helsinki agreement as a result of a new-style multilateral diplomacy defying the expectations of both superpowers. The Soviet Union, the architect of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), in the end acquiesced in a treaty very different from the original Soviet concept in that the agreement embodied specific and detailed provisions for the protection of human rights as a matter of legitimate international concern. The Soviet Union signed the landmark treaty on the mistaken assumption that its paper provisions could not possibly gain political substancean opinion shared by Kissinger, who, also mistakenly, regarded as more important Soviet consent to start negotiations on the "mutual and balanced" reductions of conventional forces (MBFR). The CSCE also encouraged the formation of nongovernmental organizations that challenged superpower diplomacy by the public advocacy of issues recently made relevant to foreign policy, such as human rights.

As a result of the unpopular Vietnam War and the scandals of the Nixon era, pressure increased for U.S. diplomacy to become more responsive to the public. While inevitable and potentially beneficial in a modern democracy, the pressure had the negative effect of increasing public and congressional expectations from the frequent superpower summits. Congenial to the authoritarian Soviet leaders, the summits were conducive to superficiality and improvisation. Rather than to finalize agreements previously negotiated and agreed upon, they often met without adequate preparation and yielded disappointing results.

By the mid-1970s, superpower diplomacy was thus challenged not only by the different notions of détente but also by alternative multilateral diplomacy as well as the pressure for more openness. At the same time, development of the nuclear arsenals, from which the superpowers derived their status, outpaced the political developments, making it more difficult for both the United States and the Soviet Union to apply their excessive stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction to any conceivable political purpose. Super-power diplomacy became increasingly divorced from political reality.


The deterioration of superpower relations in the second half of the 1970s showed that nuclear balance was a precarious foundation for stable relations. There was a fundamental divergence of views about how the balance related to politics.

The United States tried to impress upon the Soviet Union the critical importance of strategic stability, with its corollary of political restraint by both superpowers. The Soviet Union, however, attached greater importance to what it called "military détente," understood as reductions of the strategic arsenals that would not alter the Soviet advantage in conventional forces, thus restricting political competition. Accordingly, only SALT negotiations were moving ahead while MBFR became stalled and CSCE proceeded in fits and starts.

The conduct of the superpowers was affected less by the development of military technologies, which evolved more and more independently of political developments than by their internal issues and their perceptions of those problems. By the end of the decade the terminal decline of the Soviet system had already begun, rooted in the inability of its command economy to ensure growth and the inability of its political system to accommodate the diversity of interests. On the American side the dispiriting legacy of the lost Vietnam War was magnified by the effects of its economic mismanagement amid spreading doubts about the merits of the American political system, leading to social unrest in the country and tensions with its allies.

The French political scientist Pierre Hassner characterized the resulting relationship between the superpowers as that of "competitive decadence," in which the issue for each was managing its mounting internal problems better than the other. The Soviet Union sought to use its military potential to offset its growing deficiencies in most other attributes of power. Its "arms diplomacy" consisted of both arms provision and outright military intervention by proxies in several countries of the Third World, where it managed to establish footholds, including Angola, Ethiopia, and Yemen. Such actions inevitably cast doubt on Soviet commitment to the principles of the 1972 agreement, causing alarm about Soviet intentions and harm to détente.

The initial U.S. response was equivocal. On the one hand, President Gerald Ford vowed publicly to erase the word "détente" from his vocabulary, implying that the United States no longer considered the Soviet Union a partner acting in good faith. On the other hand, the Ford administration proceeded with the strategic arms control negotiations to follow up SALT I with SALT II. Since Brezhnev, on the Soviet side, was personally committed to further reducing the growth of nuclear armaments as well, despite resistance by the Soviet military, the interim agreement signed in Vladivostok in November 1974 attested to the continued ability of superpower diplomacy to deliver results, at least in the limited area of arms control.

U.S.Soviet relations took a turn for the worse after President Jimmy Carter took office. The new president sought to distance himself from what he regarded as an immoral and ineffective Nixon-Kissinger diplomacy, whose penchant for Realpolitik had not helped to prevent relations with the Soviet Union from deteriorating nor the specter of nuclear holocaust from persisting. Carter correctly anticipated the future in trying to deemphasize the importance of the Soviet Union within the larger global context and instead to emphasize the growing importance of the nonmilitary aspects of security, such as the safeguarding of human rights. But in trying to build what he wanted to be a satisfactory lasting relationship with the Soviet Union, his administration's diplomacy faltered.

In an attempt to improve on the Vladivostok agreement, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance surprised the Soviet Union by proposing arms reductions so radical that they amounted in Soviet eyes to repudiation by the United States of the more modest Vladivostok agreement on which Brezhnev had staked his prestige. Gromyko's peremptory rejection of the Vance proposals put the eventual approval of the SALT II Treaty by the U.S. Senate in doubt. Moscow was further alarmed by the anti-Soviet reputation and rhetoric of the national security adviser, Brzezinski, whose influence in Washington increased after Vance's resignation. In September 1979, Washington raised an outcry about the presence of a Soviet "combat brigade" in Cuba, although the unit had been there for several years without arousing U.S. concern, thus adding to the impression of both hostility and incompetence.

The image of a U.S. administration that was talking loudly but carrying a small stick did little to discourage the Soviet Union from making the fateful decision to send troops to Afghanistan to intervene in the internal struggle there and put its protégés in power. This was the first instance of direct Soviet military intervention in a country outside its recognized sphere of influence, and adjacent to the Persian Gulf region that was vital to the West's security as its major supplier of oil. Thus, in U.S. eyes, the Soviet move amounted to a gratuitous challenge to mutual respect for each other's vital interests, a respect that had made superpower diplomacy possible.

The Afghanistan invasion sealed the fate of SALT II for the duration of the Cold War by destroying the chances of its approval by the U.S. Congress. The Carter administration increased U.S. defense spending and military preparedness. It pressed U.S. allies to reduce the many contacts with the Soviet bloc that had been the fruit of a decade of détente, adding tension to American-European relations that were already strained by Washington's insistence, abruptly reversed, on equipping NATO forces with controversial neutron radiation weapons, followed by abrupt reversal. The Carter administration ended its term in office in disgrace and humiliation as it proved helpless in trying to obtain the release of U.S. diplomats held hostage by the revolutionary regime in Iran.

Although the Soviet Union appeared to be better off in the superpower competition, the appearance was deceptive. It was being drawn deeper into the Afghanistan war, with diminishing prospects of victory. In 19801981 the rise of the opposition in Poland, spearheaded by the Solidarity labor movement, paralyzed the communist regime there, threatening the Soviet hold on the strategically crucial country. Attesting to the Kremlin's growing doubts about the political utility of its vast military power in dealing with its political problems, the Soviet leaders abstained from intervening in Poland by force, making the restoration of communist rule dependent on Polish generals. The imposition of martial law in the country outraged the United States, bringing superpower diplomacy to a standstill.


President Ronald Reagan broke with the cardinal principle of superpower diplomacy by refusing to acknowledge the Soviet Union as a legitimate equal. He publicly referred to the Soviet Union as an "evil empire" and predicted that it would not last. Although these were fair estimates of the reality, they were hardly conducive to resuming businesslike relations between the two countries. Coupled with a massive U.S. armament program believed widely, if unjustly, to have been calculated to bankrupt the Soviet Union by forcing it into a ruinous arms race, the administration's posture evoked the specter of a "second Cold War," if not a real war.

In June 1982 the Soviet Union conducted an exercise simulating a several-hour, all-out nuclear strike against the United States. The president's "Star Wars" speech of March 1983, which announced the plan to abandon the strategy of deterrence based on mutual vulnerability in favor of defense behind an invulnerable missile shield, could be interpreted as being designed to make the United States capable of launching such an attack. Brezhnev's successor, Yuri Andropov, came to suspect the Reagan administration was preparing such an attack. In November 1983, the NATO exercise "Able Archer" practiced procedures for the release of nuclear missiles by using codes that made it indistinguishable from the real thing, prompting panic in Moscow, though no action to preempt the possible surprise.

The prudent Soviet behavior showed that fears of war precipitated by design or miscalculation were exaggerated but also that the susceptibility to uncontrollable accidents of the increasingly complex nuclear weaponry gave warranted concern. Yet by 1983 the only forum where the superpowers were negotiating with each other was the Geneva talks on intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF). The talks followed NATO's 1987 "dual track" decision, which provided for preparations, in the event of an attack by the Soviet Union, for the deployment of intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Western Europe to offset similar Soviet missiles that had already been deployed against it, unless an agreement had been reached to rectify the imbalance. So technical had the talks become that only experts understood the issues involved. The chief U.S. negotiator Paul Nitze and his Soviet counterpart, Iurii Kvitsinskii, nevertheless came to a tentative agreement during a "walk in the woods" outside Geneva. Yet the agreement was not approved by their superiors.

As long as the deployment of the "Euromissiles" intended to counter the Soviet intermediate-range missiles targeted on Western Europe remained uncertain because of the widespread opposition it faced there, neither superpower had the necessary incentive to compromise. As the crucial vote in the West German parliament was approaching, the Soviet Union increased pressure by threatening to walk out of the negotiations if the deployment were approved. And when it was approved in November 1983, the Soviet leaders had no choice but to make good on their word or else lose credibility.

The breakdown of the Geneva talks, which brought superpower diplomacy to the lowest point since Stalin's days, nevertheless heralded their more constructive later resumption. Rather than an aggressive design, the walkout reflected paralysis within the Kremlin leadership dating back to the last years of Brezhnev and continuing during the terms in office of his two infirm successors, Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko. Despite the presence and growing influence of the veteran diplomat Gromyko, the aging leadership was no longer willing and able to tackle the Soviet Union's mounting internal and external problems. Superpower diplomacy required strong leaders. In a tacit recognition of its own failure, the old guard in the Politburo in March 1985 selected as Chernenko's successor the Politburo's youngest member, Mikhail S. Gorbachev. With the Reagan line reconfirmed by his reelection to the presidency the year before, the stage was set for the last act of superpower diplomacy.


Gorbachev demonstrated his strength as well as courage by resuming the Geneva talks despite American failure to fulfill any of the conditions the Soviet Union had set for its returning to the negotiating table. By then he had gone farther than the U.S. administration in drawing conclusions from the futility of the arms race while remaining convinced of his ability to preserve the Soviet Union as a superpower by ensuring its ascendancy through radical reforms of its political and economic system. Gorbachev understood that the West had reasons to fear the offensive Soviet military posture and acted to reassure it in order to break the spiral of the arms buildup.

As the Soviet Union began to set the pace of the Geneva negotiations by making unilateral concessions, the first meeting between Gorbachev and Reagan took place in Geneva in November 1985. The course of American policy at this critical juncture was in the hands of a president less attuned to the complexities of international politics, more beholden to an ideological view of the Soviet adversary, and less capable of sustained attention to the business of government than any U.S. president of the superpower era. Defying his own notion that the Soviet adversary was inherently untrustworthy, he intuitively decided that Gorbachev could be trusteda decision that opened the door to the solution of problems previously regarded as insoluble and to the eventual termination of the Cold War.

The personal rapport established between the two leaders disrupted the pattern of super-power diplomacy. They both believed in the abolition of nuclear weaponsa convergence of views that foreshadowed the transformation of nuclear-based superpower diplomacy into a more normal kind. At the Reykjavik summit of October 1986, Reagan, not grasping the subtleties of deterrence, created confusion about whether he was willing to abolish all nuclear weapons or only some of them, thus putting in doubt the critical deterrent on which NATO had traditionally depended. Although the summit appeared to have failed, Gorbachev's readiness to give Reagan the benefit of the doubt allowed the Geneva talks to continue and bear fruit in the signing of the landmark treaty on intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) in December 1987.

The treaty differed from previous arms agreements by providing for the complete elimination of a whole class of armaments, by reversing the arms race rather than merely slowing it down, and by introducing the kind of intrusive inspections that the Soviet Union had been consistently resisting to protect its secretive political system. By that time Gorbachev had already imposed upon the reluctant Soviet military a change of the country's strategic posture from offensive to defensive, precipitating the loosening and eventual disintegration of the Warsaw Pact. His unilateral reductions of Soviet conventional forces facilitated the negotiation of an agreement on deep reduction of conventional forces in Europe (CFE), previously regarded as all but impossible.

The CFE, which changed drastically the military landscape of Europe, had been negotiated between the two alliances rather than between the United States and the Soviet Union alone, thus signaling the demise of their superpower domination. In the last decisive stages of the Cold War, the nuclear balance that underlay that domination played a secondary role to the effects of the internal upheaval within the Soviet bloc, which led by the end of 1989 to the collapse of Soviet empire in Eastern Europe and, two years later, of the Soviet Union itself. Adaptation to these unexpected developments, which vindicated George F. Kennan's original design for containment, was a challenge comparable to that which the adoption of the policy of containment posed forty years earlier. This time the United States could at least rely on the expertise of a generation of academic specialists and career diplomats well versed in the workings of the Soviet system, such as ambassador Jack F. Matlock, Jr., in the sensitive Moscow post. In responding to the challenge, the administration of President George H. W. Bush, which inherited from its predecessor a dramatically improved U.S.Soviet relationship, had a mixed record.

Even as the Soviet power was disintegrating, the Bush administration acted on the assumption that a reformed Soviet Union would remain America's superpower partner for the foreseeable futurean assumption confirmed at the December 1989 Bush-Gorbachev summit off Malta. The misjudgment led Washington to occasionally try to oppose the inevitable. When Romania threatened to descend into chaos amid the downfall of its dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, Washington sent signals that it would not mind Soviet intervention to restore order there, only to be rebuffed by Moscow. And when Ukraine showed a readiness to break away from the Soviet Union, Bush, on a visit to Kiev, publicly expressed U.S. displeasure.

Otherwise, however, in responding to the self-liberation of Central and Eastern Europe from Soviet domination, U.S. superpower diplomacy was at its best. It extended unqualified support to the postcommunist governments without trying to seek added advantage at Soviet expensean attitude that facilitated the withdrawal of Soviet troops from the region and the emergence of Europe's new and safer security environment. The Bush administration wisely proceeded to unilaterally remove the tactical nuclear weapons that had been most prone to make Europe a nuclear battlefield, dismantle the intermediate-range missiles in accordance with the INF treaty, and begin to destroy, in collaboration with Moscow, the stockpile of strategic nuclear weapons as well. This was the most important legacy of superpower diplomacy for the postCold War era.

The United States was the first of the powers responsible for Germany to recognize the inevitability of its reunification and worked consistently toward that end together with the Soviet Union, once Gorbachev, too, had come to the same conclusion. Great Britain and France only reluctantly followed. The "two-and-four" agreement between the German states and the powers set the terms of the unification without antagonizing Moscow and ensured the integration of the potentially overwhelming German power into the European Community and NATO.

However, once the Soviet Union collapsed and a critically weakened Russia became its most important successor state, possessing the bulk of the Soviet nuclear arsenal, the United States continued to deal with the government of President Boris N. Yeltsin as if Russia still were a super-power. The likelihood of its irreversible descent to the ranks of secondary powers distorted America's priorities and its self-perception as the world's last remaining superpower.


The self-image of the postCold War United States rested on the misconception that the disappearance of the Soviet Union left it the same kind of power it had wielded during the Cold War, when the possession of a vast nuclear arsenal was the measure of its special status in a bipolar international system. With the bipolar system gone, however, the U.S. nuclear potential became all but meaningless as a determinant of its status in the world. Instead, America's power in the new international system derived from its huge economic potential and unmatched cultural influence in addition to its military establishment, supported by defense spending that was greater than that of all other nations combined. America's new predominance thus was different from the superpower variety, as conveyed in the French-invented term "hyperpower," implying excess without clear purpose.

The legacy of the superpower era made it difficult for the United States to redefine its global role in the postCold War era and relate it to diplomacy. Americans also found it difficult to choose the proper ways of using their military power. On the one hand, they deployed it in some countries where their interests were not clearly involved. On the other hand, they placed self-imposed restrictions on its use by becoming beholden to the crippling concept of minimizing losses of their manpower and matériel and by insisting on the termination of their military involvements at a time of their choice.

Such restrictions made the involvements both controversial and less effective than suggested by America's military power. In the Gulf War of 1991 against Iraqa conventional war against a regional aggressorthe United States showed a new sensitivity for multilateral diplomacy by being able to form a broad coalition in support of its intervention, but then abstained from trying to press for final victory, much as it had learned not to press the Soviet Union to the wall during their superpower competition. Similarly, it missed opportunities to prevent the descent of Yugoslavia into war by timely use of force sufficient to frustrate Serbian aggression. The Clinton administration, less attentive to foreign policy than most of its predecessors, suffered even more from belated and piecemeal deployment of military power, thus reducing America's ability to influence events. Its reluctance to commit itself militarily in the former Yugoslavia made the eventual American intervention in the Balkan wars more costly than it need have been. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, misled by notions of deterrence dating from the superpower era, underrated Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic's aggressive intent, leading the United States and NATO to a war for which they were unprepared and only won at high political cost.

Looking back at the long rivalry with the Soviet Union, American officials tended to see rising security threats comparable to the old Soviet one. Some regarded Russia as one such potential threat despite the low probability of its recovery as a great power. Others viewed China as a future superpower because of its size and nuclear capability, regardless of its lack of an expansionist political culture and despite an extensive number of complementary interests between Americans and Chinese. Washington also came to regard otherwise minor "rogue states"Libya, North Korea, Iran, Iraqas potential threats on the order of the Soviet Union solely because of the conceivable acquisition of weapons of mass destruction by their dictatorial regimes.

In dealing with these real or imaginary threats, the United States showed the same predilection for regarding them as military rather than political problems that it had shown during its competition with the Soviet Union. In particular, the national missile defense (NMD) project, embraced tentatively by the Clinton administration and unconditionally by the George W. Bush administration, harked back to the Cold War days when the other superpower's inclination to attack unless deterred was taken for granted. The concept of NMD, which assumed that such an intent may develop in the future, was conducive to bringing about the very threat the project was intended to avert. Insufficient confidence in the susceptibility of such threats to diplomatic solutions divided the United States from its allies, thus undermining its leadership position among them.

Unilateralist tendencies threatened important accomplishments of American diplomacy after the end of the superpower rivalry. The United States took the lead in such achievements of multilateral diplomacy as the negotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the establishment of the World Trade Organization, the provision of energy assistance to North Korea in return for the abandonment of its nuclear weapons program, and other international agreements recognizing the growing importance of dimensions of security other than military. As evidenced by the repudiation by the United States of the Kyoto Protocol to reverse global warming, of the International Criminal Court designed to deter crimes of genocide, and of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, those achievements proved liable to relapse to the obsolete superpower mentality. The United States had to recognize that, because of the increased relevance of economic and environmental as well as political constraints, the nation was in important ways less powerful than it had been as one of the two superpowers. America's transition from a superpower to the leading "normal" power marked the final demise of superpower diplomacy.


Alperovitz, Gar. Atomic Diplomacy: Hiroshima andPotsdam, the Use of the Atomic Bomb and the American Confrontation with Soviet Power. New York, 1965. A passionate statement of what American diplomacy was not.

Bell, Coral. Negotiation from Strength: A Study in the Politics of Power. London, 1962. Enduring critique of the fallacies of power politics.

Beschloss, Michael R. Mayday: Eisenhower, Khrushchev and the U-2 Affair. Boston, 1986. A lively account of a major failure of super-power diplomacy by an able journalist-historian lent support by subsequently declassified documents.

Bischof, Günter, and Saki Dockrill, eds. Cold War Respite: The Geneva Summit of 1955. Baton Rouge, La., 2000. The first of the ambivalent Cold War summits thoughtfully analyzed by leading international historians.

Bozo, Frédéric. Two Strategies for Europe: DeGaulle, the United States, and the Atlantic Alliance. Lanham, Md., 2001. A perceptive French scholar does justice to the challenge to the U.S. superpower by the larger-than-life French president.

Brzezinski, Zbigniew. Power and Principle: Memoirs of the National Security Adviser, 19771981. Rev. ed. New York, 1985. The account by a respected academic specialist on the Soviet Union turned a controversial statesman in the Carter administration.

Dobrynin, Anatoly. In Confidence: Moscow's Ambassador to America's Six Cold War Presidents (19621986). New York, 1995. Self-promoting and conceited but well-informed memoir of the Soviet bureaucrat who served in Washington through the rise and fall of détente.

Freedman, Lawrence. The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy. New York, 1981. The classic sober and sobering account by Britain's leading expert.

. Kennedy's Wars: Berlin, Cuba, Laos, and Vietnam. New York, 2000. On balance, Kennedy's accomplishments outweigh his deficiencies in this subtle assessment using up-to-date evidence.

Fursenko, Aleksandr, and Timothy Naftali. "One Hell of a Gamble": Khrushchev, Castro, and Kennedy, 19581964. New York, 1997. The first study based on extensive, if selective, Soviet documentation shows the web of misperceptions that made the Cuban missile crisis such a narrow escape from catastrophe.

Gaddis, John L. Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of Postwar American National Security Policy. New York, 1982. An indispensable examination of the crucial relationship between strategy and diplomacy.

. We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History. New York, 1997. Despite its title, a provisional, yet so far the most convincing assessment by the leading U.S. "postrevisionist" historian, benefiting from the wealth of new sources that surfaced after the end of the Cold War.

Garthoff, Raymond L. Détente and Confrontation:American-Soviet Relations from Nixon to Reagan. Washington, D.C., 1994. An experienced Washington analyst and staunch advocate of détente explores its course in painstaking detail.

Holloway, David. The Soviet Union and the Arms Race. New Haven, Conn., 1984. The standard account by a prominent U.S. academic expert.

Hutchings, Robert L. American Diplomacy and the End of the Cold War: An Insider's Account of U.S. Policy in Europe, 19891992. Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, 1997. A knowledgeable staff member of the National Security Council pays tribute to the management of the Soviet collapse by the Bush administration.

Kaplan, Lawrence S. The Long Entanglement:NATO's First Fifty Years. Westport, Conn., 1999. A spirited collection of essays by the dean of American NATO historians on the alliance that repeatedly complicated U.S. superpower diplomacy.

Kennan, George F. "The Sources of Soviet Conduct." Foreign Affairs 25 (1947): 566582. The intellectual foundation of the policy of containment by its main architect.

Kissinger, Henry. White House Years. Boston, 1979. Self-serving but indispensable for understanding the achievements and limitations of America's foremost practitioner of superpower diplomacy.

Leffler, Melvyn P. Preponderance of Power:National Security, the Truman Administration, and the Cold War. Stanford, Calif., 1992. The most extensively documented critique of the U.S. policy, inclined to give the Soviet Union the benefit of the doubt.

Lundestad, Geir. The American "Empire" and Other Studies of U.S. Foreign Policy in a Comparative Perspective. Oxford, 1990. The concept of "empire by invitation," persuasively argued by a Norwegian historian.

Mastny, Vojtech. The Cold War and Soviet Insecurity: The Stalin Years. New York, 1996. New Soviet evidence on how Stalin's exaggerated notions of security challenged the United States without giving the Soviet Union the security he wanted.

Matlock, Jack F. Autopsy of an Empire: The American Ambassador's Account of the Collapse of the Soviet Union. New York, 1995. Memoir by the scholarly U.S. ambassador shows how U.S. policy facilitated the peaceful demise of the Soviet superpower.

May, Ernest R., and Philip D. Zelikow, eds. The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis. Cambridge, Mass., 1997. Admirably interpreted record of the historic decision making that allowed the president to avert the Soviet threat he had inadvertently helped to precipitate.

Nye, Joseph S., Jr. Bound to Lead: The ChangingNature of American Power. New York, 1990. Harvard political scientist and former government official argues that, despite the changing nature of its power, the United States remains a superpower.

Pechatnov, Vladimir O. "'The Allies Are Pressing on You to Break Your Will': Foreign Policy Correspondence Between Stalin and Molotov and Other Politburo Members, September 1945December 1946." Cold War International History Project. Working paper no. 25. Washington, D.C., 1999. Unique documentary material on highest-level Soviet decision making, interpreted by an able Russian historian.

Trachtenberg, Marc. A Constructed Peace: The Making of the European Settlement, 19451963. Princeton, N.J., 1999. An ambitious and subtle, yet often ambiguous, history of the superpower relations, giving due account to America's European allies though not its Soviet adversary.

Williams, William Appleman. The Tragedy of American Diplomacy. 2d rev. and enlarged ed. New York, 1972. The bible of the revisionist critics holding the United States responsible for provoking the Cold War.

See also Arms Control and Disarmament; Balance of Power; Cold War Evolution and Interpretations; Cold War Origins; Cold War Termination; Containment; Deterrence; Internationalism; Nuclear Strategy and Diplomacy; PostCold War Policy; Power Politics.


On 29 May 1972, during President Richard M. Nixon's visit to Soviet party general secretary Leonid I. Brezhnev in Moscow, a U.S.Soviet declaration of "basic principles" of mutual relations was adopted. Drafted by the Soviet Union and accepted by the United States without significant changes, the grandiloquent declaration papered over any of the conflicting interests that were at the heart of the superpower competition. Substituting appearance for substance, it was bound to bring disappointment. The following is a brief excerpt from the declaration.

The USA and the USSR attach major importance to preventing the development of situations capable of causing a dangerous exacerbation of their relations. Therefore, they will do their utmost to avoid military confrontations and to prevent the outbreak of nuclear war. They will always exercise restraint in their mutual relations, and will be prepared to negotiate and settle differences by peaceful means. Discussions and negotiations on outstanding issues will be conducted in a spirit of reciprocity, mutual accommodation and mutual benefit.

Both sides recognize that efforts to obtain unilateral advantage at the expense of the other, directly or indirectly, are inconsistent with these objectives. The prerequisites for maintaining and strengthening peaceful relations between the USA and the USSR are the recognition of the security interests of the Parties based on the principle of equality and the renunciation of the use or threat of force.