Even as the death of detente is widely bruited, we of the West are learning that at least one aspect of d,etente--the economic aspect--is on the whole alive and well. But the awakening, far from inducing a bit of relief, let alone self-congratulation, is creating remorse and self-doubt. We are chastising ourselves for having done so well.
You can see the results for yourself: notwithstanding Afghanistan, notwithstanding Poland, notwithstanding the Caribbean, economic d,etente generally is on track. Europe insists on buying Soviet gas. The United States keeps shipping Moscow grain. The West's bankers want to keep the ties that may eventually save their East-bloc loans. American scientists pine for exchanges. The Soviets find an American to give a ballet prize to. Evidence of the hardiness of d,etente is embarrassingly pervasive and strong.
But let us not be too shocked by the display. It is, after all, the result of a collective Western decision taken with open eyes and full discussion 10 or 12 years ago. The decision was to add an economic shock absorber to East-West relations in order to cushion the inevitable political jounces. There had been too much political stop-and-go, it was widely thought, some economic continuity was in order. There was a felt need to create new constituencies for the cooperative side of a relationship whose competitive side seemed not at all short of supporters--quite the contrary.
Departing with his chief for a Moscow summit, one leading American theorist of d,etente indicated that the old pattern of building up the desired mutual trust by step-by-step accretions was being put aside in favor of a leap to a "new relationship." This would mean a connection, especially an economic connection, broad and deep enough so that, Henry Kissinger said, "on both sides, whenever there is a danger of crisis, there will be enough people who have a commitment to constructive programs so that they could exercise a restraining influence."
To be sure, the context was different. Willy Brandt's "East policy" was flowering, and, notwithstanding Vietnam, in the United States as well as Europe there was an anticipation of a shifting global architecture. The notion that something like parity existed in Soviet-American strength and striving had not yet yielded to the currently widespread apprehension of superior Soviet power on the march.
Still, if you thought about it--and many people did--it was plain that the new dimension of d,etente entailed creating hostages, entering voluntarily into greater mutual dependency and thereby raising the price of later on abruptly breaking off the new relationship. All this, I stress, was thought to be worth doing for the sake of inducing a measure of order, restraint and predictability into Soviet-American affairs.
A decade later it turns out that d,etente worked, at least in the sense that the economic links have served fairly well the original purpose of ballast in stormy weather. But it has not worked in the quite different sense that many Westerners had also hoped d,etente would mellow the Kremlin, especially in its foreign policy. That leaves most of the West stewing in its own ambivalence, with one group fretting over a failure of will on the part of those who want to maintain the abiding links and another group bemoaning a lapse of realism on the part of those who want to sever them.
One of the few observers who has seen the problem in its historical perspective is the French author Jean-Francois Revel. "Due to 10 years of 'd,etente and cooperation,' " he wrote in The Wall Street Journal Wednesday, "the West has fallen into a trap in which we cannot retaliate against the Soviet Union without harming ourselves. Which is exactly the reason why the Soviet Union wanted d,etente and wants more of the same today."
Revel would "disentangle this web," understanding that there would be a price to pay for it. His is an honest and consistent position, but not an entirely convincing one. I prefer a certain inconsistency. We should not want to be exploited or to lose altogether our capacity to act, but we should not want to jettison all the ballast either. We should keep in mind that in dealing with the Soviets we have had better times as well as worse times. We have to traverse a long road over changing terrain.