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Kissinger and the True Meaning of Détente: Reinventing a Cold War Strategy for the Contest with China

Author: Niall Ferguson                                 

Affiliation: The Hoover Institution at Stanford University

Organization/Publisher: Foreign Affairs

Date/Place: February 20, 2024/ USA

Type of Literature: Essay

Word count: 4439



Keywords: Henry Kissinger Legacy, Détente, Cold War, US-China Rivalry



Niall Ferguson in this essay advocates for détente as the best approach for the US to deal with China, taking inspiration from Henry Kissinger’s legacy. Kissinger is closely associated with the concept of détente, which gained prominence in the late 1960s and 1970s. As U.S. national security adviser and later secretary of state, Kissinger championed détente as a means to ease tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. Détente aimed to prevent the Cold War from escalating into a hot conflict, rather than fostering friendship between the two superpowers. Kissinger believed it was essential for the two to acknowledge their ideological rivalry while navigating the nuclear age. His approach balanced deterrence and coexistence, seeking to engage the Soviets on various issues like arms control and trade while remaining vigilant against their expansionist ambitions. As Kissinger himself put it, détente meant embracing “both deterrence and coexistence, both containment and an effort to relax tensions.”

Today, policymakers in Washington seem to be adopting a similar approach towards China, emphasizing the importance of preventing competition from escalating into conflict and recognizing shared global challenges. This shift towards détente-like strategies suggests a pragmatic acknowledgment of the need for coexistence amid rivalry.

Despite its historical significance, détente fell out of favor over time. Critics from both the left and the right accused Kissinger of prioritizing realpolitik over human rights and enabling Soviet expansionism. Critics like Ronald Reagan condemned détente as appeasement, arguing that it conceded too much ground to the Soviets without gaining sufficient concessions in return. By the time of Reagan’s presidency, hawks across the political spectrum were disillusioned with Kissinger’s approach, viewing détente as a failed policy that favored the Soviet Union. As a result, détente became a discredited concept even before Kissinger’s tenure ended.


In the first part of the article, the author distinguishes détente from the appeasement policy adopted by Great Britain in the 1930s towards Hitler’s Germany. Détente aimed to contain Soviet expansionism in the 1970s, unlike the appeasement of the 1930s. It successfully prevented a world war and increased cooperation between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. As Washington confronts a new cold war with China, there is a risk of hawks derailing détente-like efforts adopted by the Biden administration or future administrations, echoing past criticisms. Republicans often accuse their opponents of being soft on adversaries, reminiscent of Reagan’s critique of détente. However, advocating for uncompromising containment may overestimate U.S. power, while avoiding escalation could underestimate the importance of deterrence. Kissinger’s strategy combined engagement and containment effectively in the 1970s, adapting to the prevailing economic and public opinion landscape. Ferguson argues that a similar approach is needed today, especially considering China’s advantageous position compared to the Soviet Union.


In the second part, the author points to Henry Kissinger’s detractors who argue that his Cold War lens led to a myopic approach, seeing every issue as pivotal in the struggle against the Soviet Union. Critics suggest that Kissinger prioritized containing Soviet power above all else in U.S. foreign policy. However, this overlooks the real threat the Soviet Union posed, particularly in the Third World. Despite his awareness of Soviet ulterior motives, Kissinger pursued détente to avoid the brinkmanship of the past and the looming threat of nuclear war. Kissinger emphasized the moral imperative of coexistence, understanding the catastrophic potential of nuclear conflict.

Kissinger’s stance on nuclear arms stirred controversy, especially within conservative circles. He balanced his interest in limited nuclear war scenarios with horror at the prospect of full-scale conflict. Kissinger’s approach to arms control talks drew criticism from the Pentagon, with accusations of ignoring Soviet violations of agreements. Officials in the Pentagon 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. By September 1975, intelligence reports alleged Soviet duplicity in flouting SALT commitments to bolster nuclear supremacy. They suggested Moscow’s pursuit of nuclear superiority, contradicting the parity premise of the talks. Accusations swirled among government officials, asserting that Kissinger was aware of these developments but opted to disregard them. However, Kissinger’s perspective on nuclear parity differed, believing that U.S. economic and technological superiority would eventually undermine Soviet nuclear dominance.

Ultimately, Kissinger’s focus on diplomacy aimed to reduce the risk of nuclear catastrophe. Despite criticisms, his strategic calculations were driven by a deep understanding of the complexities and dangers of nuclear conflict.


The third part of the article covers the other achievements of Kissinger’s détente during the Cold War despite the fierce criticism. In addition to concerns over Soviet nuclear parity, conservatives criticized Kissinger for what they perceived as his acceptance of the unjust nature of the Soviet system. This criticism stemmed from Kissinger’s reluctance to address issues like Soviet restrictions on Jewish emigration and the mistreatment of political dissidents such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Kissinger’s decision not to meet with Solzhenitsyn during his visit to the United States in the 1970s further fueled conservative opposition.

Solzhenitsyn, among Kissinger’s staunchest opponents, condemned détente as enabling Soviet communism’s expansion. Events like the fall of Saigon and the rise of communist regimes in Cambodia and Angola seemed to validate conservative criticisms. However, Kissinger defended détente as necessary to avoid nuclear conflict, even as he acknowledged Soviet threats to U.S. interests.

Despite Kissinger’s concerns about Soviet expansionism, the Ford administration faced limitations in countering Soviet military maneuvers, especially without congressional support. Kissinger emphasized the need for flexibility in resolving conflicts but recognized the domestic constraints on U.S. action.

Kissinger’s strategy sought to curtail Soviet influence while maintaining diplomatic engagement. Détente, under his leadership, contributed to positive outcomes. 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. For example, détente increased Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union and by getting the Soviet Union’s leaders to commit to respect certain basic civil rights of their citizens as part of the Helsinki Accords, the deal ultimately eroded the legitimacy of Soviet rule in Eastern Europe.

Although Kissinger’s government career ended with the Ford administration, his strategic approach continued to influence U.S. foreign policy under subsequent administrations, including those critical of détente like Carter and Reagan. Even as Reagan pursued policies beyond détente, elements of Kissinger’s approach persisted, with Reagan adopting reductions in America’s nuclear arsenal like those proposed by Kissinger.


In the last part of the article, Ferguson advocates for a new version of détente in the midst of US China rivalry, inspired by Kissinger’s legacy. Kissinger’s concept of détente, implemented in the 1970s amid the United States’ internal and external challenges, aimed to acknowledge the limits of U.S. power while reducing the risk of nuclear conflict through a blend of incentives and deterrence. Détente did not mean 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.

Despite criticism, détente proved successful, allowing the U.S. to stabilize its Cold War strategy, and providing the Soviets enough rope to stumble in costly interventions like the Afghanistan invasion. Kissinger believed these lessons apply to the current U.S.-China competition, warning of an impending “cold war”, 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 also urges cooperation to mitigate existential threats, notably over Taiwan.

However, contemporary debates over U.S.-China policy diverge. Some, like Elbridge Colby, advocate for a “strategy of denial” to deter China’s challenge to Taiwan’s autonomy. Occasionally, the Biden administration has raised doubts about the long-standing Taiwan policy of strategic ambiguity, where the United States refrains from explicitly stating whether it would resort to military action to protect the island. Furthermore, there is nearly unanimous agreement across party lines that the past approach of engaging with Beijing was flawed. This strategy was built on the misguided assumption that heightened trade relations with China would automatically lead to political liberalization within the country. Yet, like its predecessor, this approach faces criticism, with proponents of a new détente arguing against prolonged brinkmanship, advocating for negotiation across various domains, including arms control, trade, and technology.


A new détente, akin to its predecessor, would not entail appeasing China but rather engaging in negotiations to manage tensions. While détente is not a panacea, it offers a framework to address current challenges. The Biden administration has adopted a new term, “de-risking,” to describe its approach, reflecting the complexities of the current geopolitical landscape. Despite differences from the past, particularly in economic interdependence between major powers, the optimal strategy may resemble détente. Critics must accurately evaluate this approach to avoid repeating historical misrepresentations akin to those faced by Kissinger during his tenure.


By: Djallel Khechib, CIGA Research Fellow 




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