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The End of Détente

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the West grew disenchanted with détente, which had failed to prevent Soviet advances in the Third World, the deployment of SS-20 intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) aimed at West European targets, the invasion of Afghanistan, or the suppression of Solidarity. The Soviet Union used the renewal of East-West conflict as a justification for forcing its allies to close ranks within the Warsaw Pact. But restoring the alliance's cohesion and renewing its confrontation with Western Europe proved difficult after several years of good East-West relations. The East European countries had acquired a stake in maintaining détente for various reasons. In the early 1980s, internal Warsaw Pact disputes centered on relations with the West after détente, NSWP contributions to alliance defense spending, and the alliance's reaction to IRBM deployments in NATO. The resolution of these disputes produced significant changes in the Warsaw Pact as, for the first time, two or more NSWP countries simultaneously challenged Soviet military and foreign policy preferences within the alliance.

In the PCC meetings of the late 1970s and early 1980s, Soviet and East European leaders of the Warsaw Pact debated about the threat emanating from NATO. When the Soviet Union argued that a new cold war loomed over Europe, the East European countries insisted that the improved European political climate of détente still prevailed. On several occasions, the Soviets had to compromise on the relative weight of these two alternatives in the language of PCC declarations. Although the Soviet Union succeeded in officially ending détente for the Warsaw Pact, it was unable to achieve significantly greater alliance cohesion or integration.

Discussions of the "NATO threat" also played a large part in Warsaw Pact debates about an appropriate level of NSWP military expenditure. The Soviet Union used the 1978 PCC meeting to try to force its allies to match a scheduled 3-percent, long-term increase in the military budgets of the NATO countries. Although the East European countries initially balked at this Soviet demand, they eventually agreed to the increase. However, only East Germany actually honored its pledge, and the Soviet Union failed to achieve its goal of increased NSWP military spending.

The debate on alliance burden-sharing did not end in 1978. Beginning in the late 1970s, the Soviets carefully noted that one of the Warsaw Pact's most important functions was monitoring the "fraternal countries and the fulfillment of their duties in the joint defense of socialism." In 1983 Romania adopted a unilateral three-year freeze on its military budget at its 1982 level. In 1985 Ceausescu frustrated the Soviet Union by calling for a unilateral Warsaw Pact reduction in arms expenditures, ostensibly to put pressure on NATO to follow its example. At the same time, Hungary opposed Soviet demands for increased spending, arguing instead for more rational use of existing resources. In the mid-1980s, East Germany was the only Soviet ally that continued to expand its military spending.

The refusal of the NSWP countries to meet their Warsaw Pact financial obligations in the 1980s clearly indicated diminished alliance cohesion. The East European leaders argued that the costs of joint exercises, their support for Soviet Army garrisons, and the drain of conscription represented sufficient contributions to the alliance at a time of hardship in their domestic economies. In addition to providing access to bases and facilities opposite NATO, the East European communist regimes were also obligated to abide by Soviet foreign policy and security interests to earn a Soviet guarantee against domestic challenges to their continued rule. For its part, the Soviet Union paid a stiff price in terms of economic aid and subsidized trade with the NSWP countries to maintain its buffer zone in Eastern Europe.

The issue of an appropriate Warsaw Pact response to NATO's 1983 deployment of American Pershing II and cruise missiles, matching the Soviet SS-20s, proved to be the most divisive one for the Soviet Union and its East European allies in the early and mid-1980s. After joining in a vociferous Soviet propaganda campaign against the deployment, the East European countries split with the Soviet Union over how to react when their "peace offensive" failed to forestall it.

In 1983 East Germany, Hungary, and Romania indicated their intention to "limit the damage" to East-West ties that could have resulted from the deployment of NATO's new missiles. In doing so, these countries raised the possibility of an independent role for the smaller countries of both alliances in reducing conflicts between the two superpowers. In particular, East Germany sought to insulate its profitable economic ties with West Germany, established through détente, against the general deterioration in East-West political relations. While East Germany had always been the foremost proponent of "socialist internationalism," that is, strict adherence to Soviet foreign policy interests, its position on this issue caused a rift in the Warsaw Pact. In effect, East Germany asserted that the national interests of the East European countries did not coincide exactly with those of the Soviet Union.

The Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia attacked the East German stand, accusing the improbable intra-bloc alliance of East Germany, Hungary, and Romania of undermining the class basis of Warsaw Pact foreign policy. The Soviet Union indicated that it would not permit its allies to become mediators between East and West. The Soviet Union forced East Germany to accept its "counterdeployments" of SS-21 and SS-23 SRBMs and compelled SED general secretary Erich Honecker to cancel his impending visit to West Germany. The Soviets thereby reaffirmed their right to determine the conditions under which the Warsaw Pact member states would conduct relations with the NATO countries. However, the Soviet Union also had to forego any meeting of the PCC in 1984 that might have allowed its recalcitrant allies to publicize their differences on this issue.

As late as 1985, Soviet leaders still had not completely resolved the question of the proper connection between the national and international interests of the socialist countries. Some Soviet commentators adopted a conciliatory approach toward the East European position by stating that membership in the Warsaw Pact did not erase a country's specific national interests, which could be combined harmoniously with the common international interests of all the member states. Others, however, simply repeated the Brezhnev Doctrine and its stricture that a socialist state's sovereignty involves not only the right to independence but also a responsibility to the "socialist commonwealth" as a whole.

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 02:45:00 ZULU