Most experts would probably have agreed that [the global balance of power] had been tilting in Moscow’s favor through most of the 1970s. The United States had acknowledged strategic parity with the Soviet Union in SALT I, while that country had claimed the right, through the Brezhnev Doctrine, to resist all challenges to Marxism-Leninism wherever they might occur. Despite Kissinger’s success in excluding the Russians from the Egyptian-Israeli peace negotiations, the 1973 war had triggered an Arab oil embargo, followed by price increases that would stagger western economies for the rest of the decade. Meanwhile the U.S.S.R., a major oil exporter, was raking in huge profits. That made it possible to hold military spending steady as a percentage of gross national product during the 1970s, perhaps even to increase it—at a time when the equivalent United States budget, for reasons relating to both economics and politics, was being cut in half.
Americans seemed mired in endless arguments with themselves, first over the Vietnam War, then Watergate, then, during Carter’s presidency, over charges that he had failed to protect important allies like the Shah of Iran or Anastasio Somoza, the Nicaraguan dictator whose government fell to the Marxist Sandinistas in the summer of 1979. The low point came in November of that year when Iranians invaded the United States embassy in Teheran, taking several dozen diplomats and military guards hostage. This humiliation, closely followed by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan a few weeks later, made it seem as though Washington was on the defensive everywhere, and Moscow was on a roll. Kissinger captured the prevailing pessimism when he acknowledged in the first volume of his memoirs, published that year, that “our relative position was bound to decline as the USSR recovered from World War II. Our military and diplomatic position was never more favorable than at the very beginning of the containment policy in the late 1940s.”
In this instance, though, Kissinger’s shrewdness as a historian deserted him. For it has long since been clear—and should have been clearer at the time—that the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies were on the path to decline, and that detente was concealing their difficulties. One hint of this came as early as March, 1970, when in the spirit of Ostpolitik the East German authorities invited West German Chancellor Brandt to visit Erfurt, unwisely giving him a hotel room with a window overlooking a public square. To their intense embarrassment, hundreds of East Germans gathered under it to cheer their visitor: “[T]he preparation for the Erfurt meeting,” party officials admitted, “was not fully recognized as a key component in the class conflict between socialism and imperialism.”
More serious signs of discontent arose in Poland the following December, when protests over food prices led the army to fire on and kill dozens of striking workers in Gdansk and Gdynia. Significantly, this crisis did not lead Moscow to invoke the Brezhnev Doctrine: instead Soviet leaders ordered an increase in the production of consumer goods—and they approved imports of food and technology from Western Europe and the United States. This made stability in the region contingent not on the use of military force, but rather on the willingness of capitalists to extend credit, a striking vulnerability for Marxist-Leninist regimes.
Nor was the oil windfall without its downside. The Soviet Union chose to pass along price increases to the Eastern Europeans: this led to a doubling of their oil costs within a year. While not as dramatic as the increases the West faced, the unanticipated expenses undercut the improvements in living standards Moscow had hoped to achieve. Meanwhile, swelling oil revenues were diminishing incentives for Soviet planners to make their own economy more productive. It was no source of strength for the U.S.S.R. to be sustaining a defense burden that may well have been three times that of the United States by the end of the 1970s, when its gross domestic product was only about one-sixth the size of its American counterpart. “[W]e were arming ourselves like addicts,” Arbatov recalled, “without any apparent political need.” And oil fueled the addiction.
From this perspective, then, the Soviet Union’s support for Marxist revolutionaries in Africa, its SS-20 deployment, and its invasion of Afghanistan look less like a coordinated strategy to shift the global balance of power and more like the absence of any strategy at all. For what kind of logic assumes the permanence of unexpected windfalls? What kind of regime provokes those upon whom it has become economically dependent? What kind of leadership, for that matter, commits itself to the defense of human rights—as at Helsinki in 1975—but then is surprised when its own citizens claim such rights? The U.S.S.R. under Brezhnev’s faltering rule had become incapable of performing the most fundamental task of any effective strategy: the efficient use of available means to accomplish chosen ends. That left the field open for leaders elsewhere who were capable of such things.