Events

Power and Protest. Global Revolution and the Rise of Detente.

November 13, 2003 // 2:30pm4:00pm

Jeremi Suri's Power and Protest: Global Revolution and the Rise of Détente is likely to become one of the most debated books in diplomatic history. The book blurs the traditional boundaries between domestic politics and foreign policy decision making. Détente, Jeremi Suri argues, had a social origin, generally neglected by foreign policy scholars.

During the event organized by the Cold War International History Project, Suri analyzed, in front of a packed room, the relationship between the emergence of student movements and the rise of détente in the 1960s. By the late 1960's internal unrest transcended borders and socio-political systems, threatening the security of leaderships everywhere. While evolving perceptions of the balance of power on the part of political leaders—East and West—played an important role in the rise of détente, leaders across the political specter found themselves under siege at home. This feeling of a "war at home" provided the catalyst for a common urge for stability. In the end, Suri argued, it was their own anxieties that pushed leaders toward making the needed diplomatic compromises necessary for détente to take shape.

The origins of this globally permeating social unrest lie in the social policies adopted after World War II. Leaders across the world begun early in the 1950's to implement policies designed to facilitate access to universities across the board in an attempt to cultivate a feeling of moral ideological superiority among their population. Despite hopes of cultivating highly educated, ideologically puritan population, universities—Jeremi Suri points out—became settings where students were better able to question authority than anywhere else. They provided an organizational infrastructure for the social unrest of the 1960's. Extensive multi-national, multi-archival research uncovered an overwhelming similarity among student movements. As Cold War politics continued, student movements became intolerable of what they perceived as hypocrisy coming from their leaders.

Yet as détente calmed the turbulent waters of international competition, it also further alienated citizens from their respective governments. More and more, citizens became either disenfranchised with the political process or turned to violent protest. This lead to a "global disruption" challenging every authority of the state. While the elites maintained at least a semblance of control, they never managed to regain the allegiance of their citizenry. Radicals permeated every society, and event liberal movements begun to falter under the pressures of the radicalization of protest politics.

In the end, Suri concluded, détente turned out to be a strongly conservative reaction to the global unrest facing political elites. It was a reaction to the troubling characteristics of grass-roots, violent protest at home. Elites across the political board reshaped themselves, giving up the charismatic politics and muscular rhetoric of their predecessors. Seeking to preempt domestic challenges, the collaborated to boost their public image, they cooperated on arms control and trade in order to free up resources for domestic pacification, and shrouded their conciliatory actions in secrecy to preempt domestic criticism. In the final analysis, the success of their actions and the success of détente constrained the possible development of political and economic reform for the later half of the 20th century. Rather then pushing for risk-taking and creative policy making, détente reinforced political predictability. Détente protected a state-centered world and preempted the creation of a different world order.

In his comments, Melvyn Leffler—University of Virginia Professor of History and former WWICS Public Policy Scholar—praised Suri's methods of research and methodical orientation. Leffler described Suri's research as a model of multi-archival. Yet Leffler challenged some of the important assumptions Suri had laid out in his book. Détente, Leffler argued, stemmed more than anything else from the changing balance of power relationship between the great powers. Leffler also went on to challenge the idea that détente contributed to the pervasive skepticism of the postmodern era. For the US, Vietnam, Watergate, and the struggle for civil rights, had more to do with the disassociation of many individuals from political involvement than any other reason.

Senior CWIHP Scholar Vojtech Mastny also praised Suri's book but regarded his comparison of the Chinese Cultural Revolution to the movements in Europe and the United Sates as questionable. Mastny suggested that Suri failed to make the distinction between superpower détente and détente among lesser powers. He also challenged Suri's contention that détente had been a conservative reaction by the elites. The Helsinki Accords, signed in 1975 and long heralded as a zenith of détente, were by no means conservative. Moreso, the accords underpinned the future progressive movements throughout the communist camp, strongly adding to the internal pressure of the communist system.

While the book raised many contentious points, both Vojtech Mastny and Melvyn Leffler concluded that many of the questions raised by Jeremi Suri's book would have been left unasked had it not been for the thought-provoking arguments and observations posed by Suri's analysis. They book, the predicted, will be one that is debated by both partisans and challengers with equal fervor.

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Experts & Staff

  • Christian F. Ostermann // Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
  • Laura Deal // Catalog Specialist
  • Pieter Biersteker // Editorial Assistant
  • Charles Kraus // Program Assistant
  • Evan Pikulski // Program Assistant
  • Roy O. Kim // Program Assistant
  • James Person // Deputy Director, History and Public Policy Program; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project