Jeremi Suri, Power and Protest: Global Revolution in the Age of Détente. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003.
In Power and Protest, Jeremi Suri attempts to upstage earlier opponents of détente by taking a global perspective of the domestic and international upheavals that rocked the Great Powers in the 1960s. Suri argues that traditional interpretations of this period, which focus almost exclusively on balance-of-power politics and nuclear strategy, have overlooked the inward looking, selfish, and non-ideological foundation of détente.
By the early 1960s the destructive capacity of nuclear weapons had reached a point where it had lost its political value. Suri goes so far as to call the superpower nuclear arsenals “useless” while the major issues of the Cold War competition had become settled by 1963 (as Marc Trachtenberg has argued in A Constructed Peace). In lieu of strategic and political maneuverability, the Great Power leaders of the early 1960s projected a charismatic political agenda geared toward energizing the needs of their respective countries. In Suri’s view, the confluence of China’s Great Leap Forward, the “grandeur” of French unilateralism, the attainment of “real” Soviet Communism, and American “frontier-conquering” (across the earth and beyond it) was no coincidence.
World leaders, from John Kennedy to Mao Zedong, promised more than they could deliver. For one, a stalemated Cold War did not mean a concluded Cold War, which an increasingly educated and politically engaged generation had to endure despite all of the transcendent rhetoric to the contrary. For Suri, the pivot on which charisma turned to chaos was America’s descent into the Vietnam War. Suri places the blame squarely on Kennedy’s shoulders: America’s military escalation had no strategic basis but simply served as a convenient testing ground for the president’s crusade. “If not in Indochina,” Suri writes, “United States probably would have fought a Vietnam War somewhere else at the time” (p. 137).
Suri’s examination of 1960s unrest demonstrates a startling similarity of the dissident movements on both sides of the Iron Curtain. The turmoil in Berkeley had its equivalents in Paris, West Berlin and Prague, while Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn unmasked the brutality of life in the Soviet Union, and the domestic fiasco of Mao’s Cultural Revolution nearly eroded the chairman’s grip in China. By 1968, the leaders of the great powers had come to realize the most pressing threats facing them were at home, not abroad. For Suri, the revolutions of 1968 ranked that tumultuous year with 1776 and 1789: “The legitimacy and prestige that had made the nation-state the accepted form of political organization for at least three centuries now confronted an unprecedented number of detractors. . . Leaders had to formulate policy against their constituents” (p. 212).
The great power leaders saw in détente a means of preserving their own power. Stability was to be found in the ongoing maintenance of the Cold War order. Suri’s damning examination of West Germany’s revolutionary Ostpolitik from the early 1960s to Willy Brandt’s watered-down version illustrates the fundamentally conservative character of détente in the late 1960s. By the end of the decade, the only legitimately ideological confrontations were occurring on the street, not at the summit.
There are no heroes in Power and Protest. Suri’s rather gloomy narrative has enough criticism to go around for local and global actors alike. If the charismatic politics of the early 1960s are to be blamed for the unrest that followed, Suri takes the protestors themselves to task for failing to articulate any meaningful alternative to the societies they protested against. But Suri saves his harshest rebuke for the practitioners of détente. Rather than end or even normalize the Cold War, he argues, détente prolonged it. In the interest of preserving their positions, the Great Power leaders effectively froze domestic turmoil at home, subsuming the dissident movements instead of engaging them. Suri argues that détente provided a foundation of postmodernism, as protestors began to “search for freedom from, rather than freedom in, the nation-state” (p.259), which in turn contributed to the “Bowling Alone” society as documented by Robert Putnam.
Power and Protest is the kind of sweeping and ambitious study that attempts to reframe the kinds of questions historians ask about the meaning of the Cold War and where we ought to look to find out. With French, German and Russian language sources at his disposal, Suri perceived political sea changes in the 1960s where others have not. Thus the argument of this book rests on how convincingly Suri connects seemingly disparate events, and on this point he is most compelling for the early part of the decade.
But the narrative’s transition to the international protest movement is too neat. Suri makes a leap of logic by connecting charismatic politics and the protest movements of the late 1960s. Few would argue that this was a period of genuine global unrest; why, then, does Suri not mention, for example, the student violence that shook Mexico City and the civil rights movement that brought down Northern Ireland? Such omissions reflect a genuine problem of the “new” international history: in the quest for a global perspective to support a grand thesis, Suri must neglect huge swaths of history that would spoil his narrative. Perversely, this makes an argument that aims for the stars feel small.
Finally, if we are to accept Suri’s contention that all Cold War leaders needed the stabilizing effects of détente so badly, we are left with some nagging questions: why did Cold War violence escalate immediately following détente’s high point? Was it not this kind of violence that threatened the elite status quo to begin with? However crucial domestic considerations might have been détente was more than a cynical mirage—it had a real international agenda that sought solutions to actual and ongoing Cold War problems. This is the “traditional” approach to détente that Suri eschews in favor of an insistent, yet unpersuasive revisionist study.