President Nixon’s China game brought Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev to the negotiating table in May 1972. 

Since the rise of the Iron Curtain after World War II, the US-Soviet relationship was based on a balance of power. That is, both sides tried to ensure the other wouldn’t gain an upper-hand by matching, and then trying to exceed their opponent’s military power. The consequence of this pattern was the proliferation of military capacities on both sides, particularly the proliferation of nuclear weapons. President Nixon sought to de-escalate the US-Soviet tensions, and alter the course of the relationship the arms-race had established.

Opening relations with China was a key component in moving the Soviets in this direction. The United States had long been opposed to the spread of Communism, adhering to its policy of containment, which called for stopping the ‘domino effect’ through military measures. President Nixon’s trip to China marked a shift away from that policy that had served to impede the progress of peaceful relations. This new approach to foreign policy never changed US commitment to the spread of freedom and democracy abroad. However, rather than strong-arming nations to achieve desired policy outcomes, America could induce their behavior through cooperative methods.

Realizing the disadvantaged position the emerging US-Sino relationship created, the Soviet Union quickly and dramatically changed their behavior toward the United States. In what Stapleton Roy—a senior US diplomat who specializes in Asian affairs—described as an effort to demonstrate their importance over China, the Soviets stopped stalling on an invitation to President Nixon to visit the USSR, agreeing to host the President before he ever left for China; the Berlin Agreement was finalized—the first of many agreements to follow collectively referred to as détente; and an active diplomatic relationship resumed between the two superpowers.

The Shanghai Communiqué, issued at the end of President Nixon’s journey to China, helped solidify this diplomatic framework by demonstrating the sensibleness of Nixonian diplomacy. The Communiqué noted the issues where the two states disagreed, such as Taiwan, acknowledging that disagreements on particular issues between nations were inevitable, but would not be insurmountable in the pursuit of the common goals of the two states. This Nixonian diplomatic methodology built on the realization that a resolution in the differences of ideology, philosophy, and governance between states didn’t necessitate military solutions.

Cold War Game Change