Compare and contrast the foreign policies of Khrushchev and Brezhnev.

Two dominant figures in the history of the USSR, Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev, profoundly shaped the foreign policy of their nation. While both leaders navigated a complex and volatile international landscape, they had divergent perspectives and methodologies. Khrushchev was renowned for his attempts at "peaceful coexistence" with the West, while Brezhnev reverted to a more traditional, hard-line approach. This essay aims to compare and contrast the foreign policies of these two Soviet leaders, examining their motivations, actions, and the implications of their respective strategies.


Nikita Khrushchev ascended to power following Joseph Stalin's death in 1953. This period marked a significant shift in Soviet foreign policy, as Khrushchev aimed for what he termed "peaceful coexistence" with the West. Taubman’s interpretation suggests Khrushchev was an advocate of détente who sought to ease the Cold War tensions. In a dramatic break from his predecessors, Khrushchev visited several Western countries, becoming the first Soviet leader to visit the United States in 1959. This approach culminated in a surprising call for disarmament before the United Nations in 1960.  However, Khrushchev's policy was not without its inconsistencies and controversies. The Suez Canal crisis in 1956 and the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 are emblematic of his more aggressive stance towards Western powers. Medvedev's analysis argues that while Khrushchev aimed for peaceful coexistence, he did not hesitate to seize strategic opportunities, as demonstrated in the Cuban scenario. These instances portray a more complex narrative, suggesting Khrushchev's policy was marked by both cooperative initiatives and confrontational manoeuvres.  Furthermore, Khrushchev's policies led to significant fallout within the communist bloc. The 1956 Hungarian Uprising and his efforts to diminish China's role within the socialist camp brought him into conflict with other socialist nations. This tension, articulated by Zubok, portrays Khrushchev as an enigmatic leader whose policies were both innovative and disruptive. 

On the other hand, Leonid Brezhnev's foreign policy, as argued by Gaddis, was a return to a more orthodox Soviet stance. Brezhnev, who took over from Khrushchev in 1964, emphasised the doctrine of "limited sovereignty," which granted the USSR the right to intervene in the affairs of other socialist countries. This was a distinct departure from Khrushchev's policy of "peaceful coexistence" and led to the USSR's military interventions in countries like Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Afghanistan in 1979.  Brezhnev also pursued policies that expanded the USSR's influence in the Third World, providing military and economic assistance to countries such as Egypt, Syria, and Angola. According to Service, this was part of a broader strategy to extend Soviet influence globally. However, these policies were not without their consequences, as they led to an escalation of Cold War tensions and strained the USSR's resources.  Despite his more hard-line approach, Brezhnev also pursued détente with the West, signing the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I) in 1972. While maintaining a balance of power, these actions represented a move towards diplomatic negotiation rather than military confrontation. This perspective by LaFeber argues that while Brezhnev may have been more conservative than his predecessor, he was not unwilling to negotiate and cooperate with the West when it served Soviet interests.

Khrushchev and Brezhnev's policies, while distinctive in their approaches, are both reflective of the complexities and challenges of the Cold War. While Khrushchev advocated for "peaceful coexistence", his tenure was marked by significant tensions, including the Cuban Missile Crisis. Similarly, Brezhnev's doctrine of "limited sovereignty" represented a more traditional Soviet stance, but his tenure too saw instances of cooperation with the West, as seen in the signing of SALT I.  However, the contrast between the two leaders is stark. Khrushchev was a reformist, pushing for greater openness with the West and redefining the USSR's relations with its allies. His approach, while fraught with contradictions, marked a clear break from his predecessors. Brezhnev, conversely, adopted a more orthodox stance, reinforcing the USSR's right to control its satellite states while simultaneously extending Soviet influence into the Third World.

In conclusion, Khrushchev and Brezhnev's foreign policies represented distinct stages in the evolution of the USSR's position in the international arena. Khrushchev's innovative yet inconsistent approach sought to redefine Soviet-Western relations but also heightened global tensions. Conversely, Brezhnev returned to a more conventional Soviet approach, maintaining an iron grip over the Eastern Bloc and extending the USSR's reach globally, albeit with significant consequences. The contrast between these leaders' policies illuminates the multifaceted nature of Soviet foreign policy during the Cold War, highlighting the ongoing tension between ideological commitment and pragmatic strategy in the face of a complex international environment.