Hal Sonnenfeldt, Hard-nosed Realism, and U.S.-Russian Arms Control

Brookings Editor's Note: This piece is part of a series remembering the life, career, and legacy of Helmut (Hal) Sonnenfeldt — a member of the National Security Council, counselor at the Department of State, scholar at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), and Brookings expert.


Serving as a senior member on the National Security Council at the Nixon White House from 1969-1974, Hal Sonnenfeldt was Henry Kissinger’s primary advisor on the Soviet Union and Europe. After Sonnenfeldt’s passing, Kissinger told the New York Times that Sonnenfeldt was “my closest associate” on U.S.-Soviet relations and “at my right hand on all the negotiations that I conducted with the Soviets,” including on arms control. THIRD PARAGRAPH Sonnenfeldt brought a practical approach to U.S.-Soviet relations, realistic about the Soviet Union — its strengths, its weaknesses, and the challenges it presented to the West — and creative in trying to address those challenges. He was likewise realistic about the contribution that arms control could make to a safer and more stable bilateral relationship. As he noted in a 1978 article for Foreign Affairs, military and arms control issues were a fundamental part of the relationship, but “the problem [of dealing with Soviet power] does not end or begin with military measures alone.” Other factors — political, economic, ideological, and even cultural — mattered.


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