Who today remembers the Helsinki conference? Unlike other major international gatherings like the Congress of Vienna or the Paris Peace Conference, Helsinki, which concluded in 1975 after three years of intensive negotiations, has slipped from the collective memory. This is odd. As Michael Cotey Morgan points out in his fascinating new book, it was a conference with grand objectives, most notably a final settlement of the Second World War, just as Vienna had forged a settlement after the Napoleonic Wars and Paris had tried to come to terms with the consequences of the First World War.
Although its initial aim was to settle debates over national borders left unresolved in 1945 and subsequently aggravated by the Cold War, Helsinki – or, to give it its official name, the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) – turned into something much more ambitious: a comprehensive peace settlement for Europe. Two conferences in 1945, at Yalta and Potsdam, had tried to arrive at a postwar settlement but instead made plain major differences between the Soviets, on the one hand, and the British and Americans, on the other. Rather than laying the foundations for peace, they helped provoke the Cold War. US and Soviet leaders met several times in the years that followed, with mixed results. In 1955, at a summit in Geneva, the leaders of the US, USSR, Britain and France succeeded in easing tensions simply by meeting. Five years later, Khrushchev stormed out of a four-power summit in Paris when Eisenhower refused to apologise for monitoring the USSR with U-2 spy planes.
The collapse of the Paris summit led to the Cold War’s most dangerous phase, with the US and USSR nearly going to war over Berlin and Cuba. After the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, Washington and Moscow quietly agreed that they couldn’t allow their differences to keep escalating. Despite the ominous backdrop of the Vietnam War, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon began a series of occasional bilateral discussions with Leonid Brezhnev aimed at managing the Cold War more calmly. Tensions in Asia were high, and China’s rivalry with the Soviet Union was intensifying, while the Berlin Wall had already effectively (if brutally) settled matters in Germany. This meant that the differences Washington and Moscow could most easily address were in Europe. This Eurocentric focus, as Morgan points out, restricted Helsinki’s reach: the signing of the Final Act didn’t lead to a ‘truly global order’. But its effect on Europe was transformative.
The CSCE had originally been proposed in the 1960s by the Soviets, who wanted their borders, and those of their satellites, to be recognised as legitimate and permanent. After some hesitation, the Western allies agreed to begin negotiations. In November 1972, after several years of preparation, diplomats from 33 European countries, plus the United States and Canada, gathered in Helsinki to discuss a settlement of the continent’s political status. A stable, pan-European system would be established and it would be as if the years since 1945 had never happened. It soon became clear that the talks would be drawn out, and the Finnish capital was declared too small and ill-equipped to house so many foreign dignitaries on a permanent basis. Negotiations moved to Geneva, where they would continue for nearly three more years.
The issues at stake were dizzyingly complicated, requiring intricate diplomacy on a wide range of subjects. The mandarins left at home tired of the detail; the Quai d’Orsay, for instance, begged the French delegation to cut down the number of reports sent to Paris. Governments generally paid little attention; when they did, they barely understood what was going on. The result was a remarkable devolution of authority to the diplomats on the ground. On Friday afternoons the French delegate in Geneva, Jacques Andréani, would send a report to Paris and request further instructions. He then headed back to Paris for the weekend, where he would answer his own missive on Monday morning and issue himself fresh directives as necessary. It’s little wonder that the CSCE, featuring few dramatic moments and even fewer dramatic actors, has faded from view. As one diplomat put it, the Helsinki process ‘wasn’t so much a conference as a way of life. I felt at times as if I had boarded a ship that had gone adrift.’
From the beginning, the Americans showed little serious interest in the CSCE, agreeing to participate mainly in order to further the emerging détente with Moscow. Henry Kissinger could have played a starring role if he’d wanted to, but he worried that the Western Europeans’ obsession with human rights and freedom of movement would interfere with superpower détente, especially the delicate negotiations over nuclear arms control. He was happy to facilitate the Soviets’ objective of greater stability – that was his aim too – and he even worked behind the scenes with Soviet diplomats to counteract some of the efforts made by America’s Western partners. ‘Our allies are getting totally obnoxious,’ he complained when they pressed for further Soviet concessions on the free exchange of information. The Western Europeans and Canadians saw things differently. They didn’t want to stabilise the Cold War so much as transcend it. Nobody imagined that the process begun in Helsinki would lead to the end of global conflict, but diplomats from London, Paris, Bonn and Ottawa did believe that it offered an opportunity to change the terms on which international security operated.
The Americans allowed the Western Europeans to take the lead, partly because they themselves were ambivalent about the process but also because they seemed to have a high tolerance for what one Canadian called ‘heresy from lesser voices’. Diversity was messy, but, as Morgan concludes, it proved the West’s key advantage, because it permitted flexibility. To make the negotiations manageable, they were divided into three broad categories, called ‘baskets’ on the suggestion of the Swiss ambassador – he was reminded of a ‘housewife … separating laundry of different colours’. Basket I dealt with traditional security issues, including the integrity of territorial sovereignty and the borders between states. Basket II covered economic, scientific, technological and environmental co-operation. Basket III sought to establish norms on humanitarian co-operation and human rights.
Freedom of movement – at the heart of Basket III – ended up being the most difficult issue of all. Soviet officials rightly saw it as fundamentally at odds with the closed world of command economies and one-party rule. By contrast, officials from Western European countries called for freedom of movement to be recognised as a fundamental human right: it had already been codified by the United Nations in the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights and the 1966 Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. But they also saw it as a potential weapon. As de Gaulle put it, freer travel and the consequent exchange of ideas across Europe would mean ‘the less the communist bloc will be communist’.
Both sides were guilty of trying to have it both ways because both wanted to sanctify national sovereignty but also to be able to violate it under certain conditions. For the Soviets, that meant enforcing the rule of communist parties in Eastern Europe, at gunpoint if necessary, in the name of preventing the emergence of liberalism. This was the basis of the infamous Brezhnev Doctrine, seen in action in East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, when Red Army tanks crushed the Prague Spring. Moscow reserved the right to violate state sovereignty when its allies faced a substantial threat from within. The Western Europeans were more successful in squaring their version of the circle. They recognised the legitimacy of current borders, as stipulated in Basket I, but they also worked to ensure that signatories agreed to the principle that national borders could be altered by mutual consent and couldn’t be enforced militarily by outside parties. In Basket III, the West managed to get the Soviets to promise not to violate the human rights of their own citizens. Moscow had always maintained that ‘counter-revolutionary’ forces posed an existential threat to the Soviet state and its satellites, and that this justified the state’s use of force to suppress them; the domestic jurisdiction of sovereign states, they insisted, was nobody’s business but their own. By agreeing to the West’s terms on Basket III in Helsinki they unwittingly compromised this position. Eastern European diplomats warned their Soviet counterparts not to take the gamble, but the Soviets were desperate for a settlement and failed to foresee its implications.
Previous histories of Helsinki have portrayed the Final Act as a quid pro quo in which the West accepted Soviet national borders in exchange for Soviet recognition of human rights. Conservatives in the West certainly saw it this way, and they weren’t happy about it – because it was inconceivable to them that ideas and values could overpower bullets and tanks. ‘I will be surprised if there are ten human beings who remain to understand the document thirty minutes after it is signed,’ Kissinger scoffed. He saw the CSCE’s three years of negotiations as a waste of time. Other critics were more alarmed. To them, the Final Act was a pact with the devil, a naive sell-out that legitimised Soviet rule without getting anything of value in return. As Robert Conquest put it, ‘the road to Helsinki is paved with good intentions.’
Morgan calls the notion of an exchange of Eastern borders for Western values a ‘myth’: ‘On every significant point, the West prevailed.’ This is putting it too strongly, since the Soviets signed up to the freedoms and rights listed in Basket III only because they thought they were unenforceable. It just turned out they were wrong. Basket III proved decisive because the conception of human security was changing in a globalising world, and even the Soviets came to feel that state power had to be grounded in new kinds of legitimacy. Competing conceptions of peace, security and morality met at the CSCE, but eventually the West’s interpretation of each won out. The only principle on which the Soviets could claim victory – the shoring up of state sovereignty – was irrevocably weakened by the others.
Globalisation in the early 1970s had fuelled the development of rights-consciousness in the West, articulated in a discourse that prioritised individual freedoms and sought protection for the individual against the power of the state. But as historians such as Thomas Borstelmann, Samuel Moyn and Daniel Sargent have pointed out, if one side of the individualist coin bore the impression of human rights, the other side was stamped with neoliberalism.By this time Western countries, especially the US and Britain, had begun the painful process of deindustrialisation. The shift towards service industries as a foundation of their economies spurred successive rounds of deregulation, as financial services in particular demanded greater freedom and trade unions started to lose members. In Washington, New York, London and Brussels, human – and corporate – rights reigned supreme.
Moscow’s willingness to accept Basket III is even more surprising in this light. Human rights and neoliberal economics were inextricably linked. But the success of this combination couldn’t have been predicted in 1975, halfway through a decade of economic malaise in the West. By contrast, the Soviet Union, buoyed by record prices for crude oil and the American disaster in Vietnam, seemed to be at the height of its power. It was from a perceived position of strength that the Kremlin signed the Final Act, believing it would guarantee its dominance without presenting any undue challenges.
This bet looked much less safe when dissidents and human rights groups started to apply significant moral and political pressure, accompanied by heavy publicity in the West. In the days before Helsinki, the Kremlin would simply have crushed opposition rallies with tanks and sent dissidents to prison. But doing so after 1975 would have meant destroying the whole Helsinki system. This was a political constraint, not a legal one – the Final Act was a declaration, not a treaty – but it was no less powerful for that. In this new era, crushing dissent would be seen as a capitulation to discredited practices; it would prove that the Soviet Union could not be a member of the modern world. During Poland’s Solidarity uprising of 1980-81 the Kremlin didn’t send in the Red Army because, Morgan says, it ‘concluded that the USSR could not bear the political or economic costs’. The Brezhnev Doctrine was dead. Later, in the mid-1980s, when the war in Afghanistan ground to a stalemate and oil prices collapsed, the pressure became too great. They had gambled on Helsinki, and lost.
Morgan is surely correct to draw a more or less straight line from Brezhnev’s signature on the Helsinki Final Act to the glasnost and perestroika reforms launched by Gorbachev, and to the end of the USSR itself. This is not to say that the Gorbachev reforms, much less a peaceful end to the Cold War, were inevitable. But it’s difficult to imagine Gorbachev’s ascent without Helsinki. If there’s a lesson to be learned from this, it’s that national sovereignty is a powerful force but no more powerful than cosmopolitan internationalism. For the nation-state to retain its integrity in today’s interconnected world it needs to adapt, and keep adapting. There can be no return to a supposed golden age of splendid isolation. ‘By the 1970s,’ Morgan writes, ‘the days of absolute sovereignty were gone – if they ever existed in the first place.’