Given the tense state of East-West relations, a first step toward emerging from the dangerous landscape in which the United States, Europe, Russia and the states of Eurasia find themselves would be to meet to revisit the original Helsinki concept even though the global environment is radically altered from forty years ago.
Forty years ago this week, Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev and U.S. President Gerald Ford—along with leaders from thirty three other nations—signed the Helsinki Final Act, a landmark agreement that paved the way for closer ties between the East and West and ultimately facilitated the erosion of the communist system and the end of the Cold War. With relations between Russia and the West under great strain today, it is time to revisit and learn from these principles.
As far back as 1954, the Soviet Union had proposed convening a multilateral European security conference to ratify the postwar boundaries of Europe. At that time, the United States and its allies objected to recognizing what they viewed as the imposition of Soviet control over Eastern Europe, and so they demurred. Twenty years later, the success of Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik –including treaties normalizing relations with the USSR, Poland and East Germany –and the détente initiatives of the Richard Nixon administration had completely altered the Euro-Atlantic landscape. The USSR and the countries of the transatlantic alliance and the European neutrals were interested in negotiating an agreement that would stabilize Europe and promote more interaction between its two halves.
The Helsinki Agreement was divided into three “baskets” each of which was an essential triad of the vision of a more peaceful Europe. The first basket was political-military. It envisaged confidence-building measure to defuse the likelihood of war and it committed each signatory to respect the sovereignty and the inviolability of the territorial integrity of each country. In view of the unresolved German question, the agreement also permitted peaceful change of borders—providing all parties were in agreement to the change. The second basket was the economic-scientific one, encouraging trade and scientific cooperation between the signatories.
The third, and most controversial, was basket three, committing all the signatories to promote human rights within their own societies and to encourage free exchange of people and ideas between East and West, including exchanges of journalists and support for freedom of expression. The western countries had insisted on basket three in exchange for signing on to baskets one and two. Immediately after the agreement was signed, Helsinki monitoring groups were formed in all of the signatory countries, including the Soviet Union and the United States. Although these groups were often persecuted in countries that violated human rights, the fact that their leaders had signed the agreement enabled them to maintain some legitimacy in their own societies and to continue working for greater civil rights.
With the hindsight of 40 years, The Helsinki Final Act and subsequent meetings of the Conference on Cooperation and Security in Europe (CSCE) achieved more than might have been expected in those tense Cold War days. As a result of basket one, military confidence-building measures,--including bilateral and multilateral arms control treaties between the United States and the Soviet Union and between NATO and the Warsaw Pact --and the Conventional Forces in Europe agreement—significantly defused the risk of unintended war and forged constructive ties between the military establishments of the signatory countries. Greater economic and scientific cooperation created groups of stakeholders with long-term interests in improved ties between East and West. And, despite many East-West disagreements over Basket Three, people-to-people contacts between the capitalist and communist countries increased and were undoubtedly one of the factors that eventually brought down the iron curtain.
Today, the world is multipolar, not bipolar and there are no longer two military-political blocks facing each other. The OSCE has replaced the CSCE and includes all the post-Soviet states, bringing the number of members to 57. The OSCE’s mandate has changed and today is focused on peace-keeping and monitoring the situation in Eastern Ukraine and other conflict areas in the post-Soviet space. But, implementation of all three of the Helsinki Act’s baskets has been seriously compromised.
Today, much of Europe believes that the post-cold war European order is under a long-term threat of renewed armed conflict. Arms control measures are at a standstill and the rhetoric of nuclear conflict has resurfaced. Economic and scientific contacts have been curtailed, and new barriers are going up. And the continuation of human contacts, while vastly greater than they were during the Cold War, is in question, as some signatory states continue to restrict freedom of expression and movement.
The current deteriorating situation is cause for alarm. Given the tense state of East-West relations, a first step toward emerging from the dangerous landscape in which the United States, Europe, Russia and the states of Eurasia find themselves would be to meet to revisit the original Helsinki concept even though the global environment is radically altered from forty years ago. But now, as then, a heightened likelihood of “accidents” and even conflict should persuade all sides that they must find a better way forward, one that will increase, rather than threaten, Euro-Atlantic security. This is all the more true with the common interests both sides have today – whether in terms of Islamic extremism or a healthier world economy.
In 2016, Germany will have the presidency of the OSCE. Since Germany played such a crucial role in initiating what became the Helsinki process and benefited greatly from it, Berlin could use this opportunity to initiate a broad discussion of how we can return to the Helsinki principles in the twenty-first century.