Security and cooperation in Europe - were the Helsinki accords doomed to failure?

by Mark Waller

There are many anecdotes about the heady days of the 1975 Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), which took place in Helsinki, Finland and resulted in a major though doomed effort to reduce cold war tensions between East and West in Europe. The conference had acquired a deeply symbolic importance. The story goes that as members of delegations assembled in the lobby of Finlandia Hall prior to the signing of the final document, an unsummoned lift descended and the doors opened with a ping. There was no one inside. “Ah,” remarked Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko with customary deadpan style, “the spirit of Helsinki!”

The tale is likely spurious and there are numerous versions. But it reflects something of the sense of expectation that the CSCE mustered. Today, it’s hard to see it without the heavy irony of hindsight, where the spirit of Helsinki was a mere void. And yet, if we’re to understand the foreign policies of the Soviet Union and the other socialist countries in Europe during the worst years of the Cold War, we need to look at why the ‘Helsinki spirit’ was so much talked about at the time and what it tried to do.


One problem with the history of the CSCE is that it’s been massively distorted by piecemeal accounts or blatant ideological hammering concerning the Soviet Union’s role in it. There are few people around nowadays willing or equipped to delve into Soviet history to try to set the record straight, especially when it comes to things like foreign and defence policy and many branches of domestic policy between about 1950 and 1985. The availability of sources is scant and dwindling. You find that in bourgeois academia just about any old negative interpretation or gaping omission concerning Soviet activity will pass. Fake history abounds.

Some examples: the CSCE was a human rights agreement that ultimately sank the Soviet Union and the other socialist countries in Europe; in 1969 Finland niftily took the initiative to get the CSCE off the ground to ease Soviet pressure on Finnish neutrality; the CSCE was part of the superpowers’ efforts to ease tensions following the Cuban missile crisis; the CSCE was a triumph of the Federal Republic of Germany’s (FRG) more open policy towards the East.

While some historical accounts look at the true origins of the CSCE, there seem to be none that provide any context, probably for fear of seeming to give too much credit to the Soviets. And yet from the early 1950s onwards the problem of how to avoid another conflict centred on Europe was a major Soviet worry. Only a short time before, it had lost 27 million of its people in the war against Nazi Germany. Aggressive, red-scare anti-communism was rampant in the US. The formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) in 1949 by 12 capitalist states, ostensibly “to secure peace in Europe”, sought, as NATO’s current description of its origins states, to counter “the threat posed by the Soviet Union” (1) – though its founding charter actually made no mention of either the Soviet Union or Communism. From the Soviet perspective, lack of international recognition of post-war borders in Eastern Europe was a further source of insecurity. And to compound the problem, in 1952, the US had pitched the Soviet Union into a more fearsome round of the nuclear arms race by exploding the world’s first thermonuclear bomb.


In August 1953, the Soviet Union proposed that there should be an international conference of the four powers (the US, Britain, France and the Soviet Union) that had been occupying Germany since the Nazi defeat in 1945. The Soviet Union proposed the reunification of Germany as an independent and neutral state, but did not suggest what social or economic system should prevail.

In February the following year, foreign ministers of the four powers met in Berlin. The Soviet proposal concerning the basis for German unification was rejected by the US, and the conference went on to look at other issues, including the aftermath of the Korean War. It was at this conference that the Soviet Union proposed having a treaty to safeguard collective security in Europe. This proposal took the form of a draft agreement, which Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov presented to his counterparts.

Very briefly, the proposed treaty would be open to all European states regardless of their social systems; it would include the FRG and German Democratic Republic (GDR) on an equal basis; commit the parties not to use force against one another and settle disputes by peaceful means; the parties would consider an attack on one of them as an attack on all; and they would pledge not to enter into any coalition or alliance that would contravene the purpose of the treaty. The US and China would not be parties to the treaty but would have observer status.

The Soviet proposal was the only such initiative that aimed to take a holistic view of European security. It sought to take account of the emergence of NATO and to include all European states under the umbrella of common security. The proposal was the first step on a long path towards what would later become the CSCE and the Helsinki Final Act.

But at the time it was rejected on the grounds that the US was excluded and, rather speciously, that it aimed to undermine NATO and to wreck nascent plans for a European Defence Community. Undeterred, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet adopted the proposal of the foreign ministry (worked out by Molotov and Gromyko) that the Soviet Union seek to join (or “participate in”) NATO and that the US would not be excluded from an envisaged European security treaty, which was termed a General Agreement on Collective Security in Europe.

Molotov’s memo to the Presidium that accompanied the proposal pointed out that Soviet membership of NATO would check the aggressive intent of the bloc’s architects “and would emphasise its supposedly defensive character, so that it would not be directed against the USSR and the people's democracies.” Molotov wrote that it was more than likely that the three Western powers would reject the Soviet suggestion, and that this would expose the inherently aggressive design of NATO, but he pointed out that if they welcomed the idea, it would radically change NATO’s character. In the end the three Western powers rejected the Soviet initiative. (2)

Had Germany been reunited as a neutral country, as the Soviets proposed, the subsequent history of Europe would have been a lot less fraught with tension and danger. In 1955, the Western powers ended their occupation of Germany, which was then made a sovereign state (the FRG), injected with massive economic aid, made a forward base for NATO forces and admitted to the pact as a full member. The same year, the Soviet Union and socialist countries established the Warsaw Treaty Organisation, with the proviso that it would disband in unison with the dismantling of NATO.

But the Soviet Union continued to press its proposal for a new European security arrangement at all subsequent meetings of foreign ministers. It was not until over a decade later that the idea began to gain traction as a number of West European states became more receptive to the notion of reducing tensions between the socialist east and the capitalist west. This was so particularly in the FRG, where centre-left Social Democrats succeeded the rightwing Christian Democratic Union and abandoned the policy of refusing contact with any state that had diplomatic ties with the socialist GDR.

The Soviet Union, a strong proponent of neutrality and non-alignment as buffers against imperialist expansion, realised that it would be best if the idea for a new security order in Europe came from a neutral source. It first sounded out Austria, which proved lukewarm and equivocal. It then it discussed the idea with the Finns, with whom it had a treaty of friendship and mutual assistance. Finland, under President Kekkonen, was keen to carve out a role for itself as a mediator and peace broker within the big power matrix, a position it subsequently developed and on which it still prides itself today.

The upshot was a proposal from Finland, launched in May 1969, for the start of multilateral negotiations for what would be called the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. Successive rounds of negotiations, first in Helsinki in 1973, then in Geneva from 1973 to 1975, and finally in Helsinki again in August 1975, produced the Final Act, (3) which was signed by the heads of state and government of 35 participating states.


The Helsinki accords were not a binding treaty that would be ratified, as the Soviets had initially hoped, but rather a series of commitments. On the other hand, the CSCE affirmed the status the two Germanys and the post-World War 2 borders in Eastern Europe, and established sophisticated ideas of common security within the European framework. The Final Act also extended the idea of security to include economic cooperation, cultural cooperation, humanitarian commitments, cooperation in the fields of education, science and technology, transport, environment, and security and cooperation specifically in the Mediterranean region. In the area of ‘hard’ security, it established confidence-building measures concerning military manoeuvres – points that linked up with other East-West negotiations on reducing conventional forces in Europe. It did not cover nuclear arms reduction, which was dealt with in other forums.

The agreement embraced many of the long-pursued goals of the socialist states in setting clear principles that would guide inter-state relations, covered in part in the Final Act’s so-called ‘decalogue’:

I. Sovereign equality, respect for the rights inherent in sovereignty

II. Refraining from the threat or use of force

III. Inviolability of frontiers

IV. Territorial integrity of states

V. Peaceful settlement of disputes

VI. Non-intervention in internal affairs

VII. Respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief

VIII. Equal rights and self-determination of peopleS

IX. Co-operation among states

X. Fulfilment in good faith of obligations under international law.

Follow-up CSCE meetings were held in Belgrade in 1977, Madrid in 1979 and in Vienna from 1986 to 1989. But while the CSCE did make some headway in establishing better relations between the East and West, for the most part its commitments and principles were not realised. The US and its NATO allies pushed relentlessly for nuclear superiority over the Soviet Union and ratcheted up their propaganda war against the socialist countries.


Most of the CSCE agreement remained unimplemented. Moves to improve contacts between citizens of East and West and develop the various forms of non-military cooperation fared best between the USSR and the other socialist countries and neutral Finland, Sweden, Austria and Switzerland. All of them complied well with getting the CSCE accords publicised and known, through the media and public events. But ramped up tensions, caused by the 1979 NATO decision to deploy a new generation of first strike nuclear weapons in Europe targeted at the Soviet Union made the normalisation of relations that the CSCE sought practically impossible.

The Soviet perspective, rooted in Lenin’s analyses of the potential for peaceful coexistence between socialism and capitalism, proved astute: where possible peaceful relations, dialogue, a reduction of tensions and cooperation should be pursued, but socialist countries could never forget that at every twist and turn, imperialist states would seek to undermine socialism. Which is what happened.

Perhaps the CSCE never stood a chance. Henry Kissinger, US Secretary of State under presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, had no time at all for the CSCE: “We never wanted it but we went along with the Europeans […] It is meaningless – just a grandstand play to the left. We are going along with it.” (4) Ford, who signed the Final Act on behalf of the US, was equally cynical: “We are not committing ourselves beyond what we are already committed to by our own moral and legal standards.” (5) The British government, under Harold Wilson, never attached much importance to the CSCE, viewing it as a “Soviet ploy designed to undermine Western cohesion”. (6)

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the other socialist countries, the CSCE was revamped as an instrument of imperialist policy. The 1990 Charter of Paris changed the CSCE into the OSCE (the O stands for organisation). The charter remodeled the forum as a new component for neoliberal change in Eastern Europe, the highlight of which was the development of capitalist market economies across the East as the hallmark of “freedom”.







Finlandia Hall Helsinki

Left to right: US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, Soviet President, Leonid Brezhnev, US President Gerald Ford and Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, Helsinki 1975

While some historical accounts look at the true origins of the CSCE, there seem to be none that provide any context, probably for fear of seeming to give too much credit to the Soviets.