Global Governance
Lessons From the Pan-European Process 45 Years On

One cannot count on the revival of the “spirit of Helsinki” today. No matter how skilful Russian diplomacy is, the conditions for restructuring the European order on the principles of cooperation are currently not visible. Accordingly, the OSCE is also unable to ensure the institutionalisation of Russia’s participation in decision-making on the regional agenda, to which it is striving, Valdai Club expert Igor Istomin argues.

In August 2020, the Helsinki Final Act turns forty-five years old. The current state of the legacy of Helsinki-75 is disappointing. Nevertheless, any anniversary is an occasion to re-evaluate the historical role of past events and try to formulate conclusions for today.

By the end of the 2010s, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe had turned from a serious negotiating forum into a platform for the exchange of routine accusations. The OSCE’s agenda for practical activities has shrunk to a minimum, and the truly significant decisions on which European stability depends are being made in other forums. The association was further discredited in the summer of 2020 by the blocking of the mandate extension of the heads of the main structural divisions, including the Secretary General.

At the same time, when assessing the events of the past, one cannot focus only on results, ignoring the political context and available alternatives. Moreover, negative experiences can provide useful lessons for the future. In this respect, the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe is of interest as an example of the deliberate engineering of a regional order. Usually such attempts are made after destructive wars. The Helsinki Final Act, prepared amid peaceful conditions, is a unique case in diplomatic practice, given this background.

Triumph and impasse in Russian diplomacy

First and foremost, the Helsinki Final Act reflected the long-term vision of European architecture that took shape in the Soviet Union after World War II. It was based on the idea of collective security, which required the creation of inclusive institutions in which Moscow would play one of the central roles. Long before the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, the USSR put forward initiatives aimed at building a cooperative rather than a bloc order (such as the plan to make Germany neutral Germany in 1952).

Among Moscow’s subsequent efforts to strengthen collective security mechanisms in Europe, it is worth mentioning the advancement of the concept of a “common European home” in the 1980s, with support for the transformation of the CSCE into an organisation in the 1990s, and attempts to initiate a European Security Treaty in the 2000s. Moreover, the NATO-Russia Council in the early 2000s also acted as another attempt to build a security architecture in which Russia would be on an equal footing with its Western partners, rather than joining as a mere observer, as it is often suggested.

These initiatives have led to little progress in building a collective security system. Even despite the subsequent appearance of new documents (such as the Charter of Paris for a New Europe) the Helsinki Final Act has remained the most significant symbols of the pan-European process. This result is not surprising.

At the time of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe in the mid-1970s, the Soviet Union was at the height of its economic and military power. Its initiatives within the framework of the pan-European process could not be ignored by Western counterparts, which were experiencing a relative weakening as a result of the Vietnam War, the oil shock and economic difficulties. Subsequently, the balance of power shifted not in its favour, and therefore the regulatory potential laid down by the Helsinki Final Act was realised only to a small extent.

The Western European states were interested in the CSCE, first of all, as a political complement to the economic contacts that they had previously established with Moscow, and the United States invariably maintained a cold perspective, both with regard to the idea of collective security in principle and to the general European process. As a result, the signing of the Helsinki Final Act never became the turning point of the Cold War. After 1975, the European order continued to be determined by the presence of two opposing blocs. Moreover, this bloc architecture in Europe is actually preserved to this day, although the dividing line has shifted to the east.

Principles of inclusiveness in the light of bloc practices

The Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe became part of a broader process of detente between the two opposing blocs. At the same time, it cannot be regarded either as a primary origin, or even as the trigger for an emerging convergence. On the contrary, the Helsinki Final Act was signed practically at the end of detente. It was only slightly ahead of the subsequent rollback, which once again revealed the lack of foundations for a collective security system.

The negotiations on the mutual and balanced reduction of conventional weapons, initiated in parallel with the CSCE, did not result in serious agreements (the parties returned to attempts to regulate conventional forces only after a decade and a half, amid the end of the Cold War). Accordingly, the political principles declared in Helsinki were not supplemented by the mechanisms to control military tensions necessary to build a collective security system. A paradoxical situation arose – the sides promised not to attack each other not to try to change the borders, but at the same time continued to arm themselves to the teeth.

This contradiction clearly revealed itself in the aggravation of the confrontation in the 1980s. Despite the political achievements of the CSCE, the resumption of the Cold War was marked by the most acute crisis in Europe. In 1983, NATO Able Archer exercises created fears among the Soviet leadership about possible preparations of a Western invasion. As a result, both sides put their armed forces on the highest level of alert, balancing on the brink of direct confrontation. Although war was avoided, this case may well compete with the Cuban missile crisis for the status of the most dangerous brush with mutual annihilation in the second half of the 20th century.

Even the role of the CSCE in consolidating the fundamental principle of “indivisibility of security” remained controversial. The actions of the states showed that they did not consider the political guarantees of the Helsinki Final Act as sufficient. In this regard, the fears of France and Britain about the revival of German revisionism, which they demonstrated during the unification of Germany in 1990, are quite indicative.

An equally striking manifestation of the European states’ uncertainty regarding the stability of the territorial structure was the need to additionally confirm Germany’s eastern border along the Oder-Neisse. It not only found reflection in the Treaty on the final settlement of the German issue following the 2 + 4 negotiations, but also required a separate bilateral agreement between Bonn and Warsaw. Thus, the practical consequences of the pan-European process in fixing the status quo did not fully correspond to the symbolic status that was attributed to it.

Russia and the European circle

The abovementioned examples indicate that the problems of the modern OSCE are much older than the organisation itself. The principles of collective security laid out in the Helsinki Final Act were never backed up by institutional mechanisms. More importantly, for most regional players, they remained less attractive than the commitment to bloc solidarity.

In fact, Russian calls for the building of an inclusive architecture were never supported by a critical mass among the European countries. From Washington’s point of view, building the order proposed by Russia would marginalise the American position in Europe. Meanwhile, most of Moscow’s European partners, even if they demonstrate an interest in improving relations with it, are not ready, for the sake of this rapprochement, to sacrifice the convenience of relying on NATO to ensure their own security.

In these conditions, one cannot count on the revival of the “spirit of Helsinki”. No matter how skilful Russian diplomacy is, the conditions for restructuring the European order on the principles of cooperation are currently not visible. Accordingly, the OSCE is also unable to ensure the institutionalisation of Russia’s participation in decision-making on the regional agenda, to which it is striving.

At the same time, abandoning the very idea of collective security would require either Moscow to surrender to the demands of the NATO-centric order, which it opposed for so long, or de facto to withdraw from European politics, on which its economy and security are critically dependent. Is Russia ready to choose one of these attractive alternatives? I think not.

The continuation of the previous line of ensuring Russian participation in European politics encourages support for pan-European institutions, even if they are doomed to remain as weak and dysfunctional as the OSCE. In the context of such a strategic impasse, the tasks of diplomacy are reduced, first of all, to attempts to make cosmetic repairs to shortcomings with the understanding that the repaired building lacks both the foundation and load-bearing walls.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.