The European Security Conference

“Stability,” wrote Henry A. Kissinger in his Harvard doctoral study of Metternich and the Congress of Vienna, “has commonly resulted not from a quest for peace but from a generally accepted legitimacy. Legitimacy in this sense should not be confused with justice. It means no more than an international agreement about the nature of workable arrangements and about the permissible aims and methods of foreign policy. A legitimate order does not make conflicts impossible, but it limits their scope.”

That in essence is what the European Conference on Security and Cooperation is all about, and why it is frequently compared to the Congress of Vienna. Thirty-five nations whose foreign ministers met in Helsinki in July to launch the conference. and whose diplomatic experts are now deep in detailed negotiations in Geneva, are groping toward agreement on a document which will have the effect of conferring multinational “legitimacy” on the existing political structure of Europe and pledging everybody (except Albania. which declines to participate) to its peaceful permanent acceptance.

There is, nevertheless, a reserved and skeptical attitude on the part of most of the foreign ministers of Western European governments and many of the neutrals as well, precisely because “legitimacy in this sense should not be confused with justice.” Legitimacy would be easier for the West to grant to the Communist governments of Eastern Europe if there were more justice to their claims. At the very least, the Western powers are aiming at obtaining as a price for the success of the negotiations a greater commitment from the Communists to humanitarian behavior toward their own people.

The problem was a great deal simpler in the political and social climate of 1815. Considerations of justice and humanitarian behavior mattered little to Metternich, Talleyrand, Czar Alexander, or even Castlereagh. although the British did fight hard at the Congress of Vienna to do something about the slave trade. But the chief aim of the Congress was the establishment of monarchical legitimacy throughout Europe. To this end, all manner of kings and princelings were restored to or confirmed on a patchwork of thrones which had been toppled by Napoleon. In the process, repressed and dissatisfied minorities (Poles. Slovaks, Hungarians, Czechs. Serbians, Bosnians, Greeks, Bulgarians) were indifferently consigned to the rule of petty tyrants. Castlereagh was confronted by outraged public opinion when he went home to London to defend the results of the Congress. Shelley, an angry young man of the day, penned the bitter lines in his “Masque of Anarchy” (1819):

I met Murder on the way—
He had a mask like Castlereagh.

Nevertheless the system was propped up after 1815 by a common interest in preserving its stability. Liberalism finally did burst through in the revolutionary wave of 1848. when Metternich had to take to his carriage and flee from Vienna across the English Channel to Brighton. But even then fundamental stability in Europe survived. There were other periodic eruptions, of which the Franeo-Prussian War of 1870 was the most serious, but it was not until 1914 that peace and the system broke down completely after a full century of the old legitimacy’s slow decay.

Respecting realities

Today in Europe the process of legitimizing the existing political and geographical boundaries and divisions is already quite far advanced. It is not merely that borders have remained fixed and unchanged since the end of World War II, twenty-eight years ago. In the last three years there have been a number of diplomatic developments which have had the effect of changing this situation from de facto to de jure. The most important of these, at least as far as the United States is concerned, was the Berlin agreement of 1971, in which the Soviets. after a quarter of a century of crisis and challenge, finally signed a document recognizing West Berlin for what it is—a democratic enclave protected by Western troops in the midst of Communist territory, a part of West Germany in everything but the fine print. Willy Brandt followed the Berlin agreement swiftly with his series of friendship, trade, and recognition treaties and diplomatic agreements with Russia, Poland, East Germany, Rumania, Czechoslovakia, and most recently Hungary and Bulgaria. In each, Brandt committed West Germany to a supremely important act of renunciation of German territory of the 1930s and acceptance of the borders and divisions as they are today. In addition, there has sprung up a whole web of trade treaties and agreements between Western Europe and Eastern Europe, as well as official visits and missions.

Why, then, the need for a European Conference on Security and Cooperation? A good many skeptical Western diplomats would just as soon not be bothering with the operation. They feel that it is not going to add much to either detente or stability in Europe, and that it would be preferable to leave things open for the future instead of trying to codify or define East-West relations too strictly.

Skeptics are not charmed by some euphoric vision of pan-European peace and harmony emerging when the new document is signed and delivered. Rather they fear something more akin to a gigantic hoax which will have the effect of lulling Western Europe into military weakness and political impotence, while Eastern Europe gains assertiveness and military strength in the iron grip of the Soviet Union. The very fact that the Russians have been so indefatigable in pushing for so long for a security conference (Molotov first proposed it back in 1954) heightens the feeling among Western diplomats that “there must be more in this for them than there is for us.”

Even so. there is no really satisfactory answer or theory as to precisely why the Russians are so eager to have a security conference. It is unlikely to advance the Soviet Union’s prospects for trade, commerce. and credits in the West any faster or farther than the bilateral agreements which have already been signed. Certainly the Russians are not in Helsinki out of altruistic disinterest in the future well-being of Europe. Nor are they trying to do their own client states and the smaller nations and neutrals of Europe a favor by upstaging them on the European scene.

Russia’s problems with China most probably have a bearing; Russia apparently needs to secure its western front against possible trouble in the East. But how strong or direct a factor this may be is difficult to guess. Russia knows that it is not going to be attacked by NATO forces; indeed, it has seen NATO sit on its hands tensely on live different occasions in the past twenty years when Soviet forces intervened in troubles in the Communist bloc. A security conference is not going to add anything to Soviet security.

There remains legitimacy in a simple but plausible explanation from a British diplomat with long experience in Soviet affairs;

When the Russians are not involved in ideological or Communist political objectives in their foreign policy, they remain basically very conservative, traditional, cautious, and legalistic in their behavior and their aims. They have little or no respect for law within their own system, but they can become extremely legalistic in international affairs when the law can be put to their use. Getting something on paper is always a very important operation for the Russians. We can see clearly that they have now formed a basic foreign-policy objective of getting every country in Europe plus the United States and Canada to sign an international agreement which legitimizes their grip on Eastern Europe. In the same way, for us it was very important to get their signature on a legal document covering our presence in Berlin. In fact the documents may not change the existing situation very much, but it is that cachet of legality and legitimization which has now become very important to the Russians, and that’s what they want out of this conference.

This was borne out by Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko’s opening address at Helsinki, in which he said:

To define through common effort the foundations of future European security and cooperation and the relations between states in Europe, to put them on record in jointly adopted documents—all this means the establishment of lasting guidelines of peaceful development in Europe. The Soviet Union has always considered and considers that this edifice can be erected only on the basis of the general recognition of. and respect for, the existing territorial and political realities. In the final analysis, the main reason for the international complications and crises that erupted in Europe after the war, no matter in what form, was that these incontestable political realities were questioned.

Agreeing on meanings

The “eruptions” in Europe since the war in which, as Gromyko puts it, “incontestable political realities were questioned” have in fact been internal popular challenges to the Communist regimes in Poland, East Berlin and East Germany, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia. Gromyko is asking for a pan-European political agreement in which the West concedes that challenges to existing legitimacy should not be allowed to happen. Russia would thus be able to apply the Brezhnev Doctrine in the name of European legitimacy and stability. Metternich and Czar Alexander would have understood, but it is pretty difficult for Western foreign ministers to swallow in 1973.

After Gromyko’s speech, the Soviet delegation tabled a draft of the kind of political security declaration which it hopes to see emerge from the conference. It piously includes the principles of nonintervention in the internal affairs of other states and nonuse of force or threat of force. But when Western newsmen asked the Soviet press spokesman if this would prevent another Czechoslovakian invasion in the future, the wooden answer came back; “In the case of Czechoslovakia there was no interference in internal affairs, but a request by the Czech government was met by allied governments to give it aid. So in future we do not propose intervention.”

The spokesman then quickly adjourned the press briefing. As West German Foreign Minister Walter Scheel remarked to newsmen later during the conference: “Our problem is not agreeing on words, but agreeing on the meaning of words.”

The Dutch Foreign Minister, Max van der Stoel, met the Russians head on by declaring in his speech that, in the future, relations in Europe should be flexible enough to allow for changes to occur without necessarily upsetting the international situation:

It will therefore be important that in the final document on principles adequate mention he made of the inalienable right of the people of every state freely to choose, to develop, and if desired to change its political, economic, social, and cultural systems without interference in any form by any other state or group of states and with due respect to human rights and fundamental freedoms.

If something like that ever emerges in the final document, it will indeed be a considerable victory for Western European diplomacy. The main thrust of the Western powers is toward a code of humanitarian behavior for Europe along with codes of political and commercial relations, the theory being that it will be a great deal easier and more acceptable to grant “legitimization” to the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe if they show a little more respect for Western values of individual liberty, civilized conduct, and justice.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, put the issue precisely when he said, in what was the best speech of the Helsinki gathering:

Mr. Gromyko said that we should provide from this conference a code of conduct for Europe. This is an impeccable sentiment, The pertinent question is what is this to mean in terms of life of ordinary people in Europe. We cannot leave such sentiments hanging in the air. We must come down to earth. Politics, national and international. is about people. The people of our countries will not thank or congratulate us for adding more solemn declarations to the world’s archives, different from other such documents only in the signatures upon them. They will want to know whether their lives will be affected for better by our efforts. If we do not improve the life of ordinary people we shall be asked, and with justice, what all our fine words and diplomatic phrases have achieved.

The principal diplomatic leverage which the Western powers hold as the negotiations now move forward in Geneva is an apparently overweening desire of the Soviet Union and its anxious allies for success, for agreement. If they want agreement, therefore, they will have to make concessions to convictions held strongly in the West. Both the British and West German foreign ministers went out of their way to counter the idea that the conference is doomed to succeed.

“If progress is not achieved [on cooperation in humanitarian fields],”said Sir Alec, “there will be no alternative but to disperse, acknowledging that the conference was premature.” Bonn’s Walter Scheel said that “if the gap between our views on the reality is still too wide, then it would be a dictate of honesty to say so unambiguously. It would not be a catastrophe for Europe or the end of the process of detente: it would simply mean that conditions are not yet mature enough to allow us to attain the goal we have set ourselves.”


Helsinki’s new Finlandia Concert Hall provided an austere yet thoroughly appropriate and efficient setting for what was a conference of all work and no play for five days. Secretary of State William P. Rogers and the United States delegation played a determinedly low-key role in the proceedings—a little too lowkey to suit some of the Western European delegations. Rogers’ reasoning is that first of all this is primarily a European affair, and secondly, since the conference operates on the principle of unanimity, there will always be somebody else who can throw a roadblock into the operation to ensure the desired results. He did not, therefore, speak out as forcefully as either Scheel or Douglas-Home on the question of human rights, nor did he add his voice to their warnings that the conference could, in fact, fail. But an experienced Swiss diplomat who is taking a very active part in the negotiations said:

Look, we understand why the United States doesn’t want to be seen throwing its weight around. But there are times when it would help if you would speak up. If you leave it to the rest of us to carry the ball against the Russians on issues like human contacts, and do not make the American position felt in a firm, clear way, then the Russians get the idea that you are indifferent or not clear yourselves and it makes our task all the more difficult. Moreover, others begin to think the same, and wonder if you haven’t got some secret understandings with Moscow which we don’t know about.

Perhaps the U.S. delegation will show a little more toughness in Geneva, where three committees are now at work sifting and consolidating a mass of draft proposals from the thirty-five participants into what will be a final act of the conference. The work will probably take from six to nine months, and if the negotiations succeed, then a grand finale will follow in Helsinki around the middle of next year.

One committee is at work on political and security questions, and will produce the legitimizing declaration in which all European states will announce their respect for existing sovereignty and frontiers, renounce the use of force, and pledge nonintervention in internal affairs and peaceful settlement of European disputes. A second committee is negotiating on economic, commercial. and scientific cooperation.

Finally, the vital Committee III is charged with drafting an agreement on European cooperation in humanitarian and cultural fields; the really hard negotiating will take place here. The Communist powers want to limit this cooperation to their usual controlled group exchanges and government-policed friendship. But the Western powers are asking that the agreement include such basic guarantees as free distribution of newspapers and magazines; an end to radio jamming; permission for journalists to move and report freely and without censorship and for individuals to travel; more youth meetings, sports events, and television programs; and the freedom for people of different nationality to marry and the right of families to be united.

There are many who will feel that the granting of such simple human rights is not nearly enough for the West to obtain in return for recognition of the legitimacy of Communist control over Eastern Europe. Nor can it really be pretended that getting these things on paper and agreed to by the Communists will do very much to change the face or methods of Communism. But at least an agreement which included pledges of this kind would introduce a new element into Communist behavior and give some generally accepted rules and standards to which the rest of Europe could hold the Communist regimes accountable. Five years ago the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia allowed its citizens considerable freedom to travel to the West, and Western publications were on sale freely in Prague. Today, although Prague is again one of those silent cities, in Communist Yugoslavia there is comparatively free movement of people, periodicals, and journalists without apparent effect upon either the stability or the Marxist fervor of the regime. The Western powers do not feel that they are asking for something incompatible with Communist political and social systems.

The arguments in Geneva are going to be long, tiresome, and arduous, and there will certainly come a “crisis point” in which the warnings by Sir Alec Douglas-Home and Walter Scheel will be put to the test. Healthy skepticism is going to be essential to success. Talleyrand’s first rule of diplomacy was; “Above all, no zeal.”