Examining the evolution of the face and methods of Soviet foreign policy sheds necessary light on the dazzling array of summits, conferences, declarations and international agreements marking the Helsinki process.
Frequently aggressive tactics pursued by the Soviet government can be traced back to the inception of the country itself, with Western nations unsure throughout the 1920s as to whether they should even so much as extend diplomatic recognition and relations to the Bolsheviks. The resulting complexes of this newcomer to geopolitics could not avoid shaping and fundamentally redefining the foreign policy of a country whose break with tradition could not have been more pronounced. According to John Van Oudenaren in Detente in Europe: The Soviet Union & The West Since 1953, the Soviet Union was taken seriously for the first time internationally once it had repelled the German invasion in World War Two. No wonder, then, that consecutive Soviet leaders struggled continuously for the recognition of their young country not only as a military power, but also as a political player by reaching out to the Western world in order to overcome prejudices towards a nation that was quite commonly regarded as the pariah of democracy, with its roots stained by royal blood and its domestic affairs conducted with a notorious iron fist steeped in repression. Once it was free to reinvent its diplomacy based on the social experiment of a communist society, the Soviet Union employed unusual diplomatic techniques in order to make its voice heard. Its widespread abuse of diplomatic notes and of excessive official protests, as well as its unorthodox use of diplomatic channels was met with suspicion in the West, especially in light of the observation that the Soviet Union frequently nominated as its representatives in foreign countries people without conventional government functions, such as party secretaries. Widespread abuse of diplomatic posts and immunities for espionage and other subversive activities in their host countries also did not exactly improve Soviet relations with the Western world.
And yet the Soviet Union must be credited with having contributed what is perhaps the most important invention in the recent history of world politics: talking to one another. While international relations had been defined previously by common usages and formal treaties, the Soviet Union sidestepped its irreconcilable differences with the West in both areas by insisting not on treaties, which, as the unresolved question of the German peace treaty showed, had become almost impossible to achieve through channels of traditional diplomacy, but by its emphasis on simply bringing the parties together at one table to, well, talk. This enduring Soviet insistence on the psychologically important tool of face-to-face dialog practiced both on the level of national leaders (see Khrushchev and Kennedy, or Brandt and Brezhnev), and on the ministerial level of the Helsinki process did, in time, bring about a miracle that transformed East-West relations. Although the West still viewed Soviet attempts at summits, conferences and empty agreements to agree and consult as futile, bringing all relevant parties together simply to talk to each other on a regular basis proved with time to be a remarkably efficient tool for the accomplishment of actual agreements even on matters that for various reasons were frozen in a chronic impasse since decades, such as the German question.
Of course, forging any agreement required compromise. But as each side became engaged in persistent negotiations and saw a possibility to achieve goals that it held most dear, such as a conference on security and disarmament for the Soviets or human rights issues for the West, their secondary goals could be compromised and eventually abandoned more easily: the quest for recognition of the GDR for the Soviets, or the demand for actual enforcement of monitored human rights violations in Eastern Europe for the West. Obviously, there was a fair extent of tug-of-war going on in the process as each side viewed its position from time to time as having been strengthened enough to try to extract more compromises from an opponent viewed as weakened at least temporarily.
The personal side of international politics of that era cannot be underestimated. While under Kennedy substantial rapprochement could be achieved through close contact between U.S. and Soviet leaders, the Johnson administration’s outright failure to establish any significant personal contacts with the Soviet leadership resulted in an unfortunate delay in resolving important East-West issues. It was not until the Nixon-Brezhnev cooperation that a genuine revival was brought about again. Most breakthroughs in the German question were accomplished due to the close cooperation between Chancellor Brandt and Brezhnev. An opening between France and the Soviet Union could materialize thanks to de Gaulle’s personal efforts. Also, breakthrough royal visits from smaller Western democracies opened a forum for relations between those countries and the Soviet Union and contributed to a head start for the Helsinki process.
Interestingly enough, although the Helsinki process involved North American countries such as the United States and Canada, the principal matter under consideration was always the issue of European security and of sorting out of the political differences and ambitions within Europe. This approach included economics supplemented for good measure with cooperation in the areas of culture and science. Efforts by a few somewhat emancipated Eastern Bloc countries to engage individual Western nations in cooperation through bilateral agreements and contacts threatened at some point to drive a wedge into the NATO alliance: a partial diplomatic isolation of the U.S. could have resulted in its marginalization in the Helsinki process. With European countries both on the Eastern and Western side eventually eager to reach agreements that were to improve pan-European relations, hypothetical opposition of the U.S. could not have had much of an impact on the Helsinki process as it was already well on its way. The principal U.S. trump cards had remained two-pronged: economic support on the one hand and protection from the Soviet threat on the other. Both items were rendered largely obsolete in the late 1960’s for different reasons.
Paradoxically, though, it was the Soviet Union that provided the most significant support for the eventual implementation of de Gaulle’s vision of a “European Europe,” even if Moscow lost its hold on Eastern Europe in the process. Since the main objective pursued by the Soviets in starting the Helsinki process was to obtain significant concessions in the area of disarmament (an understandable priority since the escalating arms race had become foreseeably unsustainable for the overextended and notoriously underperforming Soviet economy), even the nominal compromise on including certain human rights clauses in the Final Act for the CSCE proved to lead straight to the eventual undoing of the Eastern Bloc. For the sake of achieving economic and political cooperation along with some disarmament measures, the Soviet Union lost not only the Eastern Bloc in the unstoppable whirlwind of history as a new “purely defensive” arms race along the lines of Star Wars bankrupted its military and hence its national budget, but it also lost the Warsaw Pact while NATO remained entirely intact. It is quite ironic but also equally logical that the inclusion of human rights provisions in the Helsinki process and documents, which the Soviet Union had hoped all along would remain nominal and symbolic, eventually brought about the collapse of a system based on routine violations of those publicly acknowledged rights.