November 16, 2017

The Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE): The Missing “Human Dimension” of the 1975 Final Act

The CSCE Final Act was primarily the achievement of diplomats, not politicians

In late July 1975, Helsinki was inundated with hundreds of foreign dignitaries: presidents, prime ministers, princes and numerous secretaries general, accompanied by their respective entourages. They had arrived to sign the Helsinki Final Act of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE) in Alvar Aalto’s newly completed Finlandia Hall.
It might be assumed that well-known figures such as Leonid Brezhnev, Gerald Ford, Urho Kekkonen, Josip Broz Tito, Helmut Schmidt and Harold Wilson were directly responsible for the creation of the text they were there to validate. Of course, they weren’t.
Instead, the text of the Final Act had been painstakingly constructed during three years of gruelling negotiations by the 35 participating countries’ diplomatic teams. Yet much of the scholarly work on the CSCE continues to focus on top-level policymakers rather than the negotiators. Consequently, the 600 or so diplomats who negotiated and drafted the Final Act remain largely nameless and faceless.
The question of who they were and what they contributed is the subject of an ongoing research project by me and my colleague Dr Angela Romano. We are convinced that overlooking negotiators has led to a significant “missing human dimension” in current study of the CSCE. We are interested in the extent to which diplomats can be shown to have been creative deal-makers, as opposed to mere executors of their political masters’ instructions.
We hypothesise that these diplomats’ interactions and the networks they formed were crucial in effecting the talks’ successful outcome. At this preliminary stage, and for a range of practical, linguistic and scientific reasons, we chose the French and British diplomatic teams as our pilot case studies. Our methodology is based on prosopography, i.e. collective biography, and the approaches encouraged by the New Diplomatic History Network, of which we are both members.
Nor is this simply a subject of abstract academic interest. The successful management of long-term multilateral negotiations, especially those concerned with the construction of mutually agreed security architectures, remains painfully apposite.
Before we turn to the role of the diplomats involved in the negotiations, what was the Final Act of the CSCE, and how did it come about?
It took two decades for the concept of a European security conference to gain traction. In the absence of a peace treaty following the Second World War, the USSR had repeatedly requested that some form of conference be convened. Yet it was only with the emergence of détente in the late 1960s that a pan-European gathering was considered viable.
The Warsaw Pact proposed such a conference on 17 March 1969. NATO accepted the idea on 5 December 1969, but set some preliminary preconditions: a successful conclusion of the Ostpolitik treaties (West Germany–Soviet Union, West Germany–Poland, and between the two Germanys), a quadripartite agreement on the status of Berlin, and the start of negotiations on conventional force reductions in Europe (MBFR).
Thirty-three states from Europe, plus Canada and the United States, participated in the subsequent negotiations. The superpowers were pre-eminent players but did not dominate proceedings or automatically get what they wanted. The nine members of the European Economic Community [as it was at the time—Ed.] exercised a crucial role, as did the informal group of neutral and non-aligned countries such as Austria, Switzerland and Yugoslavia.
As mentioned, the Final Act was signed in Helsinki, at a summit convened from 30 July to 1 August 1975. From 22 November 1972 to 8 June 1973, delegations had met to set the rules and agenda for the CSCE. The first phase took place in Helsinki from 3–7 July 1973, at ministerial level. Then, on 18 September 1973, more than 600 delegates and experts descended on Geneva for the second substantive phase of talks, which comprised a grand total of 2,341 meetings.
These dates and figures reveal just how time-consuming and complex the talks were. The sheer number of meetings, and the complexity of discussions, meant that politicians struggled to keep up with developments. For example, in June 1974, British Prime Minister Harold Wilson wrote to an aide: “‘Could you please let me know what [is] the present state of play on the Geneva Conference on European Security. The Economist this week suggests that there is no progress at all. I would be grateful if you could get a full note from the Foreign Office for me to study.”
As a result, the management of negotiations was largely left to the discretion of the diplomats on the ground. Counter-intuitively, this lack of close political engagement—which of course varied greatly from state to state—may well have been one of the factors behind the talks’ ultimate success. Put bluntly, the absence of regular political interference allowed the professionals to get on with the business at hand.
This point is reinforced in the memoirs of a British participant, Michael Alexander, who repeatedly stressed the independence of decision-making that he enjoyed during discussions: “I am surprised at the degree of discretion for the team in Geneva … I seem to have carried forward discussion of a substantial initiative, and detailed international discussion of associated texts, for at least a week before even informing the Foreign & Commonwealth Office [in London—Ed.].”
So what, exactly, did they agree upon? The Helsinki Final Act is a non-legally binding international agreement that comprises three main sets (“baskets”) of recommendations. The first “basket” was the Declaration of Principles Guiding Relations between Participating States (known as the “Helsinki Decalogue”), including the all-important Principle VII on human rights and fundamental freedoms; a section on confidence-building measures; the monitoring of military manoeuvres; and other aspects of security. The second basket comprised economic, scientific, technological and environmental cooperation. Finally, the third basket, later referred to as the “Human Rights basket”, consisted of cooperation in humanitarian and other fields, e.g. freer movement of people and cultural and educational exchanges. By agreement, the Final Act was translated and published domestically by all participants.
While we know what the CSCE was, the question of who exactly was responsible for bringing it to fruition is far more difficult to answer. Much has been published about the CSCE, but no one has so far produced a complete list of all the diplomatic participants. Nor is the documentary record of immediate utility, given that 35 archives would have to be consulted to find the answer—a logistical and linguistic challenge of the first order.
Fortunately, some participants have produced memoirs, including Ljubivoje Aćimović (Yugoslavia), Jacques Andréani (France), Luigi Vittorio Ferraris (Italy), John J. Maresca (US), Hans-Jörg Renk (Switzerland), Charles G. Stefan (US), Berndt von Staden (West Germany) and Markku Reimaa (Finland). Others have been interviewed by us, or by other institutions. This is, however, still only a tiny proportion of the total attendees. Equally fortuitously, the OSCE Documentation Centre in Prague has a full register of all 600 or so delegates, at all stages.
So what have we found? According to Andréani’s recollections, the length of the CSCE negotiations and the frequency of the meetings created “a peculiar tribe, living in such a proximity that bordered [on] promiscuity”. A genuine esprit de corps emerged amongst delegates. Remarkably, the friendliness between Western and neutral diplomats also extended to some of the representatives of socialist countries, although it goes without saying that the latter operated under much tighter controls. For example, we know the Czechoslovak delegations were closely monitored by the Státní bezpečnost (StB) (State Security).
British diplomats Roger Beetham and Brian Fall recalled how the delegations regularly met for lunches and drinks between sessions, often including the American and Soviet ambassadors, George Vest and Lev Mendelevich. Fall often had after-work drinks with Vest to ask his advice, enjoyed an occasional brandy with Prince Henri of Liechtenstein, and attended a variety of intra-bloc dinner parties. Again, such social gatherings rarely make it into the official record, yet they constituted a vital informal contribution to the formation of viable networks and to brokering deals.
Linguistic abilities played a role, too. The British delegation contained a preponderance of Russian speakers, which avoided reliance on translators. Yuri Dubinin, the Deputy Head of the Soviet delegation, and his French counterpart, Jacques Chazelle, formed a successful working relationship based on a shared love of French literature and language (Dubinin spoke “beautiful French” and knew French politics and French literature; he had started his career in Paris and spent several years there)—a connection that helped them to resolve seemingly intractable issues.
Overall, our study indicates that UK diplomats at the CSCE possessed significant leeway in their ability to conduct negotiations. In addition, the diplomatic team was relatively young and more junior than some of its counterparts, and socially active outside the formal negotiations. The French study confirms that diplomats’ continual efforts to facilitate understanding helped to bring the CSCE to a successful outcome and contributed to the specific content of the Final Act.
Admittedly, ours is, so far, a limited study. But it does indicate that the prosopographical method helps uncover areas of convergence and understanding. In other words, research concerned with exploring relations among diplomats allows us to bring to the fore and assess the “human and socialisation factors” in complex negotiations. More research is required before any definitive statements can be made about diplomats as “creative deal-makers”. But evidence already points to the likelihood that this was a significant factor in the outcome of the CSCE talks.
Last, we would argue that our study has something useful to say about the role of professionals in international relations. We increasingly live in an era in which the utility of expertise is frequently denounced and discredited. The media tend to focus on photo ops and the eye-catching declarations of world leaders—what we would call the “Kissingerisation” of the discourse. But it’s no bad thing to be reminded occasionally that the professionals working quietly in the background have a vital role to play too.

Further reading:

Martin D. Brown, “A very British vision of Détente: The United Kingdom’s foreign policy during the Helsinki process, 1969–1975”, in F. Bozo, M.P. Rey, B. Rother and N. Piers Ludlow (eds), Overcoming the Iron Curtain: Visions of the End of the Cold War in Europe, 1945–1990, London: Berghahn Books, 2012, pp. 139–56
Angela Romano, From Détente in Europe to European Détente: How the West Shaped the Helsinki CSCE, Brussels: Peter Lang, 2009.
M.D. Brown & A. Romano, “Executors or Creative Deal-Makers? The Role of the Diplomats in the Making of the Helsinki CSCE”, in Sarah B. Snyder & Nicolas Badalassi (eds), The CSCE, 1975–1990: International Reordering and Societal Change. (Forthcoming, 2018)


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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