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Inspirations and lessons for an oppressed world

The Final Act: The Helsinki Accords and the Transformation of the Cold War. By: Michael Cotey Morgan. Publisher: Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2018.

Many lessons and inspirations for our troubled times can be drawn from the Cold War. For example, we learnt that fascism has many outfits. Communism showed that even the humanist, enlightened pursuit of utopia leads to totalitarianism, as long as it is based on a philosophy that counters rather than values political, social and basic human diversity. Similarly, we saw that we should take ideology seriously. This lesson is particularly important for us today, in the world of Vladimir Putin, Viktor Orbán, Bashar al-Assad, Xi Jingping, Donald Trump, and Nicolás Maduro.

March 4, 2019 - Jordan Luber - Books and ReviewsIssue 2 2019Magazine

Another fortunate product of the Cold War was that by 1989 there was a new language, a new concept for free societies – namely, human rights. It was a new philosophical, moral and binding legal principle (though no one has enforced, thus it making it useless and a cruel joke for victims around the world). And while the concept of human rights has dramatically changed the thinking, language and realities of both free countries and the entire world, it has yet to become the basis of a global rejuvenation.

Difficulties of post-war imperialism

The sudden legitimacy of human rights is typically traced back to the Helsinki Accords, and with good reason. In his new book, The Final Act, Michael Cotey Morgan does several things: he explores the reasons both sides of the Iron Curtain agreed and committed to the conference; he traces the dramatic debates, which spanned two years; he explains the final agreement and what it meant for each side; and he shows the impact of the accords, how the Cold War was transformed by the Final Act, especially because of the parts regarding human rights. The book has some flaws, but overall provides a detailed look into the road to and results of the agreements, and a strong argument for the advancement of human rights.

The Helsinki Congress consisted of an initial series of meetings in Helsinki in 1972, two years of constant negotiations in Switzerland and then a signing by heads of state in Helsinki in 1975. It gave power to ideas which eventually led to revolutions. But first the congress was a decades-old Soviet proposal. After the Second World War, the Soviet Union knew that its European empire was gradually becoming vulnerable to creeping ideas. The violently-crushed revolutions in 1953, 1956 and 1968 all showed the difficulties of post-war imperialism. Throughout the 1950s and 60s the Soviets sought a European security conference to establish western recognition of their control of Eastern and Central Europe. They wanted to freeze Europe.

The West wanted to change it. Wisely, the West refused the proposal. As Elie Wiesel, the Dalai Lama, and Václav Havel have taught us, free countries should not gift legitimacy to dictatorships – it empowers tyrants and condemns citizens. But by the late 1960s and early 70s, irreversible trends had produced domestic social pressures, even crises, in both the free world and the Soviet empire that brought both to the table.

Explaining the political, economic and social trends of both blocs which produced this new impetus to meet, is one of the bright spots of Morgan’s book. Post-war economic growth and social stability ended in the West by the late 1960s, and politics had shifted from a firm commitment to opposing communism to criticism and calls for appeasement; given the tyrannical and imperial nature of Soviet communism, this is what compromise and diplomacy would have been. At the same time, the Soviet Union was exponentially vulnerable to the widening gap of success between the East and West and it had to entrench itself against pressure from the West and its own citizens.

After wrangling, the conference took shape. Both sides had goals, but each knew they would have to respond quickly and think fast in order to get what they wanted. Early on, the negotiations fell into three categories. Called “baskets” (due to a sexist metaphor used by a Soviet diplomat) these are the three elements of the Helsinki Accords: diplomatic recognition of borders, economic openings, and a commitment to human rights. Morgan details the negotiations for each of these groups. In the end, the West won in all three.

Regarding recognition, the Soviets got what they wanted as well. The West recognised the de facto borders of Europe. But here Morgan makes a strong new argument – namely, that the Soviets actually lost here. While their empire was formalised and protected, the agreement also stated that borders could change by the choice of the people. This was earth-shattering and damning for the Soviets. It meant that popular sovereignty could change borders and citizens could actually overrule states and empires. 

Focused, creative and united

Why the Soviets agreed to this exemplifies the course of the entire negotiations. Leonid Brezhnev needed an agreement with the West so he rushed his diplomats (the conference was conducted, on both sides, largely by diplomats, even low-level ones). The Soviet Union believed a quicker agreement with compromises was better than one taking longer in order to get something more favourable. Additionally, the West stayed focused, creative and united. The West worked by consensus, not American domination, and remained committed to a larger values-based victory for Europe’s people. Through it all, the West believed ideas would empower Europeans to make their future better and understood that if they stayed firm and together, the Soviet negotiators could not refuse them.

So it went for all three topics of negotiation. The Soviets needed money, investment and technology, so they surrendered their closed economy and pledged economic and social exchanges. The Soviets thought they could highlight their utopian vision against the alleged oppression of the bourgeois West, and in this way agreed to recognise human rights. Seeing that communist totalitarianism was unnatural for modern human society, the West was able to insert time bombs which the Soviet Union, in its rush and hubris, thought it could survive. After years of back and forth, and plenty of crises along the way, the agreement was signed. From here there were follow up congresses and numerous new international organisations to implement the exchanges and monitor human rights.

Morgan concludes the book tracing the years from Helsinki to revolution in 1989. Here are some of the book’s greatest drawbacks. He treats Mikhail Gorbachev as a democrat who refused to use violence and willingly ended the Soviet dictatorship. This is not true. Gorbachev continued Brezhnev’s war and genocide in Afghanistan, slaughtered Lithuanians and Azerbaijanis and maintained a horrid police state. Gorbachev still believed in the communist dictatorship. The Cold War and communism ended because he sometimes had some reservations about violence and because he loosened the system a little bit which, against his wishes, communist totalitarianism could not survive.

Role of dissidents

Morgan narrates as if Gorbachev freed the Eastern bloc. Eastern European citizens are treated as sideshows and products of Gorbachev’s activities. This is untrue. Communism would have fallen and Eastern Europe would have become free without him (if a bit later and through a tougher road). The single greatest force for the fall of communism was the people who fought against it, not its neo-Leninist leader.

Oddly, the author misses a chance to go deeper, and demonstrate his own point about the Final Act, as his story ends here. Dissidents and artists, empowered and heartened by the communist regimes legally pledging to uphold human rights, became bolder in their attacks against the inhumane system. Similarly, the masses increasingly abandoned their positive view of communism and their negative view of liberal democracy which indoctrination had constructed. Armed with the communists’ own legal framework, the dissidents spoke out; awakened from ideology, the masses listened to these calls for change. Against such movements, the regimes could not hold out.

Nevertheless, the book does reveal much about a game-changer in history. The research is exhaustive and fascinating. The book has some disappointments, but at the very least it can remind us of the truth, and Morgan deserves praise for proving that ideas matter. The Final Act shows us that there is a distinct difference between collaboration and resistance, that it is important to actually undermine and combat cruel systems by highlighting their tyranny and helping to empower citizens to stand up for human rights. These lessons should be considered and held dear as we move forward in a new dark era.

Jordan Luber is finishing his studies as an Erasmus Mundus scholar in the European Politics and Society: Václav Havel Joint Master Programme at Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland. He is also an editorial intern at New Eastern Europe.

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