Observations of an expat: Revive Détente

Remember Détente? If you do you are definitely getting on in years. It was one of the diplomatic buzzwords of the 1970s and played a major role in reducing East-West tensions and, many say, helped bring about the end of the Cold War.

Well, if the world manages to avoid a war in Ukraine, it might be time to think about a revived Détente because the Russian problem did not end with the Cold War.

Détente was a Cold War process which found its diplomatic expression in the Helsinki Accords. This semi-legal agreement was signed in the Finnish capital in July 1975 by 33 European heads of government and the American president and Canadian prime minister.

I say semi-legal because it was not a formal treaty. That would have required parliamentary approval of all the signatory countries and there were many in America – and other NATO countries – who were unhappy with the accords. But despite the absence of a formal binding law, Helsinki carried significant moral diplomatic weight.

The main cause of American unhappiness was a clause which bound the participating countries to respect the existing borders and territorial integrity of all the countries in Europe. This was seen as a massive diplomatic coup for the Soviet Union because the West was saying that it would not attempt to push the Soviets out of the Baltic States, Georgia, Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus and Ukraine.

In short, the Helsinki Accords, appeared to accept de facto Soviet control of Eastern Europe. In return, the Soviets would stop threatening Western Europe and start talking with the US about limiting nuclear weapons.

There was a drawback for the Soviets. They had to accept that human rights in the Eastern Bloc was a legitimate concern of the West. The result was the creation of organisations such as Helsinki Watch (now Human Rights Watch) who worked with Western governments to maintain a constant pressure on Moscow for human rights breaches. Their persistent badgering was another reason for the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.

The Helsinki Accords did not say that borders could never change. At the insistence of the Irish and a few others, a clause was inserted to allow borders to change “peacefully” along the lines of the self-determination of the inhabitants. So when the Soviet Union collapsed, the various nations were allowed to set up their own governments without breaching the accords, which, did not have the force of law anyway.

The ghosts of Helsinki and Detente are still with us in the form of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). It is a fairly toothless organisation with 3,406 Vienna-based employees. It could do much more.

The political conditions that gave rise to the Détente process and the Helsinki Accords have in one sense been totally transformed and in the other remained the same.  The Soviet Union no longer exists as a socialist alternative to the capitalist West. Most of the countries they controlled are now members of NATO and the EU or wannabe members of the Western Alliance. Instead of trying to protect itself with troops in Poland, Russia is now trying to protect itself from troops in Poland.

However, the geopolitical paranoia that drove the policies of Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev continues in the person of Vladimir Putin and would probably dominate Russian foreign policy whomever sat on the Kremlin throne. This means that Russia will always feel threatened and threaten Western Europe, and in particular those states that have acted as a traditional buffer between the two halves of the continent.

For Washington, Russia ceased to be a major concern with the end of the Cold War. It shifted its focus to the rising threat of China. The fact that Moscow still controlled the world’s largest nuclear arsenal was an inconvenience but little more. Besides, it was time for the European members of the Western Alliance, to assume responsibility for their own security and defence.

So Russia was defeated. Its buffer disappeared and it was being side lined at best and ignored at worse by its former chief opponent. Like so many playground bullies it started threatening others in order to achieve the attention it felt it deserved and used its paranoia to justify its actions.

Moscow needs reassurance that post-Cold War Europe is not an anti-Russian construct. In order to stop threatening it needs to not feel threatened.

Perhaps more than ever, Europe needs a new Détente process and a new Helsinki Agreement to reduce tensions and reassure the Russians that their former satellites are not out for revenge or that the US and Western Europe have unfinished business with Moscow.

* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and the author of “The Encyclopedia of the Cold War” and the recently published “America Made in Britain” that has sold out in the US after six weeks but is still available in the UK.

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  • @Tom good contribution to the debate.

    I’m a bit puzzled why you post your twitter handle at the top of your article as you don’t appear to have tweeted since 2018.

  • It’s a starting point, but it’s assuming we are dealing with a rational State. So far their actions have been highly provocative. Are these the signals of a frightened state or bond super villian.

  • Brad Barrows 5th Feb '22 - 6:11pm

    From the Russian perspective, Western actions are always riddled with double standards. So, for example, NATO using force to enable Kosovo to become independent from Serbia (without a referendum) is somehow acceptable, but Russia using force to enable the people of Crimea to vote in a referendum to leave Ukraine to return to Russia is unacceptable. ‘International borders can not be changed by force unless it is NATO using the force’, appears, to the Russians, to be the Western interpretation of the Helsinki Agreement.

  • Brad Barrows – Well said. One might also add the context that the West has repeated broken security guarantees given to Russia, so they have reason to be alarmed.

    From the final paragraph of the article: “Europe needs a new Détente process and a new Helsinki Agreement…”

    And that is exactly what Russia is asking for – and has tabled drafts of – as a basis for discussion, background that is has been curiously missing from both UK media and this series of articles.

    For comparison, consider the intense US response in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Yet Washington is an ocean and over 1,100 miles from Cuba. In contrast Moscow is only ~250 miles of flat country from Russia’s western border. Goose and gander come to mind.

    Perhaps someone in the ‘war party’ could spell out precisely what benefits they see in poking the Bear in the eye bearing in mind that if it went nuclear everyone would lose. If it didn’t, most military analysts seem agreed that Russia would win handsomely. Note that the US has no serious intention of taking on Russia, a task that would require hundreds of thousands of troops so the much-ballyhooed posting of a few planes and small groups of NATO forces to eastern Europe are mere tokenism – a bone thrown to the media.

  • Barry Lofty 6th Feb '22 - 4:31pm

    If conflict happens in Ukraine it will not be the likes of Putin or other leaders involved who will suffer, it will be the ordinary men, women and children who will take the brunt as usual, personally I am sick to death of so many arrogant self serving maniacs who we seem to have at the helm in countries around the world at the moment, we have a right to be concerned even if it is only sabre rattling so far??

  • The main thrust of this article seems to be that it’s all Russia’s fault..Even the “Like so many playground bullies it started threatening others in order to achieve the attention it felt it deserved and used its paranoia to justify its actions.” ignores the actions of the west (especially the USA) on the world stage..
    What would be ‘our’ reaction if Russia had decided to invade Iraq, remove Gaddafi, etc. It was US paranoia that took us to the brink of nuclear war in 1962..Even the presence of a Marxist government in a small commonwealth Carribean island prompted a US invasion which the Reagan administration cited as “as the first successful rollback of communist influence since the beginning of the Cold War.”…And you dismiss Russian fears of nuclear weapons in a Nato (US) Ukraine as paranoid?

    Further to Russian fears over Ukraine a quick read of the transcript of the Nuland-Pyatt telephone call shows the long term US plan for the region..

    As Brad Barrows and Gordon point out, western invasions rergard interventions/invasions as ‘good’ (no matter the outcome) but ‘the other sides’ are ‘bad’..

    This party, to it’s credit, opposed invasions but then lost it’s way..We should try and understand how ‘our’ (the west’s) actions are seen in the Kremlin before calling ‘paranoia’…

  • Peter Hirst 8th Feb '22 - 3:37pm

    Russia’s eastern flank is in fact more at threat than its western with China wanting to increase its land mass. There is also I suspect a sense of lost territory with the fall of the Soviet Union. Also Putin has an eye on public opinion domestically. All these things make it very challenging to know what will happen next.

  • There is no such thing as a dictator’s right to rule his country.

    One can only hope that the result of the current high stakes games being played is to move Russia onto the same path as other far more successful post-communist countries have followed.

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