When President Trump and President Putin meet on Monday for their summit, it is unlikely that human rights will be a subject of discussion. President Trump has made it no secret that he is untroubled by Vladimir Putin’s abysmal record on human rights, and has even suggested that there is moral equivalence between the United States and Russia. Human rights played a much more important role during another meeting in Helsinki, held during the summer of 1975. That meeting, which produced the Helsinki Accords, a document agreed to by the United States, the Soviet Union, and nearly all of Europe, proved to be one of the most consequential moments of the Cold War. Although President Gerald Ford was criticized in the United States for betraying Eastern Europe and legitimizing Soviet oppression, a plank in the Helsinki Accords that called on all signatories to respect human rights planted seeds from which dissident movements would grow and eventually bring down the Iron Curtain. It is worth revisiting the pivotal events of 1975 in light of the summit in Helsinki next Monday.
The origins of the Helsinki Accords can be found in the end of World War II, when the Soviets sought American recognition of their postwar borders. At Potsdam in 1945, Joseph Stalin tried unsuccessfully to win Western recognition of the Soviet Union’s borders, and in the 1950s, Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov tried and failed to arrange a conference, between Washington and Moscow, that would settle the issue.
By the 1970s, the atmosphere of détente made such an accord possible. For Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, the possibility of an agreement on postwar boundaries where even Stalin had failed represented the fruits of “30 years of colossal effort” and promised to be the crowning achievement of his tenure as leader of the Soviet Union. Such an agreement appealed to Brezhnev also because it held the possibility of preventing another Prague Spring from occurring on his watch. He thought that dissidents inside the Iron Curtain would be less likely to cause trouble if they knew that even the United States accepted the postwar division of Europe. With that in mind, he refrained from strenuously objecting when the Western powers (primarily France, but with the support of the United States) demanded that the Helsinki Accords include a plank affirming the importance of human rights. After all, Brezhnev figured, tough language on human rights was only language, and Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko assured Brezhnev that “we are masters in our own house” and that the Soviets could still define human rights however they liked.
In the United States, President Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger were denounced by their critics for selling out Eastern Europe to the Soviets. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn called Helsinki a “betrayal,” and Ford found himself defending the accords from attacks by both Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter. In the run-up to the 1976 presidential election, the issue of Helsinki dealt a severe blow to Ford’s campaign when Ford, answering a question about Helsinki from journalist Max Frankel, declared that “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration.” Although Ford later said he was saluting the indomitable spirit of the people of Eastern Europe, the damage was done, and Jimmy Carter was elected president in November of that year.
To Ford’s critics, he appeared to have sold out Eastern Europe, but the human-rights language in the Helsinki Accords went on to have a monumental impact behind the Iron Curtain. Brezhnev ordered the full text of the Accords published in Pravda, hoping to advertise his victory on the border issue. Instead, the publication of the document sent to dissidents throughout the Soviet Union and the entire Eastern Bloc an unmistakable signal that they could demand that their governments live up to the words in the Helsinki Accords. Almost immediately numerous groups organized for that purpose sprang up behind the Iron Curtain. Soviet dissidents Yuri Orlov and Natan Sharansky founded the Moscow Helsinki Group, while Václav Havel joined other Czech dissidents in forming the human rights-group Charter 77. Human-rights activists in the United States formed Helsinki Watch, which later evolved into Human Rights Watch.
The Helsinki Accords cannot be taken as boilerplate for the summit with Vladimir Putin on Monday. Nonetheless, they demonstrate that concern for human rights can and should be a serious component of diplomacy.
The reaction of the leaders of the Soviet Union and their satellite countries was deeply hostile, and the founders of the Moscow Helsinki Group found themselves quickly arrested, but the language of the Helsinki Accords had already been published and the spark of dissidence had already been lit. In 1979, Ronald Reagan paid tribute to the human-rights activists behind the Iron Curtain, whose struggle offered “hope for all mankind.” Reagan was a critic of détente, but it was the Helsinki Accords that fueled the activists and dissidents in their struggles against tyranny. And even while the Soviet Union was waging a campaign of repression against the founders of the Moscow Helsinki Group, younger Communist functionaries such as Alexander Yakovlev, the “godfather of glasnost” who later became an adviser to Mikhail Gorbachev, took an interest in the dissident literature that circulated underground in the Soviet Union. In the years before he rose to become the the Soviet leader, Gorbachev himself “had qualms of conscience” regarding the crackdown on human-rights activists. He maintained a close friendship with the Czech dissident and Charter 77 cofounder Zdeněk Mlynář, whom he had first met as a law student in Moscow.
It would be an exaggeration to give all the credit for the Iron Curtain’s fall to the Helsinki Accords and the dissidents it inspired, but the work of Helsinki-era dissidents undermined Communist rule to a great extent. The eminent Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis concluded that Helsinki was a “legal and moral trap” that “became the basis for legitimizing opposition to Soviet rule.” Of course, the Helsinki Accords cannot be taken as boilerplate for the summit with Vladimir Putin on Monday. Nonetheless, they demonstrate that concern for human rights can and should be a serious component of diplomacy. President Trump would discount such concern at his own peril, and to the despair of Putin’s victims in present-day Russia.