(W)Archives: How Realist was Kissinger?

October 10, 2014

Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has often been described as an amoral practitioner of hard-headed realpolitik. But how does Kissinger stack up against political leaders in Moscow over the years? This is, of course, a complicated question, but one can find some interesting evidence in the history of the Conference (now Organization) for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

From 1973 to 1975 the United States, Canada, and European states from both sides of the Iron Curtain met in Helsinki for a series of negotiations known as the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe or the CSCE. The Helsinki Final Act (also known as the Helsinki Accords) contributed significantly to the end of the Cold War and continues to be an important part of the European security architecture (such as it is) today.

Back in the day, neither superpower was particularly interested in the CSCE negotiations. In fact, Secretary of State Kissinger was dismissive of them, telling Gerald Ford when the latter became President in August 1974 that “we never wanted it but we went along with the Europeans.… It is meaningless—it is just a grandstand play to the left.” However, to the extent that the superpowers cared, they had different interests at stake. Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and his government wanted to codify the European borders as they stood. They had many reasons for wanting this. At the end of World War II, the USSR had moved Poland substantially westward, allowing it to annex part of what had been Germany and, in turn, taking from it a good chunk of eastern Poland. The USSR had also taken a slice of Romania and had annexed the Baltic States in their entirety. Of course, the United States had no intention of launching a war that would change any borders and neither did any of its allies. Furthermore, the United States and the UK had many years before realized that support of armed insurrections in places like Ukraine, the Baltic States, Poland, and Albania was a feckless and cruel endeavor. On the other hand, the western powers were concerned about the human rights situation in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. For its part, the USSR did not much care what human rights assurances it gave because it believed it would never be held accountable for those commitments.

This was fertile ground for a feel-good agreement but there was one minor hiccup: the Baltic States. This issue came to the attention of President Ford in March 1975 as the CSCE negotiations were reaching their conclusion. Documents from the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library show that Ford was worried that the United States was selling out the Baltic peoples. After all, the United States had never recognized the annexation of the Baltic States. In fact, official maps from the time always made that point in fine print at the bottom. Both Baltic-Americans and newly arrive Baltic émigrés had always stood firmly by the United States during the Cold War, and there were even Baltic diplomatic representatives in the country. Ford was concerned that there could be an emotional and embarrassing debate in the Senate over the issue when the Helsinki Final Act came before them.

Henry Kissinger’s Department of State told Ford that he should not worry because the Helsinki Final Act would not be a treaty, but merely an agreement. Hence it would not be legally binding or subject to a Senate ratification debate: the agreement meant almost nothing.

In short, both sides could give the other something they themselves were not much interested in. The United States and its allies agreed that no borders in Europe could be changed by force (but the Baltic States weren’t really part of the USSR). The USSR and its allies agreed that all Europeans, including their own citizens, should have certain basic human rights (but let them try to claim them!).

Over the next decade and a half, things did not work out quite the way the Soviets expected. Scarcely was the ink dry on the Helsinki Final Act when human rights groups started popping up in Eastern Europe, demanding the rights they had been promised in Helsinki and causing great embarrassment and concern to the communist regimes. Of course Brezhnev and his two immediate successors, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, had no sympathy for such groups and no embarrassment at all about violating the Helsinki Accord so they tried to ruthlessly suppress these groups. Then in 1991, communism fell, the USSR broke up more or less peacefully, and the Baltic States got their de facto independence. The first democratically elected President of Czechoslovakia was actually one of those human rights activists inspired to act by the Helsinki Accords.

Meanwhile, the CSCE process continued on with major meetings every few years, including one in Vienna in 1986-1989 which created a regime of military confidence and security building measures. These meetings were so successful that in 1996 the CSCE became a permanent standing Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Henry Kissinger’s mocking words about the CSCE process and his assurances to President Ford that the United States could have its cake and eat it too with regard to the Baltic states’ status because the Helsinki Final Act was not a binding treaty are certainly signs of realpolitik. However, while Kissinger may have exhibited a degree of disdain for the CSCE, most leaders in Moscow have actively subverted it when it fit their needs. The Communist leaders ignored the human rights provisions. Today, Vladimir Putin walks all over the OSCE. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its support for armed separatists in Georgia (South Ossetia and Abkhazia), Moldova (Transnistria) and Ukraine (Crimea and now, the ludicrous Donetsk People’s Republic) show this. Indeed, in Ukraine, the armed separatists are largely Russian troops, not indigenous separatists. Today, the OSCE has some 270 observers in Ukraine but because the Russians do not respect these monitors, they are largely irrelevant. Of course, Russian separatists have also been known to take OSCE monitors as hostages.

While Kissinger the realist may have rolled his eyes at the naiveté of a non-binding agreement dealing with soft issues, he did not trample all over the Helsinki process, unlike the occupants of the Kremlin. Compared to people like Vladimir Putin he suddenly starts looking much more liberal.


Mark Stout is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks. He is the Director of the MA Program in Global Security Studies and the Graduate Certificate Program in Intelligence at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences in Washington, D.C.


Photo credit: tommy japan