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Collective Security—Posse or Global Cop?

The author, a senior U.S. diplomat now retired, sheds light on the background to some of the negotiations involved in the thirty-five-nation Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) that resulted in the August 1975 Helsinki Accords. Mr.Stefan participated throughout the preparation of a provision of the Accords — cooperation in humanitarian fields — that ultimately had great political impact. ~Ed.


ROBERT KAGAN, IN HIS REVIEW,1 of Henry Kissinger’s latest book, Years of Renewal,2 is critical of Kissinger’s volume. Years of Renewal covers the latter years of Henry’s governmental career from 1974 through 1976. In Kagan’s review, he quotes Kissinger (from his previous book, Diplomacy): “The collapse of Indochina in 1975 [was] followed in America by a retreat from Angola and a deepening of domestic divisions, and by an extraordinary surge of expansionism on the part of the Soviet Union.” In the present volume, Kissinger asserts that the mid- to late-1970s was the “seeming nadir of America’s international position.” Kagan writes that Kissinger seeks to “salvage the glittering reputation that was tarnished by the Ford years, and to do so by providing a grand revisionist account of those last years in office.” Indeed, Kagan denies that Kissinger actually laid the foundations for “America’s eventual victory in the Cold War.”

Having served on the United States delegation to the Geneva Phase of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), which drafted the well-known Helsinki Final Act, I was more than usually interested in Robert Kagan’s critical view. I write with some expertise on those portions of the book dealing with the CSCE, as I was the only member of the American delegation who served on Basket III and Subcommittees 10 (Culture) and 11 (Education) throughout the drafting phase of the CSCE in Geneva, from September 18, 1973, until the adoption of the Basket III preamble on July 15, 1975. This action completed work on the whole of Basket III.

In those portions of his lengthy review dealing with the Geneva phase of the CSCE, Kagan is mostly but not entirely right. He certainly is correct in asserting that the “initial impetus for a pan-European conference had come from Moscow.” It was indeed the hope of Brezhnev and other Soviet leaders that the CSCE would be short lived and would enshrine Soviet dominance in Eastern Europe, which included the Soviet zone of Germany — since 1949 the so-called German Democratic Republic (GDR). He is also on target in asserting that the CSCE was primarily a forum, until near its close, for the West Europeans. Indeed, the French delegation, which took the lead for Western Europe in the Cultural subcommittee (No. 10), declined to participate in the informal NATO caucus on Basket III (presumably because the U.S. and Canada were represented in this caucus).

However, I question Kagan’s condemnation of Kissinger’s role throughout the Geneva phase of the CSCE. As elaborated subsequently in this article, the Secretary of State acted differently toward the CSCE in 1973-74 than he did in 1975, and it is only fair to point out this change in Kissinger’s actions.

It is time for specifics on the CSCE. First of all, it is pertinent to note that the U.S. delegation (USDEL) had no written instructions from the secretary of state when it arrived in Geneva in September 1973. The delegation did not even receive the normal telegraphic summary of general objectives usually sent to an American delegation at an international conference.3

The delegation’s posture during the initial phases of the CSCE was remarkably low profile. Indeed, USDEL’s posture was so low-key that when Secretary Kissinger asked us to slow down the negotiations, in response to the Soviet-supported Egyptian-Syrian attack upon Israel in early October 1973, we could, in practice, do little if anything. In any case, the West Europeans imposed a phase of general debate on the CSCE, which lasted three months. Thus, the initial Soviet target date for completion of the conference — the end of 1973 — passed before any agreed language had been drafted.

Once this phase had passed and drafting had begun, the then-head of the American delegation, Davis Eugene “Gene” Boster, was concerned that the United States had no proposal in Basket III. Boster, whom I had previously known and served with, Charles Stefan at CSCE in Genevaturned to me and together we worked out a joint proposal with the U.K. delegation in the Education subcommittee. Boster cleared the language with Washington, and the U.K. delegate on Subcommittee 11 and I jointly presented the proposal early in 1974. It dealt with the promotion of exchanges between East and West, including provisions for improving the situation that scholars from the West confronted in the U.S.S.R. and elsewhere in the Warsaw Pact countries of eastern Europe. The joint U.K.-U.S. proposal was provisionally registered in Subcommittee 11 in the summer of 1974. However, it was subsequently softened somewhat due to higher-level Soviet concerns. This “softening” took place during informal U.S.S.R.-U.K. talks toward the end of the Geneva phase of the CSCE, and the final language probably represented the maximum concession that the Soviet side was then prepared to accept.4

It was during this low-key phase of the CSCE negotiations that the practice was begun of regular luncheons with key members of the Soviet and American delegations. Each side alternated in hosting the luncheons. I recall one luncheon during which Ambassador Boster skillfully handled complaints by the Soviet side on the general slowness of the negotiations. (This luncheon took place during the so-called period of general debate between September and December of 1973). These luncheons continued on a regular basis until, in 1975, acting under instructions from Washington, the posture of the American delegation stiffened, and the luncheons were discontinued, undoubtedly to the relief of both delegations.5

In early 1974, the fate of the well-known Russian dissident, Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, was a behind-the-scenes concern to the Western delegations at the CSCE. Deputy Foreign Minister Anatoli Kovalev, the head of the Soviet delegation reportedly played an important role in the resolution of the situation facing us at that time. This situation lasted until Solzhenitsyn was expelled to the West instead of being incarcerated in the U.S.S.R. According to Kovalev’s own account many years later, he was instrumental in the Kremlin’s decision in the case. Kovalev reportedly argued then that a decision to jail Solzhenitsyn would mark the end of the Helsinki process.6

At about this time, one of the Danish delegates, whose delegation had taken the lead for the EC-9 in the Human Contacts subcommittee, spoke privately to me about his delegation’s proposal dealing with emigration from the U.S.S.R. In response to my query about the implications for the West if the Soviets agreed to the emigration of substantial numbers of their citizens, the Dane said that the U.S.S.R. would never permit such a development.

Another episode is particularly pertinent in my recollections of the Geneva phase of the CSCE. It occurred in the Cultural subcommittee (No.10), where the French delegation, as noted earlier, had taken the lead for the EC-9. The French proposals included a specific reference to the establishment of libraries in both West and East. The American delegation strongly supported this proposal, even though we wondered if the Soviets would agree to this idea. The Soviet delegation predictably opposed this proposal, but the French delegation persisted and was strongly supported by other Western delegations. Even the Romanian delegate on the Cultural subcommittee told me privately that Soviet opposition was holding up acceptance of the idea among at least one of the Warsaw Pact delegations.

Then, sometime in the spring of 1975 (as near as I can recall), the French delegation suddenly dropped the idea of libraries and reading rooms, catching all of the Western delegates in the cultural subcommittee by surprise. The Belgian delegate on the subcommittee (who spoke excellent English) informed me subsequently that no one in the EC-9 was aware of this major concession on the part of the French. About this time we in the American delegation received a highly classified telegram from the U.S. embassy in Moscow. It reported that Jacques Chirac (then the prime minister of France and now the French president)7 had recently visited Moscow and had become convinced that the U.S.S.R. would bitterly oppose the idea of Western libraries and reading rooms in the Soviet Union. He had therefore instructed the French delegation to the CSCE to drop immediately their insistence on this idea. I do not recall the Embassy’s source for this information, but it had to be a high personage in the French embassy in Moscow, if not Chirac himself.

Shortly after this incident, the French delegation took a redeeming step. They arranged informal sessions with the leader of the Soviet delegation in Basket III, Yuri Dubinin, one of the hardest hard liners in the Soviet delegation. The head of the French delegation spoke to Ambassador Sherer, who authorized me to join the informal talks along with other EC-9 delegates. I spoke minimal French, but it was enough to get by because the primary burden of negotiations was carried on between the chief French delegate to Basket III and Dubinin, who spoke excellent French. As a result of these informal discussions, the French delegation secured most of their proposals, minus the original French proposal for the establishment of reading rooms and libraries in the major cities of the U.S.S.R.

AT ABOUT THIS TIME, we followed Secretary of State Kissinger’s direct role in working out a complex issue involving the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) and the U.S.S.R. Early in the Geneva phase of the CSCE, a delegate from the FRG had told me privately that a satisfactory resolution of the problem of a peaceful reunification of the two German states, at some future point, was absolutely essential for his delegation. The issue involved acceptable language in the Basket I “Declaration on Principles.” Because the American delegation held regular staff meetings, I was keenly aware of this prolonged issue. In the end, it was resolved only after one of the periodic meetings between Secretary of State Kissinger and Soviet Foreign Minister Gromyko (February 17-18, 1975) and subsequent negotiations between the heads of the two delegations in Geneva. Finally, on March 17, 1975, the agreed text was tabled, reading “The participating States consider that their frontiers can be changed in accordance with international law, by peaceful means and by agreement.” The language was finally incorporated in the Principle of Sovereign Equality. It is noteworthy that the Soviet side assumed — wrongly, as it turned out in the march of historic events — that this concession would be overridden by the assurances in Principle 3 regarding the “inviolability of frontiers” and in Principle 4 concerning the “territorial integrity of states.” Similarly, the U.S.S.R. leadership in Moscow also incorrectly assumed that the broad assertions in Principle 7 on human rights would, in practice, be overridden by Principle 6 on “nonintervention in internal affairs.”

By the time Secretary Kissinger met with Gromyko in Vienna, on May 19-20, 1975, much had changed in the climate of U.S.-Soviet relations. This change was brought about by a number of factors, including the collapse of the U.S.-supported regime in South Vietnam and the economic and energy crisis then underway. These events had taken place far from the CSCE, but their impact was promptly felt in Geneva.

On the occasion of the May meeting between Kissinger and Gromyko, Kissinger for the first time was more informed about the details of the CSCE than was the Soviet foreign minister. Kissinger pressed Gromyko to accept the Western package on human rights, recently proposed by the Western delegations to the East at the CSCE. He thereby made it clear that this package was a firm proposal with which the Soviets would have to deal. 8

There remains little to be written about my experiences in the Geneva phase of the CSCE. It is perhaps worth adding that in his study, Maresca asserts that “Eventually, a team of U.S. linguists was brought to Geneva to check all language versions to ensure agreement among them.”9 As a Russian speaker who twice served in the American embassy in Moscow, I might note that most of the team’s efforts were concentrated on ensuring, to the maximum extent possible, agreement between the English- and Russian-language texts. In this effort, the team was ably supported by a Russian-speaking linguist sent to Geneva by the FRG Foreign Ministry in Bonn.

Two final thoughts are definitely noteworthy. First of all, both Kagan and a number of writers, including Kissinger, have overrated the importance of the provisions of Basket III, as compared with the sweeping language of principle no. 7 in Basket I. I have already noted the Kremlin’s miscalculation in this regard, but it is worth repeating at this point.

Secondly, although the stiffer U.S. position in 1975 should certainly not be overlooked, it is the West European delegations that bear equal if not greater responsibility for whatever success has been achieved as a result of the Geneva phase of the CSCE. We in the United States owe them a debt of gratitude. But even the West European delegations and their leaders, as well as the U.S. side, were unaware that they were among the factors, however slight, leading to the eventual demise of the U.S.S.R. None of the delegations at the Geneva phase of the CSCE could have realized this, and other factors certainly played a more prominent role in the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union, including the special circumstances surrounding the actual event in 1991.

To sum up, with the modifications suggested above, Kagan is on target in his criticism of Henry Kissinger’s latest book so far as the Geneva phase of the CSCE is concerned. It may also be said that to compare the Kissinger of 1973-74 with the Kissinger of 1975 is rather unfair, once again so far as the CSCE is concerned. Finally, to jump from the long-ago gathering of the CSCE in Geneva to the present time, it is difficult to underestimate the current influence and power of the United States on the world stage. Nonetheless, it remains both necessary and important to recognize the limits to American efforts abroad as we enter the new century.


1. The New Republic, June 21, 1999.

2. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1999.

3.To the best of my knowledge, the only book in English devoted exclusively to the CSCE is John J. Maresca, To Helsinki, The Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe 1973-1975 (Duke University Press, 1985). Maresca played an important role in the Helsinki Process, and his book gives an excellent review of this Process. For a summary of the reasons underlying the failure of the American delegation to receive written instructions in 1973, see pp. 44-45 of Maresca’s book. Nonetheless, Maresca did not regularly participate in the Basket III negotiations until the Spring of 1975, when he took over from a departing delegate, Guy Coriden, the Human Contacts and Information subcommittees. He understandably gave little or no attention to the negotiations in Subcommittees 10 (Culture) and 11 (Education) where I represented the small American delegation until the conclusion of negotiations in these bodies.

4. Following the early departure of the first head of the American delegation, George S. Vest, his place was taken by Davis Eugene “Gene” Boster. He served as the Delegation Chief until early 1974, when he was named to be the American Ambassador to Bangladesh. Boster is treated, in my view, rather unfairly in Maresca’s book. He is described as Vest’s successor who “arrived with no prior experience in multilateral diplomacy and no expertise on the CSCE.” Boster was an able diplomat and successfully carried on as head of the American delegation.

5. After the final luncheon of the Soviet and American delegations in the spring of 1975, I recall waiting with Ambassador Albert “Bud” Sherer, Jr., the head of the American delegation, for a car to take us back to the U. S. mission in Geneva. My recollection is that we were both relieved that the lengthy luncheons with the Soviet delegation had drawn to a close. Ambassador Sherer was an outstanding leader of the American delegation and he richly deserves the plaudits given him in Maresca’s book.

6. Vestnik, a joint venture of the Soviet foreign ministry and an Austrian firm, was published during the Gorbachev era when Eduard Schevardnadze was the foreign minister of the U.S.S.R. As for Kovalev’s reference to the Solzhenitsyn case, I recall well the tense period in the CSCE before the Kremlin’s decision to expel the author to the West. For a good description of this period, see Maresca, To Helsinki, pp. 89-91.

7. For a rather negative view of President Chirac, see “Jacques Chirac, out of steam,” The Economist (London), July 31, 1999, p. 44.

8. In his latest memoirs, Kissinger gives credit for this insight to the then assistant secretary of state for European affairs, Arthur Hartman. The latter was a very able career diplomat who was subsequently ambassador to France and to the Soviet Union. Kissinger states that Hartman “mastered all the details” of the CSCE negotiations in Geneva. Henry Kissinger, Years Of Renewal (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1999), p. 641. It should also be noted that in this book, Kissinger admits that “I for one was initially skeptical about the possibilities of Basket III. We did not expect the Soviet empire to collapse so quickly;” ibid, p.663. Kissinger does not, in this citation, mention the sweeping language of principle no. 7 in Basket I.

9.Maresca, To Helsinki, p. 136.

Charles Stefan spent thirty years, 1947 – 1977, in the U.S. Foreign Service, specializing in Soviet affairs. He had assignments in the Soviet Union and several East European countries, as well as the Department of State. Stefan holds a degree from the University of California at Berkeley and is a graduate of the Russian Institute at Columbia University and the National War College. Since retirement in Gainesville, Florida, he has written extensively on U.S.-Soviet relations.

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